West Virginia leads the way in transforming high school CTE to boost the state’s economy

West Virginia has struggled for years with a declining economy, and an increasingly discouraged and disengaged high school population. Now the state is working to change that with an innovative new approach to Career and Technical Education, and the pay-off is inspiring, according to the New York Times:

Long one of the poorest states, [West Virginia] is leading the way in turning vocational education from a Plan B for underachieving students into what policy makers hope will be a fuel source for the state’s economic revival.

Simulated workplaces, overseen by teachers newly trained in important state industries like health, coal and even fracking, are now operating in schools across the state. Students punch a time clock, are assigned professional roles like foreman or safety supervisor, and are even offered several vacation days of their choice in addition to regular school breaks. (Many take time off during deer hunting season.)

Traditional math and English teachers have been reassigned to technical high schools, to make sure students on the vocational track still gain reading, writing and math skills.

The state has also added another, perhaps unprecedented, component:

And this fall, students enrolled in simulated workplaces will need to participate in one of the program’s boldest elements: random drug testing.

Given the extent of the state’s opioid crisis, employers ‘wouldn’t take anything we were doing seriously until we passed that hurdle,’ said Barry Crist, principal of the Fayette Institute of Technology in Oak Hill.

The Times points out that, on technical education, the United States is an “outlier” internationally:

Only 6 percent of American high school students were enrolled in a vocational course of study, according to a 2013 Department of Education report. In the United Kingdom, 42 percent were on the vocational track; in Germany, it was 59 percent; in the Netherlands, 67 percent; and in Japan, 25 percent.

Of course, it’s very important that students get to choose the route they want to take in high school, and American kids should all get high-quality academics from K through 12. But in West Virginia students appear to benefit from the state‘s new-and-improved approach to CTE in a number of ways.

Ron Foster, president of an 80-employee construction and fabrication firm that has hired eight graduates of the state’s high school simulated workplace program over the past two years, had this to say:

Compared to previous hires, this group is more punctual and focused on building a career, Mr. Foster said. ‘If you’re dedicated enough to go through that program, you’re more apt to do a good, quality job [in the workplace]’, he said.

Students in the new program are also challenge in other ways:

Far from being strictly a job training program for teenagers, classes like Advanced Career Energy and Power,… [a] four-course sequence,…require math and physics instruction as rigorous as in the College Board’s Advanced Placement track….

The hope is to prepare students for higher-skilled work. In the fracking industry, for example, they might qualify for jobs in equipment maintenance or environmental compliance instead of laying pipeline….

In West Virginia, 37 percent of high school seniors completed a technical course of study in 2016, up from 18 percent in 2010.

As Minnesota grapples with improving educational options for students interested in technical fields, it’s important to examine successful experiments in other states.