Tennessee has been a national leader in education for the past 10 years because we have been bold and innovative for students, raising expectations, improving teaching, and expanding access to higher education. Despite strides in building a strong K-12 to postsecondary academic and work continuum, current levels of education among working-age adults in Tennessee do not meet job-market demands, nor do they allow many Tennesseans to earn a living wage.

For Tennessee to continue to attract economic development and high-wage jobs, more students will need to make a successful transition from high school to careers and college. As highlighted in SCORE’s annual report, Priorities For Progress: 2018-19 State Of Education In Tennessee, Tennessee should empower every community to offer high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs aligned to current and future local and regional industry needs. CTE courses and career pathways should seamlessly link to higher education so students can earn a credential or degree with labor market value.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) brings changes to the federal investment in CTE. It provides new opportunities to improve CTE programs and enables more flexibility for states to meet the unique needs of their learners, educators, and employers. Perkins V brings a unique charge for various stakeholders to work collaboratively to develop a data-driven, state plan with consistent expectations, clear definitions, and carefully planned measurements of improvement and success.

Perkins V funds states and other grantees to improve both high school and postsecondary CTE and programs of study that prepare students for the real world. It has been updated five times by Congress since the original Vocational Education Act of 1963.

Last week, SCORE hosted three listening sessions in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) to kick off stakeholder engagement under Perkins V. Two of the sessions were co-hosted by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

Participants included leaders from local education agencies and postsecondary, state-level non-profit organizations, community-level nonprofit organizations, local chambers of commerce, and business and industry partners.

A few common themes emerged during the listening sessions. The biggest takeaway was around the need to update the understanding of the potential of CTE.

  • Today, CTE must be seen as the path to earning postsecondary credentials that students can use to be successful in the evolving workforce. Education and workforce data tell us that students need postsecondary training beyond a high school diploma for the jobs of the future. High-quality CTE programs can help students get ahead while in high school.
  • CTE is no longer just the alternate path for students who are not going to college; it can instead be a viable option for students that gives them the foundation to be college and career ready.

It will take a collective effort to update our understanding in Tennessee.

  • Communities with successful, collaborative approaches to CTE should be identified and illuminated by the state to support and inspire other communities working to improve college and career readiness.
  • Ultimately, the voices of educators, state agencies, business and community leaders, and education advocates must be raised across the state to share the vision for CTE and the benefits for all students.

The TDOE will continue to engage stakeholders over the next year before submitting the four-year state plan in April 2020. As a state, we should move forward with continued collaboration to improve and expand opportunities for students. With meaningful stakeholder engagement and feedback, Tennessee can set a bold vision under Perkins V that better supports students through high school into postsecondary education and the workforce.

Samantha Gutter is the director of postsecondary and workforce readiness at SCORE.