Baltimore’s school system has long described its vocational programs — which can allow students to earn industry-recognized certifications along with a high school diploma — as a clear path to solid employment. They celebrate teenagers who learn to style hair, fix cars and build furniture while still in school.
But in reality, a new report says, these Career and Technical Education — or CTE — programs don’t live up to their promise. Six years out of school, students who completed a CTE program earned an annual median income of less than $13,000, according to research cited in the report. These young adults describe a lack of guidance and a lack of meaningful real-world experience.
The Baltimore-based Fund for Educational Excellence, which will release its report Tuesday, is calling on the city school system to overhaul its CTE programs. They want the district to re-examine the vocational courses offered and how they align with the city’s labor needs.
“We have lost sight of what CTE is meant to do for kids,” said Roger Schulman, the Fund’s president and CEO. “It hasn’t fulfilled the promise of giving kids a leg-up to a career path and livable-wage job.”
District officials acknowledge the need for change and say they have hired a firm to conduct an audit of its vocational programs, which should be completed in April. They anticipate that “significant changes” are coming.
“We see that there’s huge room for improvement,” said Rachel Pfeifer, city schools’ executive director of college and career readiness. “We’re on the right path moving forward, but we have a lot of work to do.”
The report’s findings come as a state commission is evaluating what the future of high school should look like in Maryland. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has championed strong vocational programs as a vital way to prepare a 21st-century workforce.
The Fund’s report is based on interviews with 114 recent city schools graduates, ages 18 to 24, about their experiences with CTE. Roughly two-thirds of those surveyed reported earning less than $12,140 a year. That’s less than half the annual salary required to provide for the needs of a single adult in Baltimore, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
Students said they received little guidance from counselors about how to land jobs after graduating from the program. They said that there were inconsistent and limited opportunities for internships and that they sometimes ended up in the wrong CTE track. Some felt that their CTE courses didn’t align with what was expected of them in the real world.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Taqi Juba, 22, who graduated from Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 2014, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
A revamp of the program could have broad impact: Roughly 44 percent of all city high school students were enrolled in a CTE program in 2017. There are more than 30 CTE paths, including accounting, IT networking and nursing.
Juba was in the graphic design program. Looking back, he feels that the curriculum didn’t keep up with the industry advances happening outside the walls of his West Baltimore classroom. Juba also said he just wasn’t that interested in the material. He wishes a guidance counselor had helped him pick a vocational track that aligned with his skill set and interests.
The program didn’t set him up with an internship, he said, or much real-world experience. He estimates he applied for about 10 graphic design jobs after high school. Some were for small companies looking for a new logo. Others were for website design. He never heard back.
Juba instead spent some time working for Salvation Army, ringing the bell at Christmastime. He worked in the McDonald’s kitchen and did a bit of security on the side.
He’s now studying information technology at Baltimore City Community College.
More than four years out of high school, he said the promise of a well-paying job after graduation that Carver teachers preached “didn’t happen.”
The study refers to some success stories of city students using the skills learned in a CTE program to launch into well-paying careers. Some use the work they’re certified to do as a side job as they put themselves through college.
The city schools began expanding CTE offerings about a decade ago, using them to help stem the tide of students dropping out by engaging them instead with a useful trade.
The strategy appeared to work: The number of Baltimore students who dropped out of high school fell from nearly 3,000 in 2005 to about 1,100 in 2010, according to the report. Dropouts have been trending upward since, reaching nearly 1,700 in 2017, according to Maryland Department of Education data.
But often, the kids on the vocational track were the ones most at risk, the ones who had trouble succeeding in the classroom.
“The notion that CTE can be the place for kids that struggle academically, with the hope that those kids will earn a livable wage after graduation, no longer reflects the reality of today’s workforce,” Schulman said.
It’s not good enough to just be competent at a trade, he said. Jobs are increasingly requiring higher levels of reading and math proficiency. If a student wants a plumbing apprenticeship, he or she needs to have mastered eighth- and ninth-grade math. Working in the food services industry takes a sixth-grade reading level, the report shows.
The majority of 11th-graders in Baltimore public schools don’t meet those standards. And that can become an insurmountable hurdle for a student who tries to come out of a CTE program with an industry-recognized certification. Among all 2012 and 2013 graduates enrolled in a city CTE program, the report states, just 12 percent completed it and got certified.
Pfeifer cautioned that not all programs are designed to end in certification.
It can be difficult to find qualified teachers for certain CTE pathways, she added, especially when they’re already working in fields with high wages.
“One of the things that we need to be very clear about is that CTE instruction is academic instruction,” she said. “These programs require us to support teachers, not just in their area of expertise, which is the core career-skill they’re teaching, but also in the basic math and reading that’s required in order to do all that work as well.”
The Fund’s report includes recommendations from students, teachers and researchers about how to improve the city’s CTE programs. Among them: implementing year-round, paid internships for all CTE students; concentrating CTE programs in a limited number of city-wide centers with stronger staffing models; and establishing academic prerequisites for CTE students.
District officials say they’ll make decisions based on what the audit shows this spring.
While they wait, the state education commission — known as the Kirwan Commission — is in the midst of developing of an ambitious plan to make Maryland’s public schools some of the best in the country. Improving vocational programs is among its priorities. They want to see more career-focused counselors and an emphasis on students coming out of a CTE program with industry-recognized certifications.
Nearly 13,000 graduating seniors in Maryland completed a CTE program in the 2017 school year, but only about 4,500 earned such a credential.
Millions of dollars could be attached to this push.
With the Kirwan Commission’s momentum, Schulman said, Baltimore officials have a “maybe once in a generation” chance to think about the kind of career-focused education they want to provide.
“It’s important we get this right,” he said, “because I don’t know if we’ll get another chance in the near future.”