This week, senators heard from educators about the potential benefits of waiving unfunded mandates for Pennsylvania’s financially overburdened schools. The demands of these mandates are seen as unsustainable given the limited resources available to support them, but one area that has been largely overlooked in the conversation is career and technical education, or CTE.
Dr. Michael Herrera, executive director of Upper Bucks Technical School, highlighted how challenges faced by CTE programs directly stem from these mandates. According to him, they strain resources, stifle innovation, and create dissonance between curriculum and industry requirements, ultimately undermining the mission of preparing students for the workforce.
One major issue that has been raised is staffing shortages. Dr. Mark Madsen, superintendent of the Parkland school district, expressed his frustration at being unable to attract candidates for a vacant German teacher position. Similarly, Herrera pointed out that CTE programs often struggle to recruit experts in their fields due to difficulties obtaining teaching certification within the state. This deters qualified candidates from pursuing teaching careers within Pennsylvania.
Moreover, Herrera emphasized that much of the time spent on curricula like history is inconsistent with a skills-first model and adds little to a candidate’s ability as an instructor in their field. As a result, fewer teachers mean fewer opportunities for students interested in practical trades and professional development.
Lynda Sims-Morris, executive director of the South Central PA Career Development Association, revealed that more than 700 student applicants were turned away from Dauphin County Technical School this year due to lack of space. She stressed the importance of mentoring relationships between students and teachers for understanding practical applications in their chosen fields.
However, funding remains a significant challenge for CTE programs in Pennsylvania. Initiatives like Sims-Morris’ are largely funded by grants rather than ongoing allocations from the state budget. While there was a recent agreement on a bill to provide $14.5 million to CTE schools in November 2022 (source), more sustained funding is needed for long-term success.
Herrera suggested looking at successful CTE pathways in other states such as Delaware and Ohio as examples to follow. He also emphasized the need for local innovation and direct funding from the state to alleviate financial burdens on CTE programs.
Currently ranking 36th in CTE enrollment nationwide (source), Pennsylvania has room for improvement when it comes to supporting career and technical education initiatives. However, success stories like Upper Bucks Technical School serve as models for what can go right with CTE programs—partnerships with organizations like NASA have led to real-world applications for students’ skills and high job placement rates upon graduation.
In order to see more positive outcomes like these across Pennsylvania’s CTE landscape, Morris-Sims stressed that early emphasis on career conversations starting as early as elementary school is crucial along with well-defined metrics for success (source). This early focus can help bridge the gap between career aspirations and classroom learning experiences.
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