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Using Career and Technical Education (CTE) to Close Educational Gaps

By: Nakesha Merritt Dawson, Ed.D


The Situation

Imagine you are born into poverty and being your situation will never change. It’s a pretty stark way to begin this blog, but it’s even bleaker if you are born in Charlotte, North Carolina. In a 2014 study conducted by Harvard and UC Berkeley, the city of Charlotte ranks last (50 out of 50) among America’s largest cities as it relates to upward mobility. In a nutshell, if a child is born poor in Charlotte, it is harder for them to get out of poverty than any other large city in the United States (Quarterly Journal of Economics 129 (4): 1553-1623, 2014). It’s a dismissal picture and a sad situation, especially when this statistic disproportionately affects black and brown students.


Nelson Mandela told us that, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. Education is also what is needed to change bleak situations into promising and hopeful futures. In CTE programs, we take the charge of using education to change lives and improve outcomes as our North Star. If we do not serve our students, help them know there is a next step and prepare for whatever the future may be, we have not achieved our goal and have only widened the opportunity gap that exists.


Traditionally, CTE has been deemed vocational or trade education. This meant a student should only enroll in these classes if they planned to go straight to work or needed a skill. In 2020, CTE is so much more. CTE prepares a student to know there are next steps after high school, in college, a career, or both. CTE is for all students as the focus is on both work place readiness (think resumes, interview and presenting skills, creating portfolios of work) and higher order thinking skills (in the form of project based learning, debates, and introducing college majors such as Engineering and Accounting). There are people, parents, students and teachers that are not aware of the opportunities that CTE provide. When students enroll in these courses, they are able to take a deep dive into a challenging academic area while creating networks of industry partners and earning credentials that can be used to make themselves marketable. CTE is much more than trade education. It is foundational education for a lucrative future and career exploration.


The Change

The charge that exists is an all call for change. We know that opportunity closes gaps. Networking opens doors. Technical skills are in high demand. So what can we do? We must encourage programs like CTE to be supported in schools. This means that as educators, we champion these programs and not write them off as merely ‘elective’ courses. When a student enrolls in CTE, they are given the gift of exploring their interest while being able to take advantage of experiences they may not get in other settings.


As parents, we have to educate ourselves about CTE courses so we can help educate our children. If we are unaware, our students will be unaware too. Parents want their children to have every opportunity the world can offer. A student in a CTE course is exposed to industry credentials that give them an advantage over others. A student in CTE has experienced educational journeys and job shadowing moments to help lay the foundation of what they want to do with their lives as the next step. A CTE student has studied a subject like Digital or Agriculture Design and now knows this is what they wish to pursue in college and are able to do so with a firm foundation. A CTE student now has the power to change his/her destiny because of the opportunity this program has afforded them.


The Challenge

Don’t think of challenge with a negative connotation. Take the challenge for what it is, a chance to do better, and make a positive change. In Charlotte, we have a lot of work to do in order to move our students out of their situations. Remember, the problem of poverty is not exclusive to Charlotte. It is everywhere. CTE is also everywhere, which means there is hope and a chance to bring opportunity to students. When young people have resources at their disposal, things begin to change. Motivation occurs because students see what can be. Connections are made with people that are invested in student success. A four-year relationship is built between school, students, higher education, and industry to create a pipeline of success for students. Accept the challenge. Introduce students to CTE and allow them the opportunity to discover, unleash, and soar their way into a future with endless possibilities.

The Biography

Dr. Nakesha Merritt Dawson has been an educator for over 17 years, serving the majority in CTE. She has taught middle and high school, and pre-service teachers on the university level as well as offering professional development to teachers across the country. Currently, Dr. Dawson leads several CTE pathways for Charlotte Mecklenburg County Schools. Her passion is making sure students are afforded the opportunity to pursue their passions through education and experience. You can follow Dr. Dawson on Twitter @nmd980207.

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