Career and Technical Education (CTE) provides learners of all ages with the academic and technical skills, knowledge, and training necessary to succeed in future careers and to become lifelong learners. CTE prepares students for college and careers by creating opportunities for students to find their passion and by making academic content accessible through hands-on learning.

While CTE allows students in rural areas to gain insight into high-wage careers in their region that will help support local market demand, statistics show that disparities exist in geographic access to CTE programs. A 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on CTE programs in public school districts from the 2016–17 school year found that when compared to city districts, rural ones offer fewer career and technical opportunities.

CTE has the potential to benefit rural learners by equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed in high-demand industries, but rural communities face unique barriers to providing a breadth of high-quality, enriching, career-focused learning experiences. Rural CTE is often expected to do more with less, serving a smaller or more spread out student population with scarce resources. These districts can face constraints in funding, a shortage of qualified instructors, and a lack of industry-standard equipment. Additionally, limited employer networks can stand in the way of implementing robust CTE programs. Employer engagement and work-based learning provide great ways to enrich the learning experience and give students real-world skills, but physical distance and transportation make these programs a significant challenge.

However, there are tools and strategies that state and local education leaders can utilize to increase access to CTE for rural learners. More than half of the country’s school districts are in rural areas, so it is imperative that these schools make an effort to increase access to high-quality CTE programs.

Rural CTE Program Quality

Two main inhibitors of high-quality CTE programs in rural areas are limits in both resources and industry, which can mean that programs do not connect to the career pathways most relevant for students.

Nebraska is one state with a large rural learner base that has worked to address challenges in maintaining program quality. Out of the 244 school districts across Nebraska, 80 percent are categorized as rural. Further, Nebraska sees a significant rate of CTE participation, with learners participating in an average of 5.5 CTE courses. In 2012, the state implemented the reVISION grant program, which allows schools to evaluate their career preparation and career guidance systems and then receive state support to improve those systems.

School districts that participate in this program bring together a variety of regional stakeholders for the program development process: School officials leading the efforts bring in other school staff as well as Department of Education officials in order to complete a school-based inventory on program scope. Schools also bring in administrators from the departments of Labor and Economic Development to ensure that labor market information is considered. The next step is for school staff to engage with community and industry leaders to hear firsthand how CTE programs can better meet the needs of the community at large. These meetings bring to light gaps in, and solutions to, CTE programs.

Though reVISION is an effort across the entire state, rural districts and schools receive particular attention. This program has been extremely successful and has grown from serving 13 schools to more than 120 districts. During the second year of the program, rural involvement doubled, and in 2017, two-thirds of participating districts were rural.

Schools can also tap into federal policy levers that support program quality improvement. For example, last year the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) was passed to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins IV), the main source of federal support for CTE. One of the most significant changes made in Perkins V is the addition of the new comprehensive local needs assessment (CLNA).

The CLNA must be updated every two years and, at a minimum, review:

  • Student performance on each indicator
  • Whether programs are of sufficient size, scope, and quality to meet the needs of all students and meet labor market demand
  • Progress toward the implementation of CTE programs and programs of study
  • How the eligible recipient will improve recruitment, retention, and training of CTE professionals
  • Progress toward implementation of equal access to high-quality CTE courses and programs of study

The CLNA provides a new opportunity to understand what local CTE looks like and where there are gaps in quality.

Building the Rural CTE Teacher Pipeline

Across the country, CTE programs are struggling to find qualified instructors. A 2017 survey by Advance CTE—a nonprofit group that represents state CTE directors—found that 98 percent of state CTE leaders report that improving access to industry experts in the classroom is a high priority. Further, according to NCES, 20.4 percent of rural districts with significant CTE teacher shortages reported that these positions were either very difficult or impossible to fill.

Recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers and faculty are critical to the success of a CTE program. Whether or not a CTE program is offered in a school is often decided by which courses they’re able to find a teacher for, instead of creating programs in response to student interest or alignment to labor market demand. So, the ability to both recruit and retain teachers with the right qualifications determines not only whether a CTE program is successful, but whether or not it can exist at all.

States and local schools have tried some approaches to support the rural CTE teacher pipeline, including:

  • Creating a stronger relationship with existing teacher preparation pipelines
  • Recruiting within the community either by “grow your own” teacher pathways or by assessing challenges for industry professionals to enter the classroom
  • Developing new teacher induction programs that include supports and mentorship over the course of the first year and continue with supports for long-standing teachers
  • Taking on a diversified strategy for recruiting and training new teachers by creating multiple pathways to get into the CTE classroom
  • Understanding how to value prior work experience in teacher and faculty salary schedules in order to recruit from the industry

The Teacher Academy at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Career-Tech Center in Traverse City, MI, noticed a statewide decrease in the number of teachers in 2001. This led college instructors, teachers, and district administrators to create a CTE program of study that included teaching as a career pathway—thereby growing their own teacher pipeline. The Teacher Academy brings together juniors and seniors from 26 high schools over five rural counties to be involved in all aspects of the teaching profession. Each student in the academy must participate in work-based learning and receives one-on-one advisement. Additionally, all enrolled students rotate through different workplace settings and are matched with a host teacher in each location, who serves as the on-site mentor. Throughout the duration of the program, a placement services coordinator checks in with each student to create a postsecondary and career pathway plan that sets the student up for the teaching career that best fits their interest and is responsive to the community’s vacancies.

The two-year program of study gives students the academic and technical skills to earn more than 400 hours of field experience and receive as many as four certifications as well as credit toward local two- and four-year colleges. Of those enrolled in the academy in the 2016–17 school year, 100 percent graduated from high school, 92 percent enrolled in postsecondary education, 100 percent earned an industry-recognized credential, and 91 percent earned postsecondary credit.

For More Information

To help states meet the rural demand for high-quality CTE, Advance CTE has launched an initiative called “CTE on the Frontier.” The initiative explores common challenges faced in rural areas across the country, including:

  • Ensuring all courses and programs of study are of the highest quality
  • Connecting rural learners to the world of work
  • Providing a breadth of diverse course options
  • Strengthening the rural CTE teacher pipeline
  • Strategizing implementation of rural CTE programs
  • Leveraging federal policy to strengthen rural CTE

Through interviews with state CTE leaders at both the secondary and postsecondary levels and national partners, Advance CTE identifies promising strategies to help states expand access to high-quality CTE programs of study in rural communities.

Meredith Hills is the policy associate at Advance CTE, a nonprofit group that represents state CTE directors in an effort to transform and expand career and technical programs in secondary schools and beyond.