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    By: Dr. Christine Powell


    The job market is changing and students receiving special education services, as well as special education stakeholders, need to be a part of the new educational movement. Many public school districts across the nation are realigning education curriculums in support of college and career readiness objectives for public school graduates, which include many students with Individual Education Plans (IEP). There are good reasons for linking academics with career pathways, but the main reason is economics. The United States is currently experiencing a ‘skills gap.’ The ‘skills gap’ refers to the scarcity of students being trained to fill existing, in-demand jobs. Well-paying jobs in fields to include manufacturing, technology, healthcare, hospitality, and the skilled trades are left unfilled due to a shortage of qualified individuals. Schools are attempting to keep pace with these societal needs by educating students in career fields that show a need for trained workers. Students are increasingly being enrolled in classes that offer learning opportunities linked to in demand career fields. For students served by an Individual Education Plan (IEP), access to these opportunities in career pathways are crucial for prevocational planning, exploration, and skill development. Although these learning opportunities are important for students in many disability categories, students in the mild to moderate classification range have shown the most promising results with skill obtainment and job procurement.


    Recent education initiatives at both the federal and state levels have led to a refocusing on educational standards that support the need for diploma earning students to be both college and career ready. The changes are underpinned by new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which set consistent educational standards across states to support high school students in their transition to college and preparation for career readiness. The new standards open many opportunities for students with learning differences. Schools now serve an increased role in preparing students with special education needs to graduate and to be both instructionally prepared for secondary education and possess skills to be vocationally ready (Mathis, 2010).

    This innovative two-prong college and career approach in high schools is a pragmatic attempt to address the ‘skills gap’ the U.S. is experiencing. Special education students need to take advantage of career technical education (CTE) classes that aim to provide all students with occupational readiness skills.


    Career Technical Education (CTE), previously called vocational education, is the present-day label used to denote specialized material and programs that focus instruction in skilled trades and occupational readiness (Drage, 2009). The aim of career technical education for high school students is to prepare them for college and career endeavors (ACTE, 2009). This goal matches special education career transition goals for students with an IEP. CTE participation serves a crucial link to post high school occupation transition for students with disabilities. At the high school level, CTE classes integrate core academics, job- specific knowledge with relevant curriculum and employability skills within the secondary classroom/workshop setting (Drage 2009). CTE classes combine academic skills with career cluster pathways, leading students from high school up into community college programs. Students with learning differences who successfully participate in CTE are shown industry level job requirements, develop soft skills, as well as earn high school credits that go towards meeting their high school graduation requirements. CTE pathways can include classes in Building and Construction, Business, and Finance, Hospitality and Tourism, Manufacturing, Medical, Communication Technologies, Media, Automotive Manufacturing and Repair, as well as other coursework relevant to current labor market needs.


    The benefits of special education student engagement in CTE is well supported in the research. The enrollment of students with disabilities in Career Technical Education programs has shown to lead to a decrease in the high school dropout rate for this subgroup, and a subsequent increase in the high school graduation rates when participation in CTE is a factor (Bryk & Thum, 1989; Gray, 2004). This increase in the graduation rate may be a result of experiential learning opportunities that are a part of CTE coursework. In CTE courses, students learn by doing and can apply abstract concepts to concrete learning projects. An example of this would be a student learning about automotive repair through book work, then applying what they have learned through observation and doing the repairs in cooperative groups, simulating a work environment. Additionally, researchers Harvey, Cotton, and Koch (2007) found that students with disabilities “who participate in a career technical education program significantly increase their chances for postsecondary success in both academia and employment” (p.1). Furthermore, special education students who successfully complete a CTE course have additional skills relevant to a vocationally specific career; showed an increased tendency to vie for competitive wage jobs and to work full time after high school (Wagner, Newman & Javitz, 2015; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986).

John Wagner, the author of the book, Most Likely to Succeed, touches on how education is changing to fit the needs of individuals in a rapidly changing society by stating, “The skills needed in our vastly complicated world, whether to earn a decent living or to be an active and informed citizen, are radically different from those required historically” (p. 27). Special Education stakeholders need to understand that training programs in Career Technical Education (CTE) are part of new comprehensive education efforts, and students with disabilities who take part in these programs increase their odds for post-graduation job obtainment (Harvey, Cotton, & Koch, 2007). Engagement in CTE courses enhances learning opportunities for students with disabilities and provides real-world skill development. Taking advantage of these course offerings levels the playing field for career development.

    About the Author

    Dr. Christine Carrington Powell is a career Special Educator currently working in Southern California as a high school teacher and teacher trainer. She was recently selected for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and will study CTE for diverse learners in Singapore. Dr. Powell was raised in a military family and attended nine different schools both international and domestic. Her teaching experience includes working with diverse learners at the International School of Kingston, Jamaica, and classroom teaching in public schools in Virginia, Hawaii, and California. Her area of expertise includes teacher professional development and analyzing educational organizations to increase inclusive learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Reach Christine at


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