Once, all it took to secure a satisfying and well-paying job was a high school diploma and a good work ethic. But that story has largely changed.

That’s why Washington’s public schools must offer robust, high-quality Career and Technical Education programs to help prepare the state’s vocationally minded students for career success.

A college education should be within reach of all students with the aptitude and interest to pursue a four-year degree, but not everyone wants to follow that path. At the same time, there is a high and consistent workforce demand for skilled tradespeople, without whom Washington’s economy would shudder to a halt.

Last spring, state legislators created a number of new graduation pathways, including Career and Technical Education, to reflect students’ diverse aspirations. All students still will be required to earn 24 course credits and complete a High School and Beyond Plan, to make sure the path they choose in high school aligns with their post-graduation plans.

The key now is to ensure that each graduation pathway is equally rigorous. Members of the Washington State Board of Education took a step in the right direction last month, when they crafted Career and Technical Education pathway rules directly tied to qualifications for further training or employment.

School districts must now follow through with guidance and programming to ensure the state’s vocationally minded students are not being shortchanged, and that they are prepared to seek their career path.

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The best high school CTE programs offer certifications or components that students can build on after graduation — whether through a community and technical college or apprenticeship. Take, for example, the Core Plus program, used by dozens of Washington school districts, including high schools in Auburn, Bremerton, Enumclaw, Federal Way and Snohomish. The two-year course of study includes a first-year curriculum that introduces basic cross-sector manufacturing skills like materials science, applied physics, math, critical thinking and quality assurance. The second year is tailored to specific in-demand industries such as aerospace, maritime, health care, information technology, construction or manufacturing. This is the standard schools should strive to meet.

Such rigor will benefit both students and employers, and should help eradicate the persistent myth that vocational education is a second-best option for students who can’t make the grade. A well-designed CTE program can complement other coursework for students planning to go into related professions, like engineering. It can reignite a passion for learning in students at risk of dropping out because they feel high school coursework doesn’t reflect their goals.

According to Washington Roundtable, 70% of the state’s graduating class of 2030 will need to attain some postsecondary credential, degree or certificate to meet workforce needs. Today, fewer than 80% even graduate on time. Among some demographic groups, the number is substantially lower. 

The new CTE pathway rules make allowances for the fact that not all school districts are prepared to offer sequential CTE programming that will meet every student’s needs. They allow students to mix and match courses from different program areas, but only for a specific purpose, with approval by the local school system and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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Once OSPI approves the new sequence, all districts will be able to use the new configuration — creating a statewide learning community that should encourage statewide development of more varied and vigorous career and technical coursework. That is a wise interim step.

All students deserve equal access to excellent education in preparation for adulthood. Washington cannot afford to leave any student behind.