The Next Stage in CTE’s Evolution

Originally published in Techniques Magazine – November/December 2020 Issue

John Dewey was one of our country’s earliest supporters of career and technical education (CTE). Not to be confused with Melvil Dewey — the architect of the Dewey Decimal System — the Vermont-born John Dewey believed that the strength of our country ultimately depended on the strength of our education system.

Education, Dewey argued, was something students must play an active role in; they need not be passive bystanders (Hildebrand, 2018). How else can they make informed connections between the classroom and their everyday, lived experiences?

Due to overwhelming criticism of his ideas or his personal politics and beliefs — perhaps a little of both — John Dewey’s philosophies were largely ignored for decades. His school of thought was restricted to the outskirts of larger learning and academic movements. And for generations, school districts in every region and in every state undercut the fundamental benefits of experiential learning — the kind that John Dewey ardently fought for.

Much like John Dewey’s story, the story of blended and online schooling has been fraught with dismissal, criticism and, in some cases, condemnation. Additionally, much like John Dewey’s academic mantra, many critics have overlooked the advantages of experiential learning in the context of virtual and online education.

Thankfully, the tides are changing on both accounts. Brick-and-mortar schools and traditional learning programs are not only embracing Dewey’s philosophy of hands-on learning, they are also recognizing the importance of online education in this endeavor. This has become even more apparent amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Embracing online education

John Dewey long argued that interactive, ongoing student engagement is a leading predictor of academic and long-term success. Officials at the University of Washington (2020) assert that “instructors who adopt a student-centered approach to instruction increase opportunities for student engagement, which then helps everyone more successfully achieve the course’s learning objectives.” Online and blended learning platforms offer innovative and interactive curriculum and instructional delivery options that can help engage students in CTE.

Erica Young, an online CTE teacher at Insight Academy of Arizona, uses project-based learning (PBL) to teach students in the school’s business management pathway. Students work hands-on with an actual startup company to develop its social media platforms — such as a Facebook business page — and promotional materials. Young explained, “This allows my students to learn about marketing research and creating marketing tools.”

“A third of all students now take at least one online course.”

Doug Lederman (2018)

Today’s students need, and they seek out, a variety of rich learning perspectives. They’ve come to expect virtual learning experiences. Postsecondary institutions are taking notice: “A third of all students now take at least one online course.” Doug Lederman (2018), editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed went so far as to say that “without online education, college and university enrollments would be declining even more.”

Parents, too, are realizing that online learning can help give their kids a leg- up when it comes to employment. In a recent survey, nearly 87% of respondents agreed that having access to career-focused coursework in an online format would help more people thrive in the workforce (K12 Inc., 2020). School leaders in states like West Virginia have also received this message. Education officials there are driving more career education-related initiatives designed to “make a difference for students, for business and industry, for West Virginia and for the global economy” (West Virginia Department of Education, n.d.).

Parents, colleges and state officials are on the right track, but, until the COVID-19 pandemic, most primary and secondary schools were reluctant to embrace the innovative use of technology to immerse students in a modern workspace. By restructuring the traditional learning environment and helping students join digital communities, we can better prepare them for success.

Public perception and the role of CTSOs

We have made significant strides when it comes to both online schooling and career and technical education. However, we still have a long way to go to address what I consider a perception problem — an issue John Dewey grappled with too.

CTE, often, has been perceived as a path/option for the students who just “couldn’t cut it” in traditional schooling. Of course, we know that could not be further from the truth. Career and technical education is about preparing the next generation for a rapidly evolving and creative workforce. It’s about matching employers with eager, qualified candidates. And it’s about ensuring that our students don’t just find jobs — they find fulfilling, long-lasting careers.

Many of us in the online learning space have had to contend with this perception problem as well. However, today, CTE offers a wide range of pathways to engage students of all interests; career and technical student organizations (CTSOs) promote a sense of belonging, and they’re fun! Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many CTSOs conducted virtual events. When learners begin to see the value, perception improves for CTE and virtual educators, alike.

In 2020–21, for example, Arkansas Virtual Academy (ARVA) and Indiana Digital Learning School (INDLS) — two online and blended schools — launched the first-ever virtual chapters of National FFA Organization. INDLS agriculture teacher Amber Lewis said her school’s FFA chapter is preparing students for future agriculture careers while connecting students to their peers and experts across the state. “We’re very excited.

These kids are ready and geared up to get out there and be involved” (Slacian, 2020). With a nod to online and blended schools — and due in part to coronavirus-related school closures — CTSOs are beginning to recognize the value of technology, as they bring students and businesses together in collaborative virtual environments.

Bipartisan support for CTE

Career and technical education truly has bipartisan support. in a 2018 report, the Center for American Progress — a progressive organization — referred to “high-quality CTE programs” as one of the “foundational elements” for boosting high school students’ engagement (Batel, Roth & Campbell, 2018).

Similarly, Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — a conservative-leaning think tank — has acknowledged the importance of providing students with multiple road maps to success: “I think where high schools have gotten it wrong, or let’s be honest, those of us in the policy world have gotten it wrong, is in thinking that high schools’ only job is preparing kids for a four-year liberal arts degree” (Gonser, 2018). This convergence of thought is sure to benefit CTE students across the country. I have no doubt that John Dewey would be proud of us.


I’ve devoted most of my professional life — more than 30 years — to public education. I started my career as a ninth and twelfth grade social studies and earth science teacher. To date, that’s been the most rewarding part of my career. I received a gift that few people receive — the chance to play a role in helping dozens of young leaders learn and grow. No matter what zip code they lived in or what their back- ground was, my students all wanted the same thing — an opportunity to build a successful future.

As John Dewey continues to teach us, we cannot adequately support our students along this journey if we do not expose them to experiences that boost their confidence, cultivate their decision-making skills and build their creative capacities. CTE offers them these experiences and so much more.

Patrick Michel is vice president of career readiness program design for Stride, Inc. He is a 30-year veteran of public education as a teacher, principal and superintendent.

To learn more about Stride, Inc., visit

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