Two decades ago, the Chicago Public Schools was embroiled in conflict over the best way to deliver vocational education. Then-CEO Paul Vallas argued that all students needed to focus first on building the academic skills they would need for college or careers. Only later should they delve into career-related courses.

So he proposed limiting career coursework to juniors and seniors and moving the courses outside the regular school day, scheduling them after-school, on weekends or during the summer. Vallas hired a consulting firm to review all the district’s vocational education offerings, with the goal of scrapping stand-alone courses and those not in fields with strong job prospects.

Educators closer to the ground argued that savvy voc-ed programs could inspire previously disengaged students and help them boost their skills. “Basic skills and technical education are compatible,” Lila Leff told Catalyst in 1996. (Leff, then a project director for a federally-recognized school-to-work program, later founded the Umoja Student Development Corporation, which has developed exemplary projects that link the two.)

The Vallas plan ultimately led to the creation of three-course career education sequences in about a dozen industries, available to varying degrees in every high school. The district designated 11 schools as “career academies,” where every student declares a career major. By 2013 there were 27 high schools designated as career academies, but some were programs within a high school.

See “Vallas voc-ed plans spark debate,” Catalyst 1996 and “Career programs under construction” Catalyst October 2003


Today, the same points of view continue to compete. While employers call for stronger connections between academic and workplace skills, the message that college is the ticket to good-paying jobs has taken high schools by storm and reached students and families across the city.

Between 2008 and 2011, the number of students completing a full three-year sequence of career-prep classes declined by 30 percent, to 2,173. In the same period, CPS scrapped about a quarter of its career programs. And many of the system’s career academies were among the high schools experiencing the largest enrollment declines.

Yet, some high schools have forged connections with colleges that offer strong post-secondary training. Gage Park High School, for example, has developed a program in equipment and technology that has close ties to post-secondary technical programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology, DeVry University and Ranken Technical College in St. Louis. Teachers track students’ ACT scores, college applications and scholarships, in addition to helping them build industry knowledge and skills.

Meanwhile, the district is pushing dual enrollment, dual credit and early college programs that connect high school students with post-secondary coursework. Some of that coursework gives students the opportunity to sample careers — from logistics to early childhood development to information technology. According to the district, 2,300 high school students took college courses in 2014.

See “Off the job track,” Catalyst February 2009 and “A new end game,” Catalyst February 2014.


While it’s likely we’ll see more pilot programs that offer new ways to bridge the college and career gap, there’s no sign the district will try to address the problem more systemically. During his first term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched two high school initiatives intended to link college and career preparation: “wall-to-wall” International Baccalaureate high schools that offer the IB Career Certificate, and Early College STEM high schools. The first graduates from any of these programs will cross the stage in June, with more to come next year and beyond, so it’s too soon to judge their impact.

CPS also has responded to the job market’s demand for health care workers by opening programs such as Crane Medical Preparatory High School. However, Crane’s prior reputation as a tough school means it has struggled to attract students. As a result, it lowered the test scores required for admission from the 50th percentile to 24th percentile — the same level used in all magnet high school applications.

Larger challenges continue to plague career and technical education, from connecting students with real-world internships to helping more of them earn industry-specific credentials that lead to high-wage jobs.

See “IB program tackles career ed,” Catalyst February 2014 and “Ticket to a job,” Catalyst February 2014.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.