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Broadening the Path: Design Principles for Middle Grades CTE

The middle grades have become the agreed upon starting point for high-quality Career Technical Education (CTE) programs, as this represents a critical time for students making important decisions that may have a lasting impact on their careers. However, there lacks a common view among state and local leaders on what makes up a high-quality middle grades CTE program or policy. With the promotion of middle grades CTE in the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), it is an ideal time for state and local leaders to consider how to best support and expand CTE in middle school.

To support this work, this resource from Advance CTE and Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) lays out a theory of action for middle grades CTE. This resource defines outcomes for student learning, 10 design principles that should undergird any middle grades CTE program or policy and core programmatic elements for developing and expanding CTE into middle grades.

This resource is aimed at state and local leaders working to develop or strengthen middle grades CTE policies, programs, and practices. This paper also includes a design principles self-assessment for state and local leaders to evaluate their current middle grades CTE policies and programs.

In addition, Advance CTE and ACTE have developed a repository of state-level resources that state and local leaders can leverage as they begin to develop and expand CTE into the middle grades. The repository includes links to resources from all 50 states and Washington, DC, including state middle grades CTE standards, career development guidance and tools, work-based learning and Career Technical Student Organization supports, licensure requirements, state policies and more.


High-quality career and technical education (CTE), which teaches students both the academic and technical skills needed for a variety of in-demand careers, is a promising pathway for millions of young people. Perhaps understandably, the majority of the nation’s CTE programs happen at the high school and postsecondary levels. However, many CTE experts and advocates warn that waiting until high school to educate students on their career options is a mistake.

There isn’t a broad consensus about what CTE and career awareness programs should look like in middle school. So Advance CTE, with support from the Association for Career and Technical Education, gathered a workgroup of national, state, and local leaders to pinpoint the key aspects of a quality CTE experience in the middle grades. The end result—a paper titled Broadening the Path: Design Principles for Middle Grades CTE—offers state and local leaders suggestions on how to design new programs and policies, as well as how to improve existing initiatives.

Broadening the Path: Middle School CTE
Middle School CTE by Advance CTE – Broadening the Path

The paper covers three main areas: student outcomes, design principles, and core program elements. In terms of student outcomes, it’s critical for leaders to establish clear goals that are firmly rooted in student learning and incorporate rigorous standards and curricula. An effectively implemented middle school CTE program would accomplish several important outcomes, including awareness of and exposure to a wide variety of careers; the development of employable skills, such as problem solving, time management, and self-advocacy; the development of foundational technical skills, like understanding industry-specific terminology; and an actionable next-steps plan for a student’s transition to high school. This last outcome is particularly important, as it can help middle schoolers identify which courses to take.

To achieve these learning outcomes, state and local leaders must design and implement effective programs and policies. This paper offers several principles for doing so, though they are not intended to be prescriptive. First and foremost, programs must be equitable and inclusive. To have maximum impact, CTE programs in the middle grades should not be limited to a single elective course, even though carving out dedicated instructional time might affect master schedules and teacher availability. The paper also warns against tracking students into certain courses based on their gender, race, or ethnicity, and against making CTE courses a “dumping ground” for certain students.

It is also vital for programs to be anchored in careers. Students should be able to explore a vast range of occupations, the knowledge and skills needed to pursue them, and associated labor market information. They should also have access to hands-on experiences, like project-based and work-based learning. Effective programs should strike a careful balance between breadth (exposing students to many careers) and depth (allowing students to explore their unique interests). Employers should be included in intentional and meaningful ways. Aligning middle school offerings to high school, college, and career advising and clearly communicating CTE options to students and their families are also crucial. Finally, to gauge student success, the paper recommends focusing on growth validated by educators and employers. Coursework, work-based learning, and competitions for career and technical student organizations (CTSOs) would give students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning.

The final section explores six core elements of CTE programs: standards, curricula, and assessments; course and activity structure and scheduling; career advisement; experiential learning; teachers and leaders; and data and measurement. Implementing these elements effectively will determine a program’s overall quality. For example, the majority of information collected on CTE programs and students occurs at the high school and postsecondary level. To build effective CTE programming in the middle grades, state and local leaders will need to determine how and when to measure whether middle school students have achieved learning outcomes.

Overall, this paper is an informative look at how to extend the benefits of CTE into the middle grades. State and local leaders looking to expand CTE programming would be wise to use this roadmap as a guide.

Source: “Broadening the Path: Design Principles for Middle Grades CTE,” Advance CTE and the Association for Career and Technical Education (March 2020).

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