At Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Principal Luke Bauer wanted to start a program in “interaction design”—a field that focuses on how users interact with products like computers and phones.

But last year, when he looked into turning his vision into an official, certified career and technical education (CTE) program, he discovered that the idea didn’t fit into any of the typical categories approved by the state of New York.

“There are plenty of people right here in Lower Manhattan who are getting paid six figures to do that work,” Bauer said. Yet, his program was so foreign to the process, he said it felt like having “six heads.”

In the end, he decided not to pursue an interaction-design program—a disappointment to him and to his industry partners, who hoped it would create a “pipeline of talent” that could potentially lead some of his students to full-time jobs, Bauer said.

Bauer’s experience is emblematic of an ongoing tension. As career- and technical-education programs expand and morph into a dizzying array of new fields, many are slowed down by the state’s long and stringent approval process.

That comprehensive process empowers schools to run a multi-year, career-focused curriculum. It has “raised the quality and rigor of courses to better prepare students for college and career,” said Emily DeSantis, a New York State Department of Education spokesperson.

Yet, others argue it discourages the creation of certified CTE programs and leaves little flexibility for schools trying to prepare students for new, and potentially lucrative, careers. The approval process can take years, and it often frustrates businesses partnering with schools, critics contend.

Employers involved in CTE programs surveyed in 2015—including businesses, government agencies and nonprofits—said bureaucracy and slow response time are the biggest challenges in CTE work.

The “sense of urgency at [the State Education Department] doesn’t match the practical demands on the schools of a rapidly changing economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, the CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders which conducted the survey.

Wylde said she has been in contact with state officials and she is confident they are working to solve the problem. But for those trying to launch programs, those changes can’t come soon enough.

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Over the past two decades, skill-based education has transformed from the traditional “vocational” tracks into “career and technical” education—and it’s more than just a name change.

Vocational ed was designed to help students enter the workforce right after high school, with training in fields like auto repair or manufacturing. Today’s career and technical education still includes those fields, but it also makes room for newer areas like computer science which often require education after high school. At the school level, that means seeking out partners in emerging industries, who will hopefully help match students with internships or even jobs after high school.

State and local officials have gotten behind CTE as a way to engage students in high school and to prepare them for what comes next.

“A career and technical education is where the strands all meet,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last year. “And I’m very, very proud that New York City is being used as a model here for this effort.”

The number of New York City schools dedicated to CTE has more than tripled over the past decade, growing from 15 in 2004 to almost 50 in 2013, according to a recent Manhattan Institute study. Roughly 75 other schools offer CTE programs and provide career-oriented courses as electives. About 40 percent of high-school students take at least one CTE course, and nearly 10 percent attend a dedicated CTE school, according to calculations based on Department of Education data cited in the report.

In 2009, New York state established a workgroup to rethink CTE and its goals. In part, that meant ensuring that CTE prepares students to go on to college. To help provide new graduation options and to expand CTE programs, state officials also created a new regulation in 2014 that allows a technical exam to be substituted for one required high school exit exam, a policy known as “4+1.”

But as CTE programs keep growing—and with these new rules, there are lingering questions over whether a more dramatic shakeup is necessary.

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The problem, critics say, is that high-tech careers are changing all the time—by their very definition they are “emerging” and not conducive to a system that takes multiple years to approve.

State officials said they recommend schools start putting an application together at least a year before they submit it. Yet, at a minimum, it takes about about four years to build a program the state will sign off on, said Eric Watts, the former director of career and technical education at Urban Assembly, an organization that runs more than 20 career-themed schools. It’s not uncommon for it to take close to six years, he said.

In the meantime, schools are typically running the programs anyway.

“You’re getting approved to do something six years after you do it,” Watts said. “That doesn’t really make too much sense.”

If schools choose to forgo the certification process, they may have a tougher time securing federal funding and cannot provide their students with a CTE-endorsed diploma. But the biggest issue, he said, is that without a formal process, it’s harder to tell which programs are the most worthwhile.

“That’s the scary part: Teachers can do what they want, schools can do what they want,” Watts said.

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Leigh Ann DeLyser, the director of education and research at CSNYC, helped two city schools focused on software engineering through the approval process. She said that, overall, the state’s high standards are good for schools.

“The state’s process is rigorous on purpose,” DeLyser said. “It does take a few years because CTE actually is more than just classrooms and tests.”

The problem, she said, is there are not many models for programs similar to those she helped guide. “Being the pioneers makes it really difficult because you can’t just take and borrow from existing programs,” she said.

DeLyser added that teacher certification is especially tricky. CTE teachers are required to complete specific coursework, which means that those who work at tech companies—even teachers, in some cases—often have to go back and take extra classes to earn their certification, she said.

It is difficult enough to find industry professionals in high-paying tech jobs willing to take on CTE teaching positions without these extra requirements, Bauer, from the Urban Assembly Maker Academy, said. In some cases, that could mean a $30,000 pay cut and switching to an entry-level job, he said. State figures show New York had about 4,900 CTE teacher positions in 2014-15, but 450 of those spots remained vacant.

Even when teachers are willing to take the leap, it’s a struggle for some to get approved because of the state’s current certification categories, critics say. There is only one category for new fields labeled “other/unique & emerging occupations.” Practically, that means a teacher who wants to teach interaction design, as Bauer envisioned, might have to become certified in a broader area such as computer science rather than the actual field he or she wants to teach.

“If you go and look at the eligible [certification] titles, the jobs that we want to prepare our students for that are going to put them in the middle class or higher in new technologies, they are not [included in] the eligible CTE titles for the state,” Bauer said.

The result is schools have to “reinvent the wheel” every time they want to create a program outside of the designated list, said Tamar Jacoby, one of the authors of the Manhattan Institute report. That can leave schools negotiating with the state and waiting “a long, long time,” to start a program, she said.

Aware of the need for more CTE teachers, the state’s Board of Regents approved more ways that teachers can earn a transitional license, which will allow them to enter the classroom based on various combinations of work experience, industry credentials, and enrollment in teacher-prep programs, giving them extra time to earn additional credits.

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Another hurdle for some CTE programs involves the state’s new 4+1 graduation policy.

Allowing CTE exams to double as graduation requirements was hailed as a big success by CTE advocates. The new policy, approved in 2014, was intended to encourage the creation of more CTE programs and to give students across New York state more ways to graduate.

But so far, the policy is not even trickling down to some existing CTE schools. The state has an approved list of technical exams, but those exams do not cover all careers and do not always match schools’ specific programs.

For instance, the Academy for Careers in Technology and Film in Long Island City, Queens, offers a CTE exam that yields an additional credential, but it is not approved as part of the 4+1 program. As a result, it doesn’t count toward graduation, said the school’s principal, Edgar Rodriguez.

A spokesperson for New York’s State Education Department said the department is currently developing an application process for CTE programs to submit assessments that will be reviewed and potentially added to the list of eligible 4+1 graduation exams.

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In the meantime, these bureaucratic hurdles have left some schools feeling like it’s easier to ignore the approval process instead.

Maker Academy is starting a new CTE technology-focused charter school but decided its connections at Google and IBM would be easier to manage without the state’s stringent CTE teacher certification rules, said Eric Rivers, the director of institutional advancement at Maker Academy.

Dealing with the state CTE requirements “definitely makes it more challenging and I think that’s the reason we have decided to take the charter school route in this situation,” Rivers said.

Another teacher, Lane Rosen, who runs a marine science program at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, came to a similar conclusion. He would like to gain some new attention for his program and a few extra perks for his students, but the process of earning CTE approval is too daunting for him to undertake, he said.

“It would be nice to have,” he said, “but I heard there’s a lot of red tape.”

Bauer hopes to overcome the red tape—eventually. He shifted his program’s focus and expects to be eligible to apply for state certification a year from now. Until then, he hopes he will not have to alter his plan more than he already has.

“I don’t know what it will look like two years from now,” he said. “I hope it gets approved.”


This post appears courtesy of Chalkbeat New York.