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NC superintendent asks whether career-tech credentials carry value in the job market

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WFAE file photo
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Basic computer skills, such as mastering Word or PowerPoint, can earn career-tech credentials in North Carolina.

Union County Public Schools led the state last year in high school students earning credentials designed to help them enter the job market. But state Superintendent Catherine Truitt raised questions Wednesday about how much value some of those credentials carry.

Overall, fewer North Carolina students earned career-tech credentials last school year. A Department of Public Instruction official told the state Board of Education that’s partly because the pandemic disrupted in-person classes and partly because state rules changed.

But Union County increased the number of credentials earned, from just about 6,100 in 2019-20 to to more than 9,200 last year, a report to the state board shows.

Gaston County dropped from almost 15,000 to a little over 6,000 last year. But it still came in above Wake County, the state’s largest district, which had 5,600, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest district, with about 3,250.

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NC Department of Public Instruction

Union County Schools spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte says the district made a conscious effort to enroll students in career-tech classes last year and make sure they took the assessments to earn credentials.

Do they lead to careers?

Truitt said the bulk of credentials statewide seemed to be in subjects like CPR and basic computer skills that aren’t likely to have much value in the job market.

"I’m drawing the conclusion that the majority of our students are pursuing credentials that do not have a career path associated with them," she said. "For example, children are learning PowerPoint in elementary school. So why are we offering that as a credential in high school?"

Nancy Cross, who’s in charge of career-tech analysis for the Department of Public Instruction, said those courses set the stage for more advanced credentials.

"There’s certainly a benefit there for a student to earn a CPR or a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint (credential) just for the social and emotional connection, the self-esteem building that 'I can earn a credential that’s recognized by industry,' " she said.

But she acknowledged that far more students take what she called "entry-level" or "door-opener" courses that those with more direct career value, such as a certified nurse aid credential. The state offers credentials in career fields such as computer engineering, firefighting, automotive services and various construction trades.

Teacher bonuses reflect higher levels

The state rewards career-tech teachers when their students earn higher-level credentials.

The most basic, including CPR certification, bring no bonuses. Each student who earns a Tier 2 credential, such as basic programming, culinary arts and basic construction trades, brings the teacher a $25 bonus. The per-credential payoff rises to $50 for Tier 3 credentials, including EMT certification, architectural drafting, HVAC credentials and advanced computer skills.

Each teacher can earn up to $3,500, though only 13 across the state hit that cap last year. The average was just over $500, according to Wednesday's bonus report.

Wake County led the state in career-tech bonuses, with a total of $56,425 awarded. Gaston County, with almost $52,000, and Union County, with almost $51,000, were close behind. CMS netted $37,425 in career-tech teacher bonuses.

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NC Department of Public Instruction
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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.