In Delaware, Career and Technical Education Includes Environmental Literacy

Two high school students in a garden, checking information on a laptop

In the next decade, the labor market is predicted to create millions of new jobs in response to the shift to a more environmentally sustainable economy. Recognizing that these openings herald both unprecedented economic changes and opportunities for students who are set to enter the workforce, the Delaware Department of Education has started a project that will embed principles of environmental literacy (EL)—that is, an understanding of the relationship between human systems and environmental systems—into statewide career and technical education (CTE) pathways. In 2022, in collaboration with Advance CTE—an organization of state CTE leaders—Delaware received a Bay Watershed Education and Training grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop new EL “competencies” (that is, measurable learning objectives) and curricula that are intended to strengthen student knowledge about the interrelated areas of the environment, sustainability, and the world of work. These curricula will be embedded in the state’s 150 career and technical education pathways. Department of Education staff members are responding to the trend among employers to adopt new ways of thinking about the environmental impact of work in response to an increased national appetite for clean energy. In March 2024, MDRC spoke with Dr. Jonathan Wickert, the state’s CTE director, and Dr. Denise Purnell-Cuff, an education associate who has been working on this program’s development, to learn more. 

Delaware has been at the forefront of CTE innovation since its Department of Education began a statewide effort in 2016 to better prepare young people for employment by creating the Delaware Pathways—CTE pathways that are designed to ensure that all students in Delaware are prepared for high-wage, high-growth jobs, and that 65 percent of the adult workforce will hold a college degree or professional certificate by 2025. The creation of Delaware Pathways began as a response to a weakened state economy and mounting state deficits that resulted from global competition and rapid technological change. 

Through the development of new curricula and a set of seven benchmark EL competencies about sustainability and the environment that are being built into every middle and high school CTE pathway, the Delaware Department of Education demonstrates that now is the time to respond to changes that will impact the future labor market experiences of its students. While professional development sessions for teachers and pilots of the competencies and curricula in the classroom will begin later in 2024, over the last two years the Delaware Department of Education has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring the long-term implementation of programs to help its workforce respond to a shifting economy.

The Delaware Department of Education began its EL efforts by building buy-in among key stakeholder groups, including both core academic teachers and CTE teachers as well as administrators, partners at state higher education institutions, families, community-based organizations, students, and employers. It also included partners at other state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Department of Agriculture, which helped build statewide support for the endeavor. The department collected data from members of these groups through interviews and focus groups. It worked through an iterative process in which draft language and plans for the EL materials were shared and revised based on responses from various group participants. The result has been the creation of a community of practice—a group of stakeholders that work together to support the adoption of the seven EL competencies, which will serve as building blocks for further curricular resources and professional development for teachers. The competencies can be used to satisfy science accountability requirements for the state’s Perkins CTE funding. (The Carl D. Perkins Act is the main source of federal funding for state CTE programs, and each state develops a plan for accountability as part of receiving the funds.)

According to Wickert, one of the most important lessons that the department learned from this process is that many CTE teachers are already embedding EL standards into their lessons, even if they don’t think of it that way. For example, he described a program in which students explore their local workforce options and then are asked how that workforce connects to the local community environment. He also noted that the program aims to encourage students to think more holistically about how the work they will do in the future could influence the environment and community health. “What are the environmental reasons people seek medical care? Or what are the decisions made at the company level about what kind of packaging to put products in?” he said as he described the myriad ways that economic and career decisions are tied to environmental consequences.

In addition, Purnell-Cuff, who has been working on the development of the competencies and who advocated for the inclusion of student voices in the development process, said, “Kids are much more aware and ready to go than the adults. They are savvy.” She noted that students wanted to become environmentally literate and expressed a desire to learn more about environmental issues in their courses.

Purnell-Cuff also noted that one of the most challenging aspects of developing the EL competencies has been figuring out how to keep employers engaged in the process. Many employers provide work-based learning experiences for students—that is, experiences that are designed to offer students career and industry knowledge, such as internships or mentoring. But the Department of Education continues to grapple with the best way to keep employers engaged in the process of working with the education system to ensure that students are learning up-to-date and in-demand skills.

Currently, Delaware’s Department of Education is continuing to develop EL materials for use in classrooms through 2024 and plans to help teachers start using the EL curricula and competencies in the 2024–2025 school year. As the state moves forward, the process of fostering stakeholder buy-in has been instrumental in ensuring that there is a community of support for change and adaptation upon which to build program momentum. Unlike many other states or districts, Delaware has taken a statewide approach to expanding its EL program from the outset. It may serve as a model for other states that are looking to adapt their own CTE programs to respond to the changes of the rapidly developing green economy.