Should our schools teach students the fundamentals of education — how to read and write, and to understand math and science concepts and the importance of history? Or should they nurture the workers of the future, focusing on the knowledge and skills our kids will need to compete in the worldwide marketplace?

The answer, of course, is that in a perfect world, schools would pursue both goals. But our world is far from perfect, and finding the proper balance between what we consider more highbrow academic pursuits and the practicality of future career needs is a difficult task.

When I was a kid — and I'm dating myself here — boys were offered so-called vocational classes such as wood shop beginning in middle school, while girls were funneled to "home economics" courses, such as cooking and sewing. In high school, some students gravitated toward college-prep instruction, while others treaded paths weighted more heavily with the likes of auto mechanics or typing classes.

Today, in Newport-Mesa, efforts to offer students a taste of real-world know-how bear little resemblance to these impressions from my childhood.

Now called Career Technical Education, this district program isn't so much an either-or choice. College is still the goal of the vast majority of students. Rather, CTE is an attempt to broaden the knowledge base for students beyond the standard offerings, and provide opportunities to try out future career options.

CTE includes such curriculum as construction technology, digital media arts, health care, and hotel, hospitality and tourism at Estancia High School; and culinary arts, business, film and video production and visual imagery classes at Newport Harbor High School.

Also offered are business, environmental and digital media arts CTE classes at Costa Mesa High School, and digital media arts at Corona del Mar High School. Back Bay High School has a green technology academy, with courses in solar installation, energy auditing and sustainability.

"This is not just, 'Come in and have fun,'" said Steven Glyer, a former NMUSD administrator who now works as a consultant for the district's CTE program. "This is not traditional vocational education."

When I met with Glyer at district headquarters recently, he was eager to talk about the relevance of CTE in our modern world. Technology has changed the way we do business, opened markets, globalized competition and flattened traditional corporate hierarchies, he noted. Meanwhile, college debt is soaring and young people are taking longer to achieve economic independence.

Against that backdrop, Glyer's goals make perfect sense. Sure, some kids will always enter college with no fixed career plans, or even an idea of how their education will service their future goals. But many students, given the chance, might just figure out what they're good at, or what they love, or what they think will give them the best shot at a promising career while still in high school, and then direct their future education toward a specific goal.

That latter scenario dovetails with proposals Gov. Jerry Brown recently made to cap the number of units students can take at state community colleges. The idea is to get students through the system faster, and on to the next phase of their educations or careers.

Increasingly, it appears, students will be pressured to approach their education with specific goals in mind, and that's where a program like CTE can help.

"CTE is about context," Glyer said.

Take the example of Newport Harbor's business academy, which differs significantly from the more theoretical teachings of a traditional high school class in economics. In the CTE course, students engage in entrepreneurship by devising business plans, forming virtual companies, assuming various leadership roles and making presentations.

Practical experience also permeates Back Bay High's series of classes focusing on clean energy, where students learn about everything from solar installation to energy audits. What's more, through the partnerships it has established with local community colleges, the CTE program is able to tailor such courses to lead seamlessly into college programs.

The CTE program is proving popular; 26.2% of high school students in the district have taken at least one CTE course, and some classes have waiting lists. Glyer also pointed me to government statistics that support the contention that CTE students have relatively high graduation rates, test scores, college attendance and earnings potential.

I wondered to Glyer why, with the younger of my two sons about to graduate, I had only been vaguely aware of CTE prior to our conversation. I also questioned how a student who is aiming for a competitive four-year college might find the time for any CTE classes in a schedule packed with Advanced Placement classes.

He acknowledged that getting the word out about the programs remains a challenge, and those students who feel competitive pressure to take more traditional, academically rigorous classes might find it difficult to wedge in a CTE class.

But it's a work in progress, Glyer said. He calls our age in education the "wet cement phase," as in nothing's set in stone.

With so many changes coming to our educational system, Glyer feels the time is right to get the word out about CTE, and to continue to find ways to make it relevant and purposeful. I'll be writing about some of the specific CTE programs, and how they might help students learn to succeed in our fast-evolving world.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.