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January 13, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 9
Table of Contents
CTE in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?
Shaun Dougherty and Dara Zeehandelaar
Ask any group of high school teachers, and they will report that the most frequently asked question in their classrooms is, "When are we ever gonna use this?" In a traditional college prep program, the honest answer is usually, "Maybe when you get to the university." But in the real world? Depending on the class, students may not find their learning as useful.
In high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, however, that question is moot. Students learn skills that will help them prepare for stable careers and success in a modern, global, and competitive economy. A student who wants a future in architecture doesn't question his first drafting course in high school. One interested in aerospace sees value in her introduction to engineering design class. An aspiring medical professional is enthusiastic, not indifferent, about high school anatomy.
A Damaged Brand
Unfortunately, for millions of American students, CTE is not a meaningful part of their high school experience. In large part, this is because CTE has been chronically neglected by American education leaders and policymakers. Many CTE advocates suspect that this oversight has happened because of the damaged "brand" of vocational education. And it's damaged for a reason; there was a time when the "vo-tech" track was a pathway to nowhere. "Tracking," as practiced in the 20th century, was pernicious. It sent a lot of kids—especially low-income and minority students—into low-paying, menial jobs, or worse.
America's failure to prioritize CTE is an anomaly. In most industrialized countries—nearly all of which outperform us on measures of academic achievement, such as PISA and TIMSS—students begin preparing for a career while still in high school. These countries see the value in developing career and college-based competencies that all students need in our increasingly interconnected world. In short, CTE around the globe is not a track away from a successful adulthood, but rather a path towards it.
American students face a double-whammy: they not only lack access to high-quality secondary CTE, but are also subject to a "bachelor's degree or bust" mentality. And many do bust, dropping out of college with no degree, no work skills, no work experience, and a fair amount of debt. That's a terrible way to begin adult life. We owe it to America's students to prepare them for whatever comes after high school, not just academic programs at four-year universities.
Not Your Grandfather's Vo-tech
Despite its checkered past, modern CTE—often called "new vocationalism"—is a far cry from vo-tech. No longer isolated "shop" classes for students showing little future promise, CTE coursework is now strategic and sequenced. It entails skill-building for careers in fields like information technology, health sciences, and advanced manufacturing. Secondary CTE is meant to be a coherent pathway starting in high school and transitioning into authentic technical education options and credentials at the postsecondary level.
Why don't we see more communities embracing high-quality CTE? Why are students nationwide taking fewer CTE courses today instead of more? Would it help if policymakers, educators, parents, and kids could see that CTE today isn't a dead-end track?
Is CTE a Dead End?
We set out to examine whether the students who participated in CTE—and especially those "concentrating" by taking a sequence of three or more courses aligned to a career in a specific industry—were achieving better outcomes than their peers. Were they more likely to graduate from high school? Enroll in postsecondary education? And, perhaps most importantly, be employed and earn higher wages?
Using data that combines secondary, postsecondary, and labor market information from the Arkansas Research Center, we designed and executed a rigorous analytic strategy that used three different statistical approaches, giving us great confidence in our findings. The study followed three cohorts of students—those who started 9th grade in 2008, 2009, and 2010 (the high school classes of 2012 through 2014)—from 9th grade through the year after they were scheduled to graduate high school. We know what courses they took in high school and whether they graduated, enrolled in a two- or four-year college, or became employed (and, if employed, their wages). Together, these cohorts included more than 100,000 individual students.
Arkansas students with greater exposure to CTE were more likely to graduate, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and have higher wages (Figure 1). Furthermore, those students were just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers. In addition, students who "concentrate" their CTE coursework (meaning they took their courses in a single program of study) were more likely to graduate high school by 21 percentage points compared to otherwise similar students—a truly staggering number. Concentration has positive links with the other outcomes as well (Figure 2).
Moreover, the results of this study suggest that CTE provides the greatest boost to the kids who may need it most—students from low-income families. Specifically, lower-income "concentrators" are 25 percentage points more likely to graduate than similar lower-income non-concentrators.
And here's more good news: CTE does not have to be expensive and highly exclusive to have positive effects. The form of CTE we studied in Arkansas is CTE at its most egalitarian and scalable—most students took courses at their comprehensive high school and others went to regional technical centers. Most importantly, it worked.
Our results suggest that policymakers and education leaders nationwide should invest more heavily (and strategically) in high school CTE. Doing so could mean mirroring much of what is already occurring in Arkansas, such as
Making CTE Appeal to All
We're seeing more and more positive evidence about the impact of high school CTE, especially as it relates to wages, employment after high school, and academic persistence (Bishop & Maine, 2004; Hollenbeck & Huang, 2014; Kemple & Willner, 2008). Our own study shows that, among other things, CTE improves outcomes for students seeking to start their careers quickly and is no hindrance to those who want additional academic training. Granted, even the best CTE policy requires thoughtful implementation, since there is still a risk that low-performing students will be "tracked" into courses that don't leave them well prepared for college. But states can mitigate this risk by offering courses and programs of study that appeal to students of varying interests and abilities and by counseling all students into them.
Our evidence also signals that it's high time to reauthorize the Perkins Act—which provides federal support for CTE programs in all 50 states—and increase federal investment in this area. The scars of the recession have faded but they haven't disappeared. Connecting more young people with available opportunities by giving them the skills employers are seeking should be a national priority.
Bishop, J., and Mane, F. (2004). The Impacts of Career-Technical Education on High School Labor Market Success. Economics of Education Review (23), 381–402.
Hollenbeck, K., and Huang, W. (2014). Net Impact and Benefit-Cost Estimates of the Workforce Development System in Washington State. Upjohn Institute Technical Report No. 13-029. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Retrieved from http://research.upjohn.org/up_technicalreports/29/
Kemple, J., and Willner, C. (2008). Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/publication/career-academies-long-term-impacts-work-education-and-transitions-adulthood
Shaun Dougherty is an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Connecticut. Dara Zeehandelaar is the national research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 9. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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