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April 27, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 8

Research Matters / The Case for More CTE

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The Case for More CTE
With news reports of skilled laborers garnering six-figure salaries (Nadworny, 2021) and college graduates struggling to find decent jobs to pay off their loans (Korn & Fuller, 2021), is it time to rethink the prevailing college-or-bust ethos at many districts, schools, and kitchen tables?

Middle-Skills, High Pay

Labor market data is clear: Students don't need to attend college to land good-paying jobs. Yes, on average, median wages for four-year degrees exceed those of two-year degrees ($69,000 vs. $56,000). Yet these averages mask that many so-called middle-skill jobs—those that require more than a high school diploma yet less than a college degree—pay more than the median for those requiring four-year college degrees, including plumbers ($71,000), industrial production technicians ($80,000), and mechanical engineering technicians ($116,000) (Schneider, 2015).
As Mark Schneider, who conducted this research (and now leads the Institute of Education Sciences), notes, people working in jobs aimed at "fixing things or fixing people" (p. 73) typically earn more than college graduates with degrees in low-demand fields. For example, median lifetime earnings for two-year degree holders in high-demand fields, such as health care ($2.9 million) and construction ($2.7 million) exceed those for four-year degree occupations in the arts ($2.3 million), psychology and social work ($2.2 million), and education ($2.0 million) (Carnevale et. al, 2018). Being on the higher end of the lower-paying group beats being on the lower end of the higher-paying group—potentially by a lot.

Mind the Skills Gap

Despite plentiful opportunities for middle-skill workers, many high schools fall woefully short in imparting the skills and knowledge needed to attain these jobs, creating a "skills gap." Moreover, college and career preparation requires different knowledge and skills. Rigorous math courses, for example, are the sine qua non of college preparation. Passing Algebra II is closely linked to college acceptance and completion, yet less than 5 percent of employees (even those in high-paying jobs) use any sort of "school math" on the job (Carnevale & Desrochers, 2003).
Skilled work requires using math to solve messy, real-world problems, which are typically more concrete, exacting, and unpredictable than school math (National Research Council, 1995). As it turns out, most high school and college graduates still struggle to translate school math into real-world application. An ACT (2011) analysis, for example, found that most people who took the WorkKeys assessments of practical knowledge and skills needed for various occupations lacked the knowledge and skills needed for good jobs in manufacturing, health care, construction, and energy.

Making Learning Practical

How can we help students develop the practical knowledge needed for high-wage jobs? A handful of rigorous studies suggest an answer: Well-designed, intensive career and technical education (CTE) programs for high school-age students.
  • An experimental study of career academies (schools-within-a-school focused on specific career areas) in nine urban schools across the U.S. found significant positive effects for future earnings, especially for male students, who enjoyed a 17 percent earnings boost over comparable students not enrolled in the academies (Kemple & Willner, 2008).
  • A rigorous study of vocational and technical high schools in Massachusetts, in which students alternated between one week in school and one week in a technical shop, found that students in poverty who enrolled in the program were 32 percent more likely to graduate from high school than similar students not in the program (82 percent vs. 50 percent) (Dougherty, 2018).
  • A 14-year experimental study in North Carolina found that students randomly selected to enroll in the state's Cooperative Innovation High Schools (dual-enrollment programs that allowed high school students to take community college courses in a variety of areas, including preparation for middle-skill jobs) were three times more likely to earn associate degrees than students not selected for the program (Edmunds et al., 2020).
  • A statewide study in Arkansas (Dougherty, 2016) that tracked high school students into postsecondary programs and the labor market found that students with greater exposure to CTE courses were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages than those with less exposure to CTE. These benefits were most evident among students who took at least three courses in the same subject area, which suggests that concentrating in a career area is more beneficial than dabbling in many.

Labor market data is clear: Students don’t need to attend college to land good paying jobs.

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Bryan Goodwin

A Key to Equity?

Contrary to long-held concerns that career and technical education may track low-income students, students of color, and women into dead-end careers, these studies show that high-quality CTE programs prepare students for good jobs and even better academic outcomes. In fact, with so many high-paying jobs going unfilled, a growing number of equity advocates are noting that the so-called "skills gap" may be an "opportunity gap," which educators, business leaders, and policymakers can close by providing students with better information about good jobs and greater access to high-quality career preparation (Goger & Jackson, 2020).

ACT. (2011). A better measure of skills gaps: Utilizing ACT skill profile and assessment data for strategic skill research. Author.

Carnevale, A. P., & Desrochers, D. M. (2003). Preparing students for the knowledge economy: What school counselors need to know. Professional School Counseling6(4), 228–236.

Carnevale, A. P., Strohl, J., Ridley, N., & Gulish, A. (2018). Three educational pathways to good jobs: High school, middle skills, and bachelor's degree. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Dougherty, S. (2016). Career and technical education in high school: Does it improve student outcomes? Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Dougherty, S. M. (2018). The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: Causal evidence from Massachusetts. Education Finance and Policy13(2), 119–148.

Edmunds, J. A., Unlu, F., Furey, J., Glennie, E., & Arshavsky, N. (2020). What happens when you combine high school and college? The impact of the early college model on postsecondary performance and completion. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis42(2), 257–278.

Goger, A., & Jackson, L. (2020). The labor market doesn't have a 'skills gap'—it has an opportunity gap. Brookings ­Institution.

Kemple, J. J., & Willner, C. J. (2008). Career academies: Long-term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. MDRC.

Korn, M., & Fuller, A. (2021, July 8). "Financially hobbled for life": The elite master's degrees that don't pay off. Wall Street Journal.

Nadworny, E. (October 7, 2021). You don't need a bachelor's degree to land a high-paying job. NPR.

National Research Council. (1995). Mathematical preparation of the technical workforce: Report of a workshop. Mathematical Sciences Education Board. National Academies Press.

Schneider, M. (2015). The value of sub-baccalaureate credentials. Issues in Science and Technology31(4), 67.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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