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CTE Explainer

In this in-depth explainer from Alina Tugend, get an expanded look into career and technical education. Learn about racial and gender disparities, recruitment and retention efforts, credentials, and teacher shortages in CTE. Additionally, get student data and learn what questions you should be asking when reporting on CTE.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDU Images

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As career and technical education (CTE) has become increasingly popular in secondary and post-secondary schools over the past decade, many people – even those within the education field – are often unclear on what it means.

In shorthand, it is often referred to as a new term for vocational education, which has long had negative connotations of racism and classism. CTE aims to be much broader, connecting the world of school to the world of work for all students in secondary and postsecondary education.

CTE now encompasses far more types of jobs and skills than the old vocational education, and educators and policymakers, in general, are aware of the dangers of even unintentionally tracking students into such programs based on their color, ethnicity, ability and gender. Nonetheless, inequities still exist both regarding who is placed into CTE and which programs they are placed into within CTE. 

The Origins of Career and Technical Education

Before discussing the status of CTE currently, however, it is important to briefly understand its past. Advance CTE, a nonprofit, offers a helpful timeline of the development of vocational education and CTE. It started in 1917, with the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act, the first federal legislation funding vocational education. It took a wide coalition of labor, education, special-interest groups and business organizations to push through the legislation.

The Smith-Hughes Act was a good idea with disastrous consequences that still reverberate today. The act took the concept of a common education for all – even if that wasn’t always the reality – and created increased differentiation. Black students and poor students were often steered into vocational training programs on the assumption they weren’t academically inclined, wouldn’t go on to college or would get jobs that didn’t need much education. Women were pushed in home economics and traditional female fields. 

As the authors of the 2020 report Tracking and the Future of Career and Technical Education: How Efforts to Connect School and Work Can Avoid the Past Mistakes of Vocational Education,” say, “Vocational education has a long and checkered history often intertwined with race, class, and gender.”

In the decades following the passage of Smith-Hughes, the concept of vocational education changed and expanded to include more professions and students. The Vocational Education Amendments of 1968 was the first such legislation to specifically reference post-secondary students. In 1984, vocational legislation was renamed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act after a U.S. representative from Kentucky who was an educational advocate.

Since then, there have been numerous iterations of Perkins, as it’s known; in 2006, the term career and technical education officially replaced vocational education when the fourth update to Perkins became the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, an effort both at rebranding and tying more closely academics and CTE for both secondary and postsecondary students.  The most recent iteration, Perkins V, was enacted in 2018.

CTE Students and Data

According to the latest federal statistics, in 2019-20, there were 11.1 million CTE participants, 7.6 million at the secondary level and 3.5 million in postsecondary education. 

The number of CTE concentrators– those who have taken two or more CTE courses in the same career pathway in secondary school or completed 12 credits in a single CTE field or finished a program if it’s less than 12 credits – is lower. The 2019-20 data found 3 million secondary and 1.9 million postsecondary CTE concentrators nationwide.

The same report also noted that among CTE participants, the top four career clusters for secondary CTE concentrators were:

  • Business Management & Administration
  • Health Science
  • Arts, Audio-Visual Technology and Communications
  • Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. 

For postsecondary students – typically those in community colleges –  they were:

  • Health Science
  • Business Management and Administration
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security
  • Information Technology. 

The U.S. Department of Education also offers a break-down of CTE student data in a variety of categories.

Racial and Gender Disparities in CTE

Over the years, policymakers, administrators and educators have become more aware of the equity gap and the need to address it. In addition, schools have moved away from directing students into academic and vocational tracks toward a model where students can take a combination of courses to better prepare both for college and career.

Nonetheless, stark racial, ethnic and gender divisions still exist. White and Asian students are more likely to be in CTE  programs that lead to higher pay.

A 2020 Hechinger Report/Associated Press analysis of CTE enrollment data from 40 states showed deep racial disparities in who takes what course. And the latest data from the federal government confirmed those continuing inequities.

“We found there were racial divides in who was taking what courses in CTE,” said The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz, one of the authors of the report. “White students were more likely than their Black and Latino peers to take STEM and IT, and more Blacks and Latinos were likely to be in culinary arts. Black students were also more likely to be in human services, such as child care.”

This area deserves much more reporting, Butrymowicz added, including local investigations looking at whether the more STEM-oriented CTE classes are not offered in schools with students of color, or whether they are and those students are either self-selecting out or being steered away from them. “Those are both interesting questions to explore,” she said. 

In postsecondary education, inequity in CTE is also widespread. Most, although not all, higher education CTE courses are taught in community and technical colleges, and 65%t of students in credit-bearing courses at such colleges were enrolled in some type of CTE field program in 2015-16.

Research of CTE in higher education has found that, although white students are the plurality in all sectors, they are most represented in trades – manufacturing, construction, repair and transportation and  least represented in consumer services. The trades, along with engineering and architecture, lead to some of the most high-salaried jobs while consumer services are the least well compensated.

Average earnings in 2017 for CTE students who started in consumer services in the 2011–12 academic year were only 60% of the average earnings of those students who started in trade.

CTE is also unbalanced by gender. According to the latest data collected for secondary schools  under Perkins V, in  2019-2020, 76% of CTE concentrators in health science were female, compared with 24% in STEM. 

There are numerous reasons that those from underrepresented groups, including people with disabilities, may not participate in CTE at all or may not choose non-traditional fields.  That includes obvious barriers, such as harassment and discrimination, and less obvious, but equally pernicious ones, such as lack of access or inclusivity.

Recruitment and Retention Efforts: From HBCUs to Women-Focused Programs

As those in higher education grapple with a large decline in enrollment over the pandemic years, they are also looking for new approaches to attract students. Community colleges have been particularly hard hit, losing about 827,000 students compared with pre-pandemic – that accounts for nearly half of the total drop in enrollment in higher education.

There are numerous ways, both large and small, that different stakeholders in CTE are addressing this inequity. These include changes in marketing and recruitment, such as ensuring that material reflects a diversity of individuals and languages. Students of color, women or other marginalized groups sometimes feel they don’t “belong” in a certain program or field – maybe because they don’t see anyone who looks like them. One way to respond to that, colleges are finding, is by connecting prospective students with a current student or recent graduate with a similar background.

The pandemic also spurred more hybrid learning in general education and CTE. This mixture of in-person and online classes offers more flexibility and accessibility, something that is particularly important to non-traditional students who are often juggling jobs and family obligations in addition to taking classes.

Once in the programs, some education institutions are arranging for specialized support either within the college or from community partners for Blacks, Latinos and women who are in fields that don’t typically attract such students.

More companies are working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), especially two-year ones, to train their students in tech jobs. For example, Tennessee State University and Apple’s Community Education Initiative have teamed with a dozen HBCUs to create communities of coding, although little has been written on how the initiative is progressing.

On a smaller scale is an initiative by a West Virginia nonprofit Step Up for Women, which offers a 12-week construction training program just for women It partners with local community colleges and unions; students graduate with industry-recognized credentials.

The construction program is typical of a fast-growing type of CTE: a shorter-term program that may offer no credit but allows people to reskill or upskill and earn credentials. Many of the biggest companies around, Amazon and Intel are becoming increasingly active players in this field. One of the biggest challenges for states, educators and students is to determine if a certificate program not only teaches the needed skills, but also if it will lead to a fair-paying job in the area, with, hopefully, some sort of career advancement.

What to Know About Credentials

Almost 1 million unique credentials – an umbrella term that includes a variety of micro-credentials, often defined as any credential shorter than a two-year degree – are now offered nationwide, but there is little standardization or transparency.

“They are fragmenting an already fragmented space,” said Christine Y. Cruzvergara, chief education strategist at Handshake, a company that connects students and employers.

The nonprofit, Credential Engine has taken the lead nationally in working with states, industry, educators and nonprofits to create a centralized registry of credential information, a common credentialing language and a credential search engine. While a great deal of progress has been made, there is still much to do. This sheet, “Microcredential 101,” posted by writer and strategist Shalin Jyotishi – who spoke at the 2022 EWA National Seminar – is very helpful.

While microcredentials are confusing, they are becoming increasingly important.

“We find that 50% of the adult learners who are thinking about wanting to return or get some additional education, want to do so in a non-degree fashion because they’re busy, because of the cost, because it’s flexible,” Cruzvergara said. “How do we come together with employers,  education and support agencies to build these credentials that are going to help people stay in their communities, raise their families and continue to advance in their careers?”

Addressing Teacher Shortages in CTE

Another major challenge CTE is facing today is finding enough qualified teachers both at the K-12 and postsecondary level. According to one survey, 86% of state directors say they have a moderate-to-severe teacher shortage in at least one CTE career cluster in secondary school; 60% say the same is true in higher education.

“This is not born out of the pandemic,” said Zach Curtis, manager of government relations for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “This problem pre-dates the pandemic, and it’s getting a lot worse.”

The reasons include competing with industries to pay qualified instructors enough to consider moving to teaching and the closure of a number of universities’ CTE teacher-preparation programs. Rural districts, in particular, struggle to attract and retain CTE teachers.

Inside Higher Education described just one example of the impact of lack of CTE teachers: a new automotive technology program at an Arizona  community college had to be canceled after  because the school couldn’t find a full-staff faculty member to run it..

States are attacking this problem in a number of ways: According to an analysis of state plans under Perkins, 27% of states are developing explicit CTE instructor recruitment plans, and at least seven are addressing the barriers to licensing and/or developing new pathways to licensing.

A New York City program, Success via Apprenticeship, is one model, which combines paid teacher internships, industry work experience and academic study over five years.

“While we applaud the state efforts, there’s also a lot the federal government can do,” Curtis said. One such effort, which would benefit all teachers working in high-needs areas, is the Raise Act of 2022. It has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. It would provide a refundable tax credit of $1,000 or up to $15,000 to boost educators’ salaries, reduce the teacher wage gap and improve education for all students, especially those in high-poverty areas.

Questions to Ask About CTE and Higher Education

To those unfamiliar with it, CTE may seem like a small segment of the education world, yet it is right in the center of many of the complicated questions and problems facing society today. 

  • What can move the needle on bridging the educational achievement gap? 
  • What is the purpose and importance of higher education? 
  • How can those who don’t have the means or interest in pursuing four-year degrees find meaningful and well-paying work? 
  • Where will industry find the semi-skilled and skilled employees some of them so desperately need?
  • What research is available about CTE? Check out the CTE Research Network, for example.