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Study: Big Benefits to Career and Technical Education

When students feel engaged and connected to their schoolwork, it’s no surprise that they tend to have better academic outcomes. But a new study of career and technical education programs suggests the benefits can extend well beyond high school graduation.

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University of Connecticut researcher Shaun M. Dougherty looked at 100,000 students who entered the ninth grade in Arkansas between 2008 and 2010. His report, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, compared their academic records through high school, and then tracked them for an additional year beyond graduation.

Among the findings: “Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages.” Dougherty also concluded that CTE didn’t preclude or discourage students from continuing their educations after high school.

Nearly 90 percent of Arkansas teens have exposure to at least one CTE class during high school, thanks to a statewide push to improve its future workforce. But there’s a disconnect between the CTE classes many students are taking and the high-need  – and often high-paying — skilled worker vacancies that the state needs to fill. From Lauren Camera’s reporting for U.S. News & World Report:

Notably, many of those jobs openings, both in Arkansas and nationwide, have been in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields. But the report found that STEM career and technical education was among the least popular concentrations for students in Arkansas – though STEM courses were more popular in city schools than elsewhere.

As Dougherty concludes in the report, “concentrating in STEM is not appealing, not useful, or not possible due to limited course offerings and high academic barriers to entry.”

There were some other interesting findings in the report: White female students were more likely than their male peers to “concentrate”  – meaning they took at least three higher-level courses in a particular field of study. That’s worth noting because of this finding in the report: “Male and low-income students see the largest benefits to concentrating.” That could suggest some of the students who most needed advanced CTE classes to spur their academic trajectories weren’t necessarily enrolling in them.

CTE is enjoying something of a resurgence these days, thanks to a renewed focus on the nation’s high schools. But there are also legitimate concerns about substandard vocational education programs that tend to skew heavily toward students of color from low-income families — kids whose academic options and opportunities are already far too limited.

But unlike traditional vocational education classes where students break off from their peers on the college track, CTE puts equal emphasis on academics and career training. Research indicates that students in CTE programs are more likely to graduate and continue their education beyond high school than their peers in traditional academic settings.

So why don’t more schools embrace CTE? There some common hurdles:  cash-strapped school districts have been cutting the programs, which can be expensive to run, and there’s sometimes a lack of support among policymakers who don’t view CTE as an evolved instructional model.

“Due to many decades of neglect and stigma against old-school “vo-tech,” high-quality CTE is not a meaningful part of the high school experience of millions of American students,” writes Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli in a blog post about the Arkansas study. “It’s time to change that.”

At EWA’s National Seminar last spring, we looked at CTE in a global context. (You can watch video highlights of that session.) Among the experts’ recommendations: the United States should be looking to countries like Singapore and Switzerland for inspiration in how to craft career training programs that contribute to low unemployment rates among young people.

Marc Tucker, the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, told the EWA audience that part of the problem in the U.S. is a disconnect between students’ basic academic skill levels after high school and the expectations of vocational programs, the bulk of which take place in community colleges. Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press covered the session:

Tucker said his organization has analyzed community college textbooks and found they’re written at a 12th grade level in literacy “which is one year below where they should be.”

“The kids can’t read them,” he said. “The teachers in the community colleges in our study told us they had to make PowerPoint summaries of the main points and use high school level textbooks because the kids could not comprehend them.”

Reading experts gave them a sobering explanation: The average high school student graduates with a 7th or 8th grade reading level.

A key component to the success of CTE programs is that students can find connections between their academic coursework and their career goals. And making high school a more relevant, and engaging, experience for students is a key element of a new White House initiative. We’ll be talking about this push at next month’s National Seminar – stay tuned to the Educated Reporter for the highlights.