Career Education's Incomplete Transformation

Although career and technical education has made gains in graduation rates and academic outcomes, a report warns about continuing struggles of traditional vocational students.

May 1, 2019
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Betsy DeVos has spent much of her tenure as education secretary pushing alternatives to the traditional college experience. The nation should do much more, she has said, to expose students to occupational skills training that has long been stigmatized in favor of a four-year degree.

Career and technical education, which was once known as vocational training, has shed some of that stigma thanks in part to growth of new fields in communications, health care and engineering. CTE programs also have created clearer connections between skills training and continued postsecondary education. And supporters have pointed to both improving test scores and graduation rates among CTE students in high schools.

But a report from the American Enterprise Institute released today finds that those signs of progress can mask continuing struggles of students who are enrolled in more traditional career and technical education courses. That’s because overall academic gains for CTE programs may reflect higher enrollment of more academically prepared, college-bound students rather than improving quality of courses themselves.

The findings are a warning to state and federal policy makers that career and technical education must strike a better balance between serving the students who plan to continue with their postsecondary education after high school and those who likely won’t receive training opportunities beyond CTE programs.

Nat Malkus, the report’s author and the deputy director of education policy at AEI, said the increasing enrollment of academically higher-achieving students may be papering over challenges for traditional vocational students.

“We need to look under the surface to make sure we’re not missing problems that need to be solved,” he said.

Malkus analyzed 30 years of data on CTE course enrollment in high schools from the National Center for Education Statistics, beginning in 1982.

Vocational programs were once -- and, in many cases, still are -- derided for “tracking” disadvantaged students into inferior academic programs. A rebranding of career training began with the 1990 reauthorization of the Perkins Career and Technical Education law. That reauthorization and subsequent updates to Perkins put more emphasis on accountability and pathways to continuing postsecondary education.

In 2018, President Trump signed an update to the Perkins law that gave states more authority to shape career education programs and required more cooperation with needs of local industry. DeVos said Congress had expanded educational opportunities and given “local communities greater flexibility in how best to prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

The changing enrollment in CTE courses reflects both changes in industry and technology, the report finds. For example, credits awarded in business, the top category for career and technical education, declined by 75 percent between 1982 and 2013. That’s in part because the personal computing revolution made typing courses obsolete. But credits taken in six other traditional vocational CTE areas declined by a third over the same period. Meanwhile, course credits attempted in “new-era” career and technical subjects like engineering, computer science, communications, health care and hospitality grew by 238 percent.

The trends are even more clear when examining CTE concentrators, or students who complete three or more courses in one occupational area. By 2009, the share of career and technical graduates with a concentration in new-era occupational courses had surpassed the share of traditional vocational and business concentrations.

Those concentrators report a sense of belonging in school relative to other high school students, whereas vocational concentrators reported a lower sense of belonging on campus. The same pattern is true of test scores, where new-era concentrators post higher results and college attendance than other CTE students.

Although there was less gender imbalance than in traditional vocational programs, the report found imbalances persisted in the new CTE concentrations. Female students were more likely to pursue communications, hospitality or health care credits, for example. Male students were more likely to focus on computer science and engineering concentrations, which tend to lead to higher-paying jobs. Other recent research has found significant pay disparities by gender and occupation for holders of nondegree career education credentials.

While career and technical education programs have expanded their focus and enrolled many new students, Malkus finds that those who pursue concentrations in traditional vocational programs still fare poorly in other academic programs and are unlikely to pursue postsecondary education.

State policy makers are in the process of producing CTE plans in accordance with the Perkins law President Trump signed last year. Malkus said states should maintain a balanced approach that accounts for the needs of students who aren’t likely to go on to postsecondary education.

“Creating CTE for kids to go into careers straight out of high school is the hardest work. Those programs are the hardest to set up, because those are difficult kids to educate academically or otherwise,” he said. “The problem is, if we don’t have those kinds of programs in CTE, we don’t leave them with much else.”

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