Are Today’s CTE Programs Failing to Meet the Challenge of Vocational Education?

Are Today’s CTE Programs Failing to Meet the Challenge of Vocational Education?
AP Photo/Ben Margot

Nearly a year after Congress reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, states are in the thick of developing the career technical education (CTE) plans the law requires, and by most accounts, the future looks bright. Indeed, high school CTE programs appear to have turned the corner on “vocational education’s” stubborn stigma from previous decades. Durable stereotypes of “voc. ed.” as a means of tracking or dumping students, or an academic dead-end, are increasingly challenged by a raft of studies that have provided convincing evidence that CTE programs can cause improved student outcomes. In addition, today’s CTE concentrators (students who took three or more courses in a CTE subject) boast solid outcomes more broadly— with advocates trumpeting their increased graduation rates, improved academic motivation, and comparable earnings advantage.

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So, can we conclude America’s current CTE offerings have solved the stubborn challenges of vocational education? Maybe not. A detailed look at historical trends of CTE course taking and the composition of CTE course takers between 1982 and 2013 raises serious questions about whether the transformation from vocational to career and technical education may have hidden, rather than solved, the core challenges in vocational education.

What CTE courses are students taking?

Over these three decades, overall CTE course taking declined by more than 25 percent. Breaking out CTE credits by the occupational concentrations (see figure below) illustrates how much business courses, which fell by 75 percent, are responsible for overall losses. A marked drop in typing and word processing classes since the 1980’s, skills now more or less integrated across the high school curriculum, drove the decline of business courses, without which there would be no substantive decline in CTE courses overall.

The Evolution of Career and Technical Education, 1982–2013, American Enterprise Institute.

While a typing-driven business decline isn’t cause for concern, the collective shifts in other occupational areas may be. The six areas just below business (shown in green) were stable or slightly declining over this period. Taken together, course taking in these Traditional Vocational occupational areas—like construction and agriculture—declined by a third. In contrast, the next five areas—which I refer to collectively as New Era CTE courses—increased 238 percent. The contrasting course taking patterns in these two groups are just the first in a number of distinctions that shed light on how CTE courses and the students taking them have changed.

Divide between “Traditional” and “New Era” Concentrators

On their own, these contrasting trends over time might just be chalked up to efforts to shape coursework in response to the modern economy. But a closer look at the composition of Traditional Vocational and New Era concentrators—and the distinction between them—raises more concern.

Academic achievement differs across concentration areas. In every year measured, between 1982 and 2013, concentrators’ math test scores were below the 50th percentile, as the overall average score, but over time, their scores rose from the 42nd to the 46th percentile. This seemingly small shift cut the CTE achievement gap in half in three decades.

But that overall shift doesn’t tell the full story. Traditional Vocational concentrators’ average test scores were flat over these three decades, at about the 38th percentile.  In contrast, New Era CTE concentrators scored measurably higher than Traditional Vocational concentrators. Further, as they increased from nine to 48 percent of all concentrators, their higher scores had a stronger effect on the overall CTE average. Perhaps the most important distinction for New Era concentrators is one that isn’t there: their scores were indistinguishable from all high school students from 2000 forward.

Nailing down the drivers of the overall increase in CTE concentrators’ scores are difficult to communicate in a single measure, but the broad pattern is clear: Traditional Vocational concentrators have been stable in terms of both their proportional size and their steadily low scores, while the growing size and scores of New Era concentrators appear to be driving CTE gains.

These stark contrasts suggest not only that CTE is bifurcated, but also that the growing share of New Era concentrators are defining CTE concentrators’ average characteristics more than ever before.

Does this distinction withstand scrutiny across a broader range of measures? The most recent data from the 2013 High School Longitudinal Study (HSLS) contain a wealth of additional information beyond transcripts and test scores. From school engagement, to the importance of work, to when students passed Algebra I, to college-going, data show that, yes, the divide between Traditional Vocational and New Era concentrators extends from well before high school graduation (in 2013), when graduates were in 9th grade, throughout high school, as well as after graduation. Across a wide range of measures, Traditional Vocational concentrators look less academically inclined than average, but as was the case with test scores, New Era CTE concentrators were indistinguishable from the average high school graduates.  

Making Sense of CTE Trends

What should we make of Traditional Vocational course takers’ scores being flat over time, or their differences from New Era CTE course takers? These data cannot speak to whether CTE programs are improving, but they should make us wary of a mirage of progress.

As a whole, the data suggest CTE concentrators’ overarching statistical progress is likely to be more compositional than instrumental. That is, CTE concentrators’ average test scores, graduation rates, and other indicators may be rising primarily through the addition of more academically oriented and otherwise college-going students to the CTE tent, rather than from broad improvements in CTE programs (the bulk of which are still provided through comprehensive high schools). Observed improved outcomes across all CTE concentrators over time, married with more narrow and causal findings of concrete benefits for specific programs, seems to warrant a conclusion that CTE programs are improving. That conclusion is probably wrong, and could keep CTE trending in the wrong direction.

For CTE to be successful, leaders—especially those currently developing state plans—must ask themselves more than simply whether CTE programs are producing adequate outcomes, but whether CTE targets the students who need them the most. Building functional programs that put students into viable jobs without additional postsecondary education is an essential, albeit difficult goal. They will require substantial investment and coherence if they are to benefit the students who need them immediately. This was always the challenge of vocational education, and it remains the challenge for its successor, CTE, as long as there is a large population of academically disinclined students. For them, CTE may be the last best chance for them to find a viable career path, and CTE systems will ultimately be a failure if they cannot deliver opportunity specifically to these students.

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