College & Workforce Readiness

Career-Tech-Ed Students: As Conscientious and Hardworking as Their Peers

By Catherine Gewertz — April 17, 2018 2 min read
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Students who take a lot of career-and-technical-education classes in high school are hard workers who are less likely than their peers to skip class, a new study shows.

Issued Tuesday by the American Enterprise Institute, the paper takes on the stigma of career-tech-ed students as “unmotivated, uninterested in academics, and unfocused.”

The AEI paper assembles data that show that students who take a lot of career-tech-ed courses work harder in some ways than students who take few or none, and have stronger “noncognitive” skills—sometimes called “soft skills"—as well.

To gather their information, co-authors Albert Cheng and Collin Hitt used survey responses from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a federal database that tracked 15,000 10th grade students from 2002 to 2012. Surveys probed students’ habits and self-concepts, and asked teachers to describe student behaviors such as being attentive and completing homework.

Cheng and Hitt compared responses for students in traditional comprehensive high schools who took—or didn’t take—CTE courses, and students who were enrolled in full-time vocational-technical high schools.

They found all groups equally attentive in class, and equally likely to finish their homework. There was little difference in their willingness to work hard to earn good grades, although students who took the heaviest CTE loads—eight classes or more by the time they were in 12th grade—were a little less likely to show that kind of hard work.

But students who take five or more CTE classes are much less likely to skip class. And they put more effort into routine tasks, like taking a long survey, than peers who took little or no CTE.

The AEI team also found some justification for the “nonacademic” stigma about CTE students. As other researchers have noted, students who take a lot of career-tech-ed classes typically score lower on standardized tests in math and English. They tend to see themselves as less capable, and report lower levels of motivation in those subjects.

But students who take a lot of CTE courses in traditional comprehensive high schools are more likely to graduate from high school than students who take few or no such classes. They also earn more by their mid 20s than their non-CTE peers. Students who take a lot of CTE courses in a full-time vocational-school setting are more likely to be working full time (and thus earning more) by young adulthood than peers at traditional high schools.

“In sum, CTE course takers have on average higher noncognitive skills, compared to otherwise-similar students,” the paper says. “This conclusion belies the image of these students as unmotivated and unfocused, and it belies the stereotype that CTE programs recruit substandard students. To assess the true value of CTE programs, one should look beyond their participants’ test scores.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.