The report, published April 7 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that students who “concentrated"—took three related courses focused on one industry—were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school in four years than their peers who did not, and were just as likely to go to a four-year college.
The study found no evidence of disproportionate participation in career-tech-ed programs by disadvantaged students, except among the students who dove into such education most deeply. Low-income students, students with disabilities, and low and middle achievers were “slightly” overrepresented among students who took seven or more CTE courses, the study found.
The findings contradict many years of experience in education. Policymakers grew increasingly uneasy about “vocational education” because it was often used as a dead-end pathway for students perceived to have little chance of succeeding in college.
But the Fordham study’s author, Shaun M. Dougherty, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Connecticut, writes that the playing field seems to have changed.
“The evidence does not indicate that low-achieving students are being tracked into comparatively large numbers of CTE classes, and high-achieving students away from them,” the report says. “Instead, it suggests that CTE is considered a desirable elective for the majority of students, and middle and high achievers are not shying away from it.”
The Fordham study sparked cautionary notes from activists who have studied the impact of tracking on disadvantaged students.
Looking Beyond a Career Focus
Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy and practice for The Education Trust, welcomed the study’s emphasis on “coherent rather than haphazard” career study. In a report last week, EdTrust found that only 8 percent of students complete a course sequence that prepares them well for both college and jobs.
The Education Trust study is a reminder that completing a coherent career-ready course sequence isn’t sufficient, Santelises said in an email. Many students who do so hope to earn a bachelor’s or graduate degree, but can’t because they didn’t also complete a full set of college-ready courses, she said. Good-quality career-tech studies must prepare teenagers for both work and college, she said.
“High school should be about preparing young people for whatever future they choose for themselves,” Santelises said. “Right now, far too many graduates, especially those from low-[socioeconomic] backgrounds, have a diploma but no clear path forward.”
Dougherty examined career and technical education in Arkansas, which has prioritized it in order to expand the supply of workers for middle-skill jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. Starting with the graduating class of 2014, the state also requires students to take six classes with a “career focus.” What kinds of courses and how they’re related are up to students to decide with their teachers and counselors.
The study used Arkansas data to follow about 104,000 students from three cohorts: students who started 9th grade in 2008, 2009, and 2010. It followed them through high school and the first year afterward, examining what courses they took, whether they graduated, whether they enrolled in a two- or four-year college, or, if they got a job, how much they earned.
Power of Concentration
Dougherty separated the students into groups to study the effect of concentrating more or less deeply in career-related study. About 30 percent of the students are categorized as “concentrators” because they took three or more related courses: Thirty-nine percent of the students took three to six courses, and 31 percent took seven or more.
The author found that the biggest impact of a CTE concentration is on high school graduation rates. Students who took three or more courses were 21 percentage points more likely than nonconcentrators to graduate in four years.
Boys saw a particular benefit: Male students who took a three-course concentration were 23 percentage points more likely to graduate on time than boys who didn’t. For girls, the on-time graduation-rate differential was 19 percentage points.
Similar differentials were found by family income. Low-income students who did the three-course career concentration were 25 percentage points more likely to graduate on time than low-income peers who didn’t. Among higher-income students, the graduation-rate difference between concentrators and nonconcentrators was 17 points.
The study found limited and scant evidence of tracking. White students and female students were the ones who took the three-course career concentration most often. Low-income students and students with disabilities did not choose a CTE concentration any more often than other students, but were “slightly” overrepresented among students who took seven or more CTE courses.
Low and middle achievers, defined by their 8th grade math or English/language arts scores, also were “slightly” overrepresented among students who took seven CTE courses.
Dougherty also found that a career concentration boosts job and college-enrollment prospects, but modestly.
Students who concentrated in career and technical education were slightly more likely to get a job the first year after high school than their nonconcentrating peers, the study found. Their average quarterly wages were $45 higher than those of peers who didn’t take a three-course cluster.
The wage benefit was bigger for boys: They earned $89 per quarter more if they did a CTE concentration than their peers who didn’t.
A CTE concentration increased a student’s chances of enrolling in a two-year college by 1.3 percentage points.
Dara Zeehandelaar, Fordham’s research director, said the study suggests big potential benefits of a CTE concentration. Even without expensive interventions such as intensive counseling or career placement, schools could see a big gain in graduation rates if they simply encouraged students to take a set of three or more related courses instead of “random CTE classes,” she said.
Some educators have expressed concern that encouraging students to focus deeply in one area too early in their schooling can rob them of the chance to explore.
But Zeehandelaar said Arkansas has set up its requirements in a way that allows teenagers to do both.
By requiring six career-related courses, she said, the state makes room for the concentration that yields the benefits in the study, and also three courses in other fields for exploration.
A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Study: Tracking Not an Issue for Career-Tech-Education