Parents’ attitudes toward career and technical education are more likely to be swayed when it’s framed through a workforce development lens, or something that will prepare students for in-demand jobs after high school, concludes a recent study.
The study, published in the Education Policy Analysis Archives journal in September, examines how the ways in which policymakers talk about CTE might impact parents’ support for CTE-related programs and policies.
Interest in CTE has grown over the past decade. States have committed to expanding their CTE programs and making them more rigorous. CTE programs are becoming more focused on STEM skills, and a growing body of research shows that high-quality programs can lead to positive outcomes for students, especially in terms of their early- to mid-career earnings.
While there’s been significant policy and programmatic movement around CTE across the country, “I didn’t understand a lot about whether there was a change in perceptions about career-technical education, too,” said Walt Ecton, the author of the study and an assistant professor of education policy at Florida State University.
“You still hear people talk about CTE today in some of the same ways that you might have heard people talk about vocational education back in the ‘80s or ‘90s,” Ecton said. In the past, CTE was thought of as a “dumping ground” for students who don’t have the academic skills or financial resources to attend college. “So I really wanted to understand: What are parents thinking about this? What are the different things they’re grappling with as they’re making decisions about how supportive they are of CTE in classrooms?”
To answer his questions, Ecton drew upon historical and contemporary arguments for and against CTE to categorize the ways CTE is talked about in public debates. Then he conducted a survey experiment, with five different groups—one for each argument—and a control group, to see if any of the categories would significantly affect parents’ attitudes toward CTE-related policies. The control group received an objective description of CTE that says these classes are designed to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and training needed for specific career paths.
The five categories are:
- Individualism: The argument that CTE can provide individual students with greater choice because they can take courses that meet their unique needs, interests, and goals after high school.
- Inequality: The argument that CTE can create inequality because students may be tracked into different educational paths that set them up for different types of experiences after high school.
- Workforce alignment: The argument that CTE can prepare students to get jobs after high school and can train them to enter in-demand careers.
- Narrow preparation: The argument that CTE teaches a narrow set of technical skills that may become irrelevant as the economy and technology changes.
- College access: The argument that CTE can take the place of some college-prep and academic classes and may make students less likely to attend college.
When asked how significant of a role CTE should play in high school education, Ecton found high levels of support from parents, regardless of how CTE was framed. The average rating was between “moderately significant” and “very significant.”
Ecton also didn’t find significant differences between the groups when they were asked what percentage of hours students should spend in CTE. On average, the survey respondents said about a third of all school hours should be spent on CTE courses.
The only policy question that showed significant differences between a treatment group and the control group was when participants were asked about their willingness to pay taxes for CTE. Respondents assigned to the “workforce alignment” group were willing to pay $16.40 more than the control group, with all other treatment groups essentially the same as the control group.
“So when you think about CTE as something where we have a need for certain jobs in our local area, and we need more people to be trained to fill those jobs, that seems to be a more powerful way of framing CTE,” Ecton said.
Alisha Hyslop, the chief policy, research, and content officer for the Association for Career and Technical Education, agreed that “the notion of CTE’s role in workforce development and economic development is a very powerful message.”
But she said that, for the most part, educators and policymakers talk about CTE in a broader sense than the categories Ecton provided. For instance, the “college access” framework that says CTE may make students less likely to attend college is “not how programs work today,” Hyslop said. CTE students are just as likely to go to college as other students.
With the “workforce alignment” framework, there’s more nuance to that messaging, Hyslop said. “CTE is not about getting a job right after high school. In most cases, the vast majority of high-quality jobs require additional education after high school,” she said. “So we would probably tweak that message to talk about how CTE could give students a jumpstart on their career.”
Other research has found that parents and students value learning real-world skills, getting hands-on experiences, exploring careers, and earning dual-enrollment credits or industry certifications, and those are the attributes that educators talk up when they advertise their CTE programs to parents and students, Hyslop said.
No matter the messaging, “parents are excited about the idea of learning that’s relevant to their students, [of learning] that sets their students up for something specific after school,” Ecton said.
“A better understanding of parents’ attitudes about CTE will help policymakers to offer CTE programming that is more responsive to parents’ goals for their children’s education,” he concluded.