College & Workforce Readiness

Stigma Hobbles Career and Technical Education

By Catherine Gewertz — May 11, 2017 4 min read
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Students in career and technical education are happier with their high school experience, and more likely to finish high school, than students who don’t take CTE classes. But the career-oriented approach to learning hasn’t managed to shake the old stigma that it’s a pathway to blue-collar work for students who aren’t college material.

That image problem could be one reason that enrollment in career-tech-ed hasn’t soared, even as policymakers increasingly laud it as a promising route to college, and to good jobs in expanding industries. It’s especially relevant, too, since Congress is discussing reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

I saw evidence of this stigma as I traveled to several states recently for a series of stories about career and technical education. A teacher in the advanced-manufacturing cluster at a school in Tennessee told me that parents are wary of sending their children into programs they see as funneling them into “dirty hands” factory jobs. (EdWeek’s story about Tennessee’s work to ensure high-quality CTE programs is on our website. Other stories are soon to follow.)

A recent survey that explores students’ and parents’ perspectives on CTE has plenty of encouraging statistics, including the big one that’s been floating around out there for some time: students in career-tech-ed programs have a high school graduation rate of 93 percent. The graduation rate for non-CTE students is 82 percent.

“Yet despite the many benefits of CTE ... there are still challenges with limited awareness and outdated perceptions,” says the report by Advance CTE, which represents the leaders of state CTE programs. “Enrollment in CTE programs has remained stagnant over the last decade while demand soars for skilled employees in today’s global economy. If we are to prepare all learners for success in the careers of their choice, more parents and students need to understand all that CTE has to offer them.”

Advance CTE undertook the study as part of its effort to identify the advantages of career-and-tech-ed programs and convey them to the public. The organization conducted focus groups and a telephone survey with students who are in career-tech-ed programs and their parents, and with students who are not participating in CTE, but are interested, based on a brief description read to them. The parents of those prospective students were also interviewed for the study.

Students in career-tech-ed programs, and their parents, report far greater happiness with the school experience than do those who don’t participate (but are interested). Below is a chart outlining the groups’ experiences. Especially notable is the “very satisfied” category: CTE families far outstrip non-CTE families in their reviews of school.

Digging into the views of only the students, the case for career-tech-ed gets even more compelling.

Some of the things researchers asked students about were bound to come out rosier for CTE, since those things are more likely to be baked into CTE programs. The opportunities to learn real-world skills and to get jobs or internships, for instance, by definition tend to be more central to CTE programs than to a “regular” high school curriculum.

But aspects of high school that would theoretically be present in both CTE and non-CTE programs—the potential to earn dual credit, for instance—still got higher marks from career-tech-ed students, suggesting that they have an overall better experience in high school. Career-tech-ed students gave their classes and teachers higher marks.

One of the few areas where CTE programs got lower marks than regular high school programs was in the ability to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Despite the differences in the school experience, however, students and parents from CTE and non-CTE groups had similar priorities for school. Finding a career that students are passionate about topped the list, with 92 percent to 94 percent of parents and students in the survey agreeing that this important. Getting a college degree came in a little farther down the list, but with similar levels of importance across all the groups in the study: 84 percent to 88 percent said that was an important goal.

The chance to earn “real-world skills” was important to students and parents in all groups in the survey, too, and held constant across races and ethnic groups, and family income levels, Advance CTE said in the report. Eighty-nine to 90 percent of current CTE parents and prospective CTE parents rated the chance to get real-world skills as important. Eighty-four to 85 percent of current and prospective CTE students said the same.

Many parents still aren’t that familiar with career and technical education, however. The study found that only 47 percent said they’d heard the term “career and technical education,” while 68 percent had heard the term “vocational education,” a term that carries decades-old connotations, many of them negative. Many couldn’t explain basic information about CTE programs, such as when classes were offered or whether they were free of charge to students.

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