College & Workforce Readiness

Study Finds Little Tracking, Big Graduation Boost, in Career-Tech Focus

By Catherine Gewertz — April 07, 2016 5 min read
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A new study of career and technical education has concluded that disadvantaged students are not “tracked” in large numbers into those programs, and that taking three or more related courses in one career area significantly boosts students’ chances of graduating from high school on time.

The report, published Thursday 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.

It also found no evidence of disproportionate participation in career-tech-ed programs by disadvantaged students, except among students who went into career-tech-ed most deeply. Low-income students, students with disabilities, and low and middle achievers, were “slightly” overrepresented in the group of students who took seven or more CTE courses, the study found.

That finding contradicts 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 who are 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’s graduate school of education, wrote 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,” Dougherty writes in the report. “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 disproportionate impact of tracking on disadvantaged students.

Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy and practice for Education Trust, which published a study earlier this week showing that only 8 percent of students complete a course sequence that prepares them well for both college and jobs, welcomed the Fordham’s study on “coherent rather than haphazard” career study.

The EdTrust study is a reminder that completing a coherent career-ready course sequence isn’t sufficient. 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 in an email. Good-quality career-tech studies need to 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.”

Arkansas as a CTE Model

Dougherty examined career and technical education in Arkansas, which has made it a top priority in order to expand the supply of workers for middle-skill jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. The state also requires students, starting with the graduating class of 2014, 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 counselor.

The study used Arkansas data to follow about 104,000 students from three cohorts of students: those 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, and how much they earned.

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 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 non-concentrators 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. Girls were 19 percentage points more likely to graduate on time than girls who didn’t take three related career courses.

Similar differentials were found by family income. Low-income students who do the three-course career concentration were 25 percentage points more likely to graduate on time than low-income peers who don’t. Among higher income students, the graduation rate difference between concentrators and non-concentrators was 17 points.

There is 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 in the group of students who took seven or more CTE courses. Low and middle achievers, defined by 8th grade math or English/language arts scores, also were “slightly” overrepresented among the students who took seven CTE courses.

A career concentration boosts job and college-enrollment prospects, but modestly. Students who concentrated in career and tech ed were slightly more likely to get a job the first year after high school than their non-concentrating peers, the study found. Their average quarterly wages were $45 higher than 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 boosted 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 that the potential benefits of a CTE concentration are immense. Even without expensive interventions such as intensive counseling or career placement, schools could see big gains in graduation rates if they simply encourage students to take a set of three or more related courses instead of “random CTE classes,” she said.

Even the smaller gains in the study are encouraging, she said, since so little effort is required to produce them.

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 news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.