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Institute of Education Sciences

Partnering with Researchers Can Help State Leaders Build the Case for CTE

In Massachusetts, Career/Vocational Technical Education Schools (CVTE) are renowned for offering rigorous, high-quality programs of study across a variety of disciplines. While CVTE graduates have always experienced high rates of success academically and in their careers, state leaders in Massachusetts wanted to know whether these outcomes directly result from the CVTE model. In 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education partnered with Shaun Dougherty (at the time, a researcher at the University of Connecticut), and learned that CVTE students are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and earn an industry-recognized credential than similar students who were not admitted.

Demand for rigorous research on Career Technical Education (CTE) has increased as more policymakers ask questions about the impact on college and career readiness. State CTE Directors may be interested in similar questions as researchers (such as “Does CTE improve educational and career outcomes? Do different programs help different students? What types of programs offer students the highest economic returns?”) but may not think to seek out and collaborate with them or know how to prioritize among the many research requests they receive.

This blog series, a partnership between Advance CTE and the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) seeks to break down the barriers between State CTE Directors and researchers to encourage partnerships that can benefit both.

What Can Research with State Data Tell Us?

Research can be a powerful tool to help State CTE Directors understand what’s working, what isn’t working, and what needs to change. The findings described below provide examples of how strong partnerships between researchers and state policymakers can result in actionable research (click on state name for link to full article).

  • In Arkansas, students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages. The study, which was rigorous but not causal, also found that students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers, and that CTE provides the greatest boost to boys and students from low-income families.
  • Boys who attended CTE high schools in Connecticut experienced higher graduation rates and post-graduation earnings than similar students who did not attend CTE high schools. Further follow-ups using both postsecondary and labor data could provide information about college completion and employment and earnings for different occupational sectors.
  • CTE concentrators in Texas had greater enrollment and persistence in college than their peers. Although rates of CTE concentration decreased, student participation in at least some CTE programming, as well as number of CTE credits earned, increased between the 2008 and 2014 cohorts. Unsurprisingly, the study also found differences by CTE programs of study. Education & Training; Finance; Health Science; and Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) were most strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment, particularly in baccalaureate programs.

How Can States Use CTE Research to Improve Policy and Practice?

Here are a few things states can do today to start building a CTE research base:

  • Create a codebook of CTE variables in your state’s data system: Include K-12, postsecondary, and labor force variables if you have them. Define the variables clearly – what do they measure, at what level (student, program, district), and for how many years did you collect these variables? Are the measures comparable across years and across datasets?
  • Maximize opportunities to collect longitudinal data: longitudinal databases that span education levels and connect to workforce outcomes permit researchers to conduct rigorous studies on long-term outcomes.
  • Identify universities in your state with strong education, economics, or public policy departments:  Make a list of questions that policymakers in your state most wanted answered, and then approach universities with these proactively. Reach out to the chair(s) of these departments to connect with faculty who may be interested in partnering on answering the questions. Universities can often apply for a research grant that will cover part or all of the funding for state personnel to work on the research project. IES, which provides funding of this nature, opens its next grant competition in summer 2020.
  • Reach out to your Regional Educational Lab (REL) or the REL Career Readiness Research Alliance to inquire about partnering on CTE research: The mission of these IES-funded labs is to provide research and evidence to help educators in the states in their region. For example, REL Central is currently working with four states to replicate the Arkansas study described above (see “Review of Career and Technical Education in Four States”).
  • Stay up to date on the latest research findings in CTE: New research is regularly posted on the CTE Research Network and other websites. This can help you get ideas for what types of research you would like to conduct in your state. Another good source of inspiration is the recommendations of the CTE technical workgroup, which was convened by IES in late 2017 to guide future CTE research directions.
  • Become familiar with how researchers approach CTE research: Learn about why it’s so challenging to understand its impact. The CTE Research Network will hold research trainings for different audiences—including state agency staff— beginning in the summer of 2020. Stay tuned!

Over the next several months, Advance CTE and IES will publish a series of Q&A blog posts with researchers and state CTE leaders talking about how their partnerships developed and what states can do to advance CTE research.

This blog series was co-authored by Corinne Alfeld at IES (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov) and Austin Estes from Advance CTE (aestes@careertech.org), with thanks to Steve Klein of Education Northwest for editorial suggestions. IES began funding research grants in CTE in 2017 and established a CTE Research Network in 2018. IES hopes to encourage more research on CTE in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions. At the same time, Advance CTE has been providing resources to help states improve their CTE data quality and use data more effectively to improve CTE program quality and equity.