IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

What Are we Learning about Applied STEM CTE Course-taking by Students with Disabilities?

February was National Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month, which celebrates the importance of CTE and the achievements and accomplishments of CTE programs across the country. IES supports research in this area, including grants funded through the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER).

Dr. Michael Gottfried at the University of California Santa Barbara was awarded a 2-year grant in 2019 from NCSER to investigate whether participating in applied STEM career and technical education (AS-CTE) courses in high school is related to pursuing and persisting in STEM majors and/or careers for students with learning disabilities (SWLDs). Although a significant number of SWLDs participate in CTE courses, little is known about the types of AS-CTE courses they take and the extent to which taking these courses is related to postsecondary and employment outcomes. This project uses data from two nationally representative, longitudinal studies, the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) and the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:2009).

The descriptive evidence resulting from this project will have important implications for policymakers and educators about promoting SWLDs’ interests in CTE and STEM and facilitating their access to these courses. We take a moment to share our recent conversation with Dr. Gottfried to understand the importance of this project and what he is learning.

Tell us about your project and what you hope to accomplish (or why a focus on STEM and SWDs?)

Our project is investigating the pathway students take in the pursuit of and persistence in STEM majors and careers for SWLDs. SWLDs are currently underrepresented in STEM fields throughout the STEM pipeline from high school to college to career. This SWLD-STEM college and career gap will continue to persist and potentially worsen unless there are efforts to lessen this underrepresentation of SWLDs in STEM fields. To address this, our research team is exploring AS-CTE courses that SWLDs take in high school and the extent to which taking these courses promotes advancement towards postsecondary success and careers in STEM. Unlike traditional STEM courses, AS-CTE courses emphasize the application of math and science concepts directly to practical job experiences by offering “hands-on” logic and problem-solving skills. They are designed to reinforce traditional academic STEM learning and motivate students’ interests and long-term pursuits in STEM areas. Using two nationally representative samples of high school students, we are examining whether high school AS-CTE can help prepare SWLDs for college, STEM fields of study in college, and careers in STEM or with STEM applications. We hope that this project will provide new evidence for policymakers and educators that will help facilitate access to AS-CTE courses in schools in order to promote short- and long-term interest in STEM for SWLDs.

What are applied STEM career and technical education courses students with disabilities can take in high school?

AS-CTE courses encourage the alignment of applicable job-related skills with academically challenging coursework targeted to students at all ability levels. These courses fall into two of the sixteen broad CTE categories: engineering technology and information technology. Some examples of engineering courses offered in high schools include Biotechnical Engineering, Wind Energy, Laser/Fiber Optics, Aerospace Engineering, and Computer-Aided Design Software. Some examples of information technology courses are Database Management and Data Warehousing, Business Computer Applications, Web Page Design, Geospatial Technology, and Networking Systems. 

What have you learned so far about enrollment in CTE and applied CTE courses by students with disabilities and related outcomes for those students?

We are currently in the beginning stages of our project, but through our analyses thus far we have found that SWLDs are more likely to take CTE courses than the general student population but less likely than other students to enroll in AS-CTE courses. In other words, SWLDs are taking CTE courses, just not in STEM areas. We see this pattern becoming even more prominent in the recent years.

What are some of the challenges with your research?

Although using large national datasets such as ELS and HSLS provides extremely rich information and data about high school students across the nation, there are some limitations to the conclusions that we can draw when using extant longitudinal data. First, although we are able to examine AS-CTE course taking patterns for high school students, no data exist in either dataset on why students chose to take AS-CTE courses. Second, there is no detailed information available in these datasets about course content, including design, curriculum, rigor, and quality of an academic course, all of which affect student achievement. Third, the datasets identify SWLDs based on parent survey responses about whether a doctor, healthcare provider, teacher, or school official had ever told them that their student had a learning disability. There is no verification that the student has an official special education label of LD, so there may be some variability in the population of SWLDs in the datasets, which could impact what we find.

What other research is needed to improve CTE course-taking and outcomes for students with disabilities?

Our project is quantitative, which has many strengths such as identifying patterns and trends. Yet, we believe that a future qualitative project would be useful to complement the work we are doing. For instance, there are many lingering questions that we cannot address. For example, why are SWLDs taking fewer AS-CTE courses? What does SWLDs’ sense of STEM self-efficacy look like in these AS-CTE courses? What types of supports are teachers providing in these courses? These types of questions could be addressed with future qualitative research in which teachers and students can be interviewed and followed.

What other recommendations do you have to support research in this area?

For our work, we plan to address diversity within the SWLD group. For instance, we are going to explore differences by gender for SWLDs taking AS-CTE courses. We propose that future research could consider this type of heterogeneity.

Dr. Gottfried also has funding from NCER in a related project exploring whether and how AS-CTE course-taking can help prepare low-income students for college and for careers in STEM or with STEM applications.

If your state, district, or school is looking for resources for developing and improving the quality of your CTE program, the Association for Career and Technical Education has many high-quality CTE tools, including a Quality CTE Program of Study Framework. The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition also has many resources to increase engagement in CTE by students with disabilities, including the on-demand webinar, Toward Best Practices: Programs that Work, Models Toward Success. This webinar was recorded on December 19, 2019 with a panel of experts and practitioners in workforce education and CTE led by Dr. Michael Harvey, Professor of Education in the Workforce Education and Development academic program at the Pennsylvania State University. Advance CTE connects CTE leaders across states and has resources to support CTE at the state level.

This blog series was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel ( and Jacquelyn Buckley ( at IES and Michael Gottfried ( IES began funding research grants in CTE in 2017 and established a CTE Research Network in 2018 through NCER. NCSER started funding research grants in special education in CTE in 2019. 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.