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Institute of Education Sciences

Variation Matters: A Look at CTE Under Distinctive Policy and Programming Conditions

Young diverse students learning together at stem robotics class - Hispanic Latina female building electronic circuits at school

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month! As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we want to highlight the great work our CTE Research Network (CTERN) continues to accomplish. This guest blog was written by James Kemple, Director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools and the principal investigator (PI) of a CTERN research project that is examining CTE in New York City.

While “college and career readiness” are familiar buzzwords in K-12 education, it has often seemed like system leaders shout “college” and whisper “career.” During the last decade, as it has become clear that a high school diploma has limited value in the 21st century labor market, career and technical education (CTE) has become a more prominent way to explicitly prepare students for both college and career. For the CTE field to evolve productively, valid and reliable evidence should inform policy and practice, for example by identifying conditions under which CTE may be more or less effective and for whom.

CTE and College and Career Readiness in New York City

One such project is our ongoing study of New York City’s CTE programs. The current phase of the study focuses on 37 CTE-dedicated high schools, which are structured to ensure that all enrolled students participate in a CTE Program of Study from 9th through 12th grade. These programs are organized around an industry-aligned theme (for example, construction, IT, health services, etc.) and offer a sequence of career-focused courses, work-based learning opportunities, and access to aligned college-level coursework. Our study uses an especially rigorous approach to compare the experiences and outcomes of nearly 19,000 NYC students who were assigned to a CTE-dedicated high school between 2013 and 2016 with those of similar students who also applied to CTE programs but were assigned to another high school during the same period.

When our research team looked at the overall impact of 37 CTE-dedicated high schools in NYC, we found that CTE students graduated from these high schools and enrolled in college at rates that were similar to their counterparts in non-CTE high schools. On average, therefore, being in a CTE high school did not steer students away from a college pathway.

Variations in CTE Programs

A much more interesting story emerged when we took a closer look at variation in student experiences and outcomes. In fact, some of the schools produced statistically significant reductions in immediate college enrollment, while others produced increases in the rate at which students enrolled in college.  Why might this be?

The study team identified two possible reasons. First, the schools in our sample differed based on the policy context in which they were created: 21 of the schools were established after 2008 as the NYCDOE undertook a major expansion of CTE in the midst of a larger overhaul of the city’s high schools that included closing persistently low-performing schools, opening new small schools in their place, and creating a universal high school admissions system that gave students access to schools across the city. In contrast to the 16 longstanding CTE high schools—some of which dated back to the early 1900s—these new high schools were smaller, with more thematically aligned sets of CTE programs, and non-selective admission processes. Most of the longstanding CTE schools used test scores, grades, or other performance measures as part of their admissions criteria.

Second, the schools in the study differed in terms of their intended career pathways—and the extent to which these career pathways require a post-secondary credential for entry-level jobs. Notably, nine of the newer (post-2008) high schools focused on career pathways that were likely to require a bachelor’s degree (referred to “college aligned”). CTE programs in the remaining 12 newer high schools and all of the CTE programs in the 16 longstanding high schools focused on either “workforce-aligned” career pathways—allowing students to enter the labor market directly after high school—or “mixed” pathways that require additional technical training or an associate degree for entry-level jobs. Interestingly, each of these groups of schools included a mix of CTE career themes. For example, some health- or technology-focused CTE programs reflected college-aligned pathways, while other programs with these themes reflected workforce-aligned pathways.

We found that the newer, smaller, less selective CTE schools with more tightly aligned career themes had positive effects on key outcomes—particularly those that were focused on college-intended career paths. These schools produced a substantial, positive, statistically significant impact on college enrollment rates. Students in these schools were nearly 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college than those in the non-CTE comparison group.

By contrast, the larger, more selective CTE schools, with a range of work-aligned career pathways, were associated with null or negative effects on key outcomes. Notably, these schools actually reduced four-year college enrollment rates.

Applying Lessons Learned

The extraordinary diversity of NYC’s CTE landscape and its student population provides a unique opportunity to gather information about program implementation, quality, accessibility, and costs, and about how these factors influence CTE’s impacts on college and career readiness. A recent report from the project provides new insights into strategies for learning from variation in CTE programs and contexts, as well as particular policies and programming conditions that may enhance or limit college and career readiness.

Recent efforts to enhance CTE, including those underway in NYC, wisely focus on such key elements as rigorous and relevant CTE course sequences, robust work-based learning opportunities, and articulated partnerships with employers and post-secondary education institutions. The findings from this study point to additional conditions that are likely to interact with these curricular and co-curricular elements of CTE—such as providing students with smaller, more personalized learning environments; using inclusive (less selective) admissions policies; and aligning high school requirements with post-secondary options. It will be crucial for policymakers to attend to these conditions as they work to strengthen students’ pathways into college and careers.

Finally, it is important to note that we do not yet have all the information needed to fully discern the impact of NYC’s diverse CTE options. Data on employment and earnings will be crucial to understanding whether students in these schools opted to enter the workforce instead of, or prior to, enrolling in college—and how these decisions affected their longer-term trajectories.

This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (, program officer, NCER.