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Institute of Education Sciences

Learning from CTE Research Partnerships: How Michigan Built Trust with Researchers to Better Understand State Data

As part of our ongoing blog series aimed at increasing state research on career and technical education (CTE), Austin Estes, Senior Policy Associate at Advance CTE, and Corinne Alfeld, Research Analyst at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), are conducting interviews with individuals who are part of successful CTE State Director research partnerships. The first interview was with Jill Kroll of the Michigan Department of Education and Dan Kreisman of Georgia State University (and Director of CTEx). [Note: this interview has been edited for length; you can find the full interview transcript here].

 

Jill Kroll Dan Kreisman
Michigan Department of Education Georgia State University

 

The first question we have is about the projects that you work on together: what were some of the research questions you came up with, and how did you come to settle on those research questions?

Jill – I first connected with Dan and with Brian Jacob at University of Michigan when I saw Brian present to our P-20 council about some research that he was doing connecting the wage record data for five community colleges. I was like “Gee, is there any way you can do something similar with the statewide secondary student data?” And he said it was possible. So I worked within our department procedures to find out how we could go about establishing a relationship that would allow this opportunity.

Dan – That led to a whole bunch of other discussions of things that we thought were interesting. So, to say that there is a set of research questions is not the way I view our relationship. We talk with folks in Jill’s office regularly to hear what questions are pressing for them, and then we try to help facilitate answering those and then see where those lead us. I think one of the important things is we try to think about where there are policy levers, so we want to say “If we answer this question, how can the state or the districts use that information to further their mission of providing CTE programming to students in Michigan?”

Jill – I’ve been really happy with the extent to which Dan and the research team have consistently focused on the “so what?” Rather than focusing on vague research questions of interest only to other researchers, they have emphasized their interest in doing research that has practical application, that can be used by educators in the field.

Could you share an example of how you’ve been able to use some of this evidence and research to change policy, or at least to shape your understanding on some decisions that you’re making at the state level?

Jill - When we were starting to work on our Perkins V [the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act] state plan, we had a short time to determine what we wanted to consider for our secondary indicator of program quality. Because Brian, Dan, and their students had been working with this data for so many years, they had the capacity to very quickly do the matching and

 come up with an approximation for us about what postsecondary credit attainment would look like, and what strengths and weaknesses they saw in the data. It would have been really difficult for our office, or even multiple state agencies, to have been able to work that quickly and give it the critical analysis that they did.

The other thing they did when we were making the decision for that indicator is look at the data that we had for work-based learning and tell us what could be done with it. What came out of that was that the data was not in any form that could be analyzed (text and PDFs). This was really revealing to our State Director Brian Pyles, and it led him to set a policy that we are going to build a consistent way of collecting data on work-based learning. So that is another piece where it influenced practice and policy. One of the most exciting and valuable things that I find about the partnership is that Dan and the other researchers have a lot more capacity to analyze the data in a way that we just don’t have the time to do. Sometimes we don’t have the expertise, and sometimes we just don’t look at the data in the same way.

Dan –And there’s a flip side that without their input, we often are looking at data and can’t make heads or tails of something. And we can get on the phone or write an email to someone over there and say “Hey we’re seeing this thing. Can you tell me what that means?” And they will come back with “Oh, the system changed” or “There was this one policy,” and “Here’s what you have to do to make it fit everything else.” And this happens all the time. We would be completely lost without this open channel that we have to their office.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the power of good descriptive work. Lots of times, the questions that states are grappling with can often be illuminated with some really careful and good descriptive work. You can say, “This is what we’re seeing, this is the big picture,” if you step back for a minute, and that information lots of times has been as valuable as the stuff we try to do that is more causally oriented in our research.

Jill – I agree, and I want to follow up on the whole issue of how important trust is. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to me that Dan and the other researchers come to us with those questions, that they check in with us. That’s absolutely critical. Anyone who works with any kind of data knows that it’s just so complex. If you link tables wrong, or misunderstand a data field, you can come to a completely wrong decision. So that communication and that interaction and trust are key to accurate outcomes.

As you’re both looking ahead, what’s next on the agenda? What are some of the research questions and priorities you have for this partnership?

Dan – Number one is tracking students into the labor market. That’s our biggest and most outstanding question. And the degree to which CTE programs are preparing students for college and the labor market and careers. In terms of other projects, one of the things we’re interested in is technical assessments. We’re also part of a consortium of several states – that’s the CTEx group. We meet annually together, and that allows us to harmonize things across states to see how trends are similar, how enrollment rates work, all sorts of different questions across multiple states.

Jill – One of the things we’re talking about right now is that we don’t have, in an accessible form, data on access to a particular program. We know that career centers serve certain districts, but if someone asked, “If student A is going to Central High School, what programs do they have access to? we don’t have a good way of answering that at the moment. We’ve had a couple of discussions about how we can work together to build basically a dataset that clarifies that. That would be mutually beneficial and would take resources from both in order to do something like that.

Thinking back on this partnership, is there any advice you would give to other State Directors or CTE researchers?

Dan – Building a strong relationship is the first thing you have to do. And part of that is spending time face to face talking about questions, moving around ideas, looking at data together. We had the benefit of a long windup period. We spent at least a year just talking about questions and putting together data before we even started doing any analyses. We also had buy-in from Jill’s office up and down the line from folks who were doing the research to people who were in policymaking roles. And without all of that, none of this would even have been possible.

And the second part is to not downplay the value of just providing good information. A lot of us on the research side don’t realize how little time folks in the state offices have to take a step back and say, “What’s going on with our data? Let’s look at the big picture.” And one of the things we can provide them is just giving them that big picture and handing it to them in a digestible way. And doing that is the first step, is a really good way to start building that trust. They really see the value of what you can do early on. And then you can start to get into more difficult or longer-term questions.

Jill – The first advice I would give is: Do it! Partner with researchers. I can’t say enough positive about it. The second is: Follow department procedures and be transparent with department leadership. You know that windup might be really, really slow while you jog through the channels that you need to in your department to do things by the book, but I think it pays off in the long run.

My third one is: Be transparent and open with school districts. Share what you’re doing and invite their input. Anybody who works with state data would probably know, you’re always a little hesitant about what the public would think about this use of data. The way that Dan and the postdocs and graduate students have openly shared the work that they’ve done with our CTE administrators has really helped, in that I have not gotten any doubt from districts.

The full transcript can be accessed in Advance CTE’s Learning that Works Resource Center. Other blog posts in this series can be viewed here.

What Do State CTE Directors Want to Learn from the Research Community?

Career Technical Education (CTE) is gaining widespread interest and support from state policymakers, who see it as a strategy to expand access to opportunity and meet employer needs. Between 2014 and 2018, states enacted roughly 800 policies related to CTE, and in 2019, workforce development was one of the top education-related priorities mentioned by governors in their state-of-the-state addresses.

What’s more, in 2018 Congress passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), which reauthorized the federal law for CTE and invests around $1.2 billion a year to strengthen and expand CTE programs. The law was enacted in July 2019 and will be in full effect in July 2020 after states submit their four-year plans for CTE to the U.S. Department of Education (see more about the Perkins V planning process here).

With CTE in the spotlight, State CTE Directors are working hard to improve quality and equity in CTE. But state CTE offices often do not have the staffing or resources to conduct rigorous program evaluations to learn what’s working and what needs improvement. By partnering with CTE researchers, State Directors can gain critical insights into the impact of CTE programs, policies, and practices.

While the design, governance and delivery of CTE varies from state to state, there are several common questions and challenges across the country that CTE researchers can help address, particularly in light of Perkins V implementation:

Improving program quality: State leaders are working to improve CTE program quality by connecting secondary and postsecondary coursework, integrating academic and technical learning, aligning programs with labor market needs and expectations, and preparing learners to earn industry-recognized credentials of value. Tennessee, for example, recently revised its secondary CTE program standards and developed model CTE programs of study that meet statewide workforce needs. Answers to the following research questions would help fuel these efforts:

  • What set of experiences at the secondary and postsecondary levels (CTE coursework, work-based learning, dual enrollment, etc.) best prepares learners for postsecondary enrollment and completion, certificate and degree attainment, and high-wage employment?
  • Do these vary by region of the country, Career Cluster® or program of study?
  • Does the delivery mechanism (comprehensive high schools, career academies, area technical centers, technical colleges) matter?

Ensuring equitable access and success in CTE: To reverse historical inequities in CTE, state leaders are using data to identify disparities and ensure each learner can access, fully participate in, and successfully complete a high-quality CTE program of study. In Rhode Island, the Department of Education repurposed $1.2 million in state funds to launch an Innovation & Equity grant initiative, which provided resources to local recipients to recruit and support underrepresented student populations in high-quality programs. CTE researchers can help these efforts by addressing the following questions:

  • What are the classroom and workplace conditions in which CTE students of color are most likely to develop the interests, knowledge, and skills that prepare them to earn postsecondary credentials of value and obtain high-wage employment in their careers of choice?
  • What interventions, accommodations, and instructional strategies best prepare learners with disabilities to transition successfully into the workforce?
  • How does gender inform the development of occupational identity, and what can educators do to limit the effects of stereotyping on the career aspirations of learners?

Improving the quality and use of CTE data: Most State Directors believe improving and enhancing their CTE data systems is a priority, but only 45 percent say they have the information they need at both the secondary and postsecondary levels to improve program quality. States like Minnesota (through the State Colleges and University System) are working to improve the validity and reliability of their data by collaborating with industry-recognized credential providers to obtain data for their students. CTE researchers can help state leaders improve data quality in two ways:

  • Identifying relevant data sources and matching student records to allow for a comprehensive examination of student pathways and outcomes
  • Developing and sharing guidance for collecting, validating, and matching student data relevant to CTE

Fostering collaboration and alignment across state agencies: Supporting learner success requires cross-agency collaboration and coordination. State leaders are working to create seamless pathways by sharing data, coordinating program design, and braiding resources to achieve economies of scale. One example is Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker established a cross-agency workforce skills cabinet to coordinate education, workforce, housing, and economic development. The following research questions would help accelerate the work in Massachusetts and other states:

  • Do states with policies that foster cross-agency coordination see better education and employment outcomes for students? Can merging datasets across agencies help states better understand and respond to student needs?
  • Does credit for prior learning and/or credit transfer between institutions decrease time to credential attainment and entry into employment?
  • How does the integration of support services—such as financial aid, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other state and federal programs—impact the likelihood of student success?

Expanding career advisement opportunities: School counselors are the most trusted source of information on CTE and career options, and states are working to bolster their career advisement systems by reducing the counselor-to-student ratio, requiring each student to complete an individualized graduation plan, and developing user-friendly platforms for career exploration. In Oklahoma, for example, it is now policy for all students to identify their career and academic goals through the state’s new Individual Career and Academic Planning program. CTE researchers can help address the following questions:  

  • Do career and academic planning programs increase the likelihood that learners will complete CTE programs of study, graduate from high school, and earn postsecondary credentials?
  • How does early career exposure through job shadowing, career fairs and career counseling inform student course taking, academic achievement, and future employment and earnings?

As states chart a vision and path for the future of CTE, they can and should use their data to inform decisions. Researchers can help them collect and analyze high quality data to understand the relationships between CTE program elements and various learner outcomes. This can help them understand what is and isn’t working with current policy and practice and identify how to focus their efforts to improve quality and equity in CTE. In addition, researchers can help state directors plan and conduct rigorous evaluations as they roll out new CTE policies and programs. Over the next few months, Advance CTE and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) will feature a series of successful partnerships between states and CTE researchers and explore how those projects provided critical data and insights to inform state policy.

This blog series was co-authored by Corinne Alfeld at IES (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov) and Austin Estes from Advance CTE (aestes@careertech.org). 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.

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.

Updates from the CTE Research Network!

“Does Career and Technical Education (CTE) work?” and “For whom does CTE work and how?” are questions on many policymakers’ and education leaders’ minds and ones that the CTE Research Network aims to answer. The mission of the Network, as described in a previous blog post, is to increase the amount of causal evidence in CTE that can inform practice and policy. The Network’s members, who are researchers funded by IES to examine the impact of CTE, have been busy trying to answer all of these questions.

This blog describes three Network updates:

  • Shaun Dougherty, of Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have been studying the effects of attending a CTE-focused high school among 60,000 students in Connecticut as part of their Network project. They recently reported that:
    • When compared to males attending traditional high schools, males who attended CTE schools were 10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and were earning 31 percent more by age 23. The authors noted that the more CTE courses that are available at the regular high school, the less attendance at a CTE high school makes a difference.
    • Analyses of potential mechanisms behind these findings reveal that male students attending a technical high school have higher 9th grade attendance rates and higher 10th grade test scores. However, they are 8 percentage points less likely to attend college (though some evidence indicates that the negative impact on college attendance fades over time).
    • Attending a CTE high school had no impacts on female students. Further, the effects did not differ over student attributes like race and ethnicity, free lunch eligibility or residence in a poor, central city school district.

The study results are being disseminated widely in the media, including via the Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard, The Conversation, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  • In other news, the CTE Research Network has welcomed a fourth IES-funded project, led by Julie Edmunds. Edmunds’ team is studying dual enrollment pathways in North Carolina, and one of the pathways focuses on CTE.
  • Finally, the two co-PIs for the Network Lead, Kathy Hughes and Shaun Dougherty, recently participated in a Q&A in Techniques magazine about the purpose of the CTE Network, how the Network will help the field of CTE, and how each of their careers has led them to this work.

The Network Lead has launched a new website where you can get new information about ongoing work and sign up to receive their newsletter.

This post was written by Corinne Alfeld, the NCER-IES program officer responsible for the CTE research topic and the CTE Research Network. Contact her at Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov with questions.

Career Pathways Research at HHS: Lessons and Opportunities for Education Research

Over the past few years, staff from IES and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have been learning from and supporting one another’s work. Our offices have a shared interest in understanding and improving outcome for adults in postsecondary career pathway programs and for creating a strong evidence base.

We have even funded projects that dovetail nicely. For example, IES funded a development project focusing on Year Up, and OPRE included Year Up programs in their Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study.

For IES researchers not already aware of OPRE’s research, we would like to highlight three things that may be particularly relevant to the work IES hopes to support.

A Growing Portfolio of Career Pathway Research: For over a decade, OPRE has created a robust research portfolio longitudinal, rigorous experimental career pathways program research.  These career pathway programs provide postsecondary education and training through a series of manageable steps leading to successively higher credentials and employment opportunities. In particular, OPRE has supported the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study and the rigorous evaluation of the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) Program. You can find reports from these and other self-sufficiency, welfare, and employment activities in the OPRE Resource Library.

Available Data and Funding Opportunity: Later this summer, OPRE will be archiving data from PACE and HPOG at the University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium on Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the Institute for Social Research. These data will be available as restricted-use files for secondary data analysis. To encourage research, OPRE announced a funding opportunity Career Pathways Secondary Data Analysis Grants to support secondary analysis these data. Applications are due August 16, 2019.

Understanding Programs’ Motivations for Participating in Research: Getting education programs (schools, universities, etc.) to join multi-year, randomized controlled trials is difficult. Programs are wary of random assignment or finding null or negative effects. Yet, the programs that participated in the PACE Study were overall quite supportive. A recent report “We Get a Chance to Show Impact”, Program Staff Reflect on Participating in a Rigorous, Multi-site Evaluation documents the hurdles and benefits of participation from a program’s point of view. These programs’ insights are particularly useful for any researcher hoping to form partnerships with education settings.

To learn more about the ongoing career pathways research at OPRE and their findings, please visit https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/research/project/career-pathways-research-portfolio.