IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

CTE Programs Ripe for Research and Evaluation

Each February, the education community highlights the important of Career and Technical Education (CTE) by celebrating National CTE Month. And this year, we are celebrating a milestone—2017 marks 100 years of CTE legislation.  Participation in CTE classes and programs continues to grow and, as we discussed in a previous blog, there is a critical need for more research in this area of education.

IES is beginning to help fill the CTE research gap. In 2016, the IES National Center for Education Research (NCER) funded a new study led by Professor Shaun Dougherty at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Dougherty (pictured right) and his colleagues will examine the impact of attending a CTE-focused high school on students' achievement, high school graduation, and college enrollment. This will be one of only a handful of studies to provide causal evidence about the impact that CTE has on students.

Specifically, the researchers will compare the outcomes of students attending one of 16 high schools in the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS), where all students participate in some form of CTE, with those of students attending a traditional comprehensive high school, with fewer opportunities to participate in CTE. In addition, the research team will conduct school observations and interviews regarding CTE delivery (e.g., number of CTE programs, industry credentials, and work-based learning opportunities offered) in both types of high schools.

Although this is the first time that Dr. Dougherty has served as a Principal Investigator on an IES-funded grant, he has conducted other research on CTE across the country. IES also sponsors other CTE-related initiatives, including the National Center for Education Statistics’ CTE Statistics Program (which has a new website).

CTE programs are poised to grow in the future as the labor market requires more skilled workers and students seek alternative educational options that lead to rewarding careers. The education field needs high-quality CTE-focused research to provide evidence to support practice. In addition, multidisciplinary perspectives on CTE are needed from researchers in related fields, such as cognitive science, educational psychology, organizational psychology, sociology and economics. Researchers from these fields, as well as others examining CTE questions, are welcome to apply for IES research grants.

Written by Corinne Alfeld, Education Research Analyst, NCER 

Career Technical Education is Growing; Research Must Follow

By Corinne Alfeld, Program Officer, NCER

February is Career Technical Education (CTE) month and there is certainly cause to celebrate for those who value CTE. After years of being marginalized in K-12 education and education research, CTE programs and offerings are growing across the country.   

Once known as “vocational-technical education,” CTE has undergone a transformation in the last decade that keeps pace with changes in workforce. High schools now offer elective CTE courses such as agricultural science, business entrepreneurship, computer graphic design, culinary arts, communications, health care, and mechatronics.  High school CTE courses have the ability to provide a context for students to explore possible careers, test their interests and abilities, apply academic knowledge and skills to real-world problems in a more project-based, hands-on way, and learn a useful skill. In other words, CTE can answer the question that many students ask: Why do I need to learn this?

Due in part to employer interest and involvement, CTE has become more of a focus for policymakers and education leaders as a way to ensure students are “college and career ready” when they graduate from high school. In 2015, the Association for Career and Technical Education documented 150 new and revised CTE laws or policies across 46 states. CTE programs are undergoing transformation with newfound vitality and momentum, with new delivery models, such as career academies, in which the entire curriculum is focused on one career area; programs of study that link high school and college courses with workplace experience; and regional CTE centers, which contain specialized equipment shared by multiple schools or districts and focus solely on CTE.

This means that CTE learning opportunities for students may range from a single introductory course in a traditional high school setting to a highly coordinated curricular experience of classroom- and work-based learning, culminating in a capstone project. 

As CTE becomes a larger part of the current education landscape, policymakers and practitioners need better evidence to guide their decision-making, especially given limited resources. For example, more research is needed on the following:

  • The relationships between specific career-focused school, program, or curricular features and student education outcomes;
  • Longitudinal pathways and outcomes for students enrolled in K-12 CTE programs (e.g., postsecondary education and employment);
  • Development of effective career-oriented programs or policies designed to support students’ career readiness outcomes;
  • Rigorous evaluation of existing career-focused schools or programs, including career technical programs of study, career academies, and other K-12 CTE delivery models;
  • Rigorous evaluation of state or district policies or reforms to support career technical education at the K-12 level, including the awarding of vocational diplomas, the use of career readiness measures, career academy models, awarding academic credit for CTE courses, and CTE teacher certification requirements; and
  • Development or improvement of measures of technical, occupational, and career readiness skills.

There are certainly challenges in studying CTE. In addition to the wide variety of CTE courses being offered, the range and quality of instructional CTE offerings can vary within and across schools. 

Researchers must struggle with questions, such as what is the treatment? How does one account for self-selection bias? Who are the counterfactuals? What are reliable and valid (and meaningful) outcome measures? How soon can effects be seen? As CTE expands in our K-12 education system, the field is in need of creativity and perseverance from researchers to overcome these challenges and build a robust body of both descriptive and causal evidence on which education leaders and policymakers can make decisions.

If you have ideas for CTE research projects, NCER would love to hear from you. Please contact Research Scientist Dr. Corinne Alfeld (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov or 202-245-8203) to share your thoughts or ideas.