Career and Technical Education (CTE) has been evolving and expanding at a rapid pace in recent years as industry and education leaders focus on students’ readiness for college and careers. While some studies have shown positive effects of CTE on students, the evidence base is thin. To learn more about the research needs of the CTE field, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) and the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) convened a group of experts in policy, practice and research related to CTE. The discussion held by the Technical Working Group (TWG) led both NCER and NCSER to increase their investments in CTE for fiscal year 2019: NCSER included a CTE special topic, and NCER changed its CTE topic from a special topic to a standing topic. Applications to both are due August 23, 2018. Both research centers hope to fund more studies that will help us better understand this growing aspect of education.
The TWG focused on the following four questions:
- Who is served by CTE and who is left behind? From national CTE statistics, we know that 82% of all public high schools offer CTE. And, 85% of students earn at least one credit in CTE with the average high school student earning 2.5 CTE credits. However, TWG members noted that research is lacking on specific subpopulations in CTE, such as students from various demographic backgrounds and students with disabilities. Disaggregated data on these dimensions are needed to better understand the CTE experiences of the range of students being served. Such data may help educators improve equity of access to high quality programs for all students.
- What do we know―and need to know―about CTE policies, programs, and practices at the secondary and postsecondary levels? TWG experts discussed the need to know more about industry-recognized credentials and about business and industry engagement in CTE at the secondary level. They argued that we do not know if credentials align with industry requirements, nor do we understand the impact of different types of credentials on student outcomes and wage trajectories. TWG members also noted that the higher the perceived quality or prestige of the CTE program, the more exclusive it becomes, and the more difficult it is for disadvantaged students to obtain access. TWG members also expressed concerns about CTE teacher training, particularly for experts who are recruited from industry without prior teacher preparation. As the experts discussed postsecondary CTE, they suggested that the field would be best served by framing the conversation about secondary to postsecondary pathways as a continuum that enables transparent and sequential transitions from secondary to 2-year and then to 4-year programs or to training or employment, with guidance for students to understand possible sequences.
- What are the critical methodological issues in CTE? TWG members noted that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., a 2008 MDRC study on career academies in New York and a recent study of CTE high schools in Massachusetts), few causal studies on CTE have been conducted. There is an urgent need for more high quality, causal research on CTE policies and programs. In addition, the experts noted that there is almost no research on students with disabilities in CTE. TWG members concluded that the field needs to re-conceptualize CTE research – including better defining CTE students, instructors, programs, and measures – and identify the critical research questions in order to encourage more research in this field.
- What is needed to advance CTE research? State CTE administrators want to know how to identify quality CTE programs so they know how to spend their dollars most effectively on programs that best meet the needs of students. Policymakers also want to know what “works” and what the benefits are of such investments. The TWG members encouraged studies that examine the educational benefits of particular instructional approaches. They also highlighted the importance of collaborative cross-institutional and cross-agency efforts to advance CTE research.
Readers are invited to read the summary of the TWG discussion.
By Corinne Alfeld (NCER program officer) and Kimberley Sprague (former NCSER program officer)