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Aligning high school career and technical education programs with top career pathways

field study in a factory

By Lynn Mellor | February 17, 2021

Career and technical education (CTE) programs are designed to help students acquire the academic, technical, and employability skills they will need to be successful after high school. REL Southwest recently completed a study with Round Rock Independent School District (ISD) to support the Central Texas district’s goal of improving its high school CTE programming. REL Southwest Deputy Director Lynn Mellor, Ph.D., served as the study’s principal investigator and provides this blog post. Read and download the full report here.

A new REL Southwest video features interviews with Dr. Mellor and the director of CTE at Round Rock ISD, Sheri Bonds. For additional reading, see the previous REL Southwest post on Perkins V, the federal Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which supports CTE programs and requires that programs of study using federal funds align with local labor market needs.


Round Rock Independent School District (ISD) wanted to enhance its high school career and technical education (CTE) programming to ensure it meets the needs of its students and the community, a suburb in the Austin, Texas, metropolitan area. We partnered with district leaders to design a REL Southwest study to determine if their CTE programs of study were aligned with regional high-wage, in-demand careers, and if their CTE graduates were prepared to enter those careers or to continue their education after high school.

Sheri Bonds, Round Rock ISD’s director of CTE, notes that in undertaking the study the district hoped to receive “some validation of our programming and understanding if we were meeting the needs of our community.” Another motivation was related to the passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), which requires CTE programs that use federal funding to align with the needs of industries in the region. “The Texas Education Agency would be providing guidance on how to follow Perkins V,” Bonds explains. But the study “puts the TEA and the Perkins V legislation into something that's a little more actionable for us, because it's directly tailored for Round Rock ISD. This is actually tackling who our students are, and addressing the needs of our community, and what our school district can do to support them.”

The study’s research questions focused on the following areas:

  • The percentage of Round Rock ISD graduates from 2012/13 through 2017/18 who completed one or more CTE programs of study.
  • The percentage of CTE programs of study in Round Rock ISD and in the other Central Texas districts that are aligned with high-wage, in-demand career pathways in the region’s labor market, and the percentage of graduates who completed aligned programs of study.
  • The early postsecondary outcomes of Round Rock ISD CTE graduates.

Our REL Southwest team used descriptive statistics to answer the research questions, drawing data from the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Workforce Commission, and O*NET.1 The study examined six cohorts of Round Rock ISD graduates from 2012/13 through 2017/18.

Selected study findings

The percentage of Round Rock ISD high school students who graduated having completed one or more CTE programs of study increased substantially across the six graduating cohorts examined, rising to 47 percent in 2017/18. The Health Science and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career clusters ranked in the top three each year, comprising more than 50 percent of CTE graduates each year.

Key Terms

Career clusters and career pathways are broad groups of industries and occupations. For example, Law Enforcement Services is a career pathway under the Law, Public Safety, Corrections, & Security career cluster.

Programs of study are sequences of academic and CTE coursework at the secondary and postsecondary levels that are aligned to career clusters and pathways.

Our research team identified 13 career cluster pathways that meet the threshold of high-wage, in-demand occupations in Central Texas. Of 32 Central Texas school districts we examined, five districts offered more than five CTE programs aligned with these 13 top regional career cluster pathways, and seven districts offered one program. Round Rock ISD led the region. Of the 33 CTE programs of study the district offered, 13 were aligned with high-wage, in-demand career pathways in Central Texas.

Seventy-six percent of Round Rock ISD CTE graduates completed course requirements in at least one of these 13 programs of study. These included programs of study in the district’s Health Science and STEM career clusters.

We found that more than 80 percent of Round Rock ISD CTE graduates from each cohort enrolled in two- or four-year colleges or were employed within one year of high school graduation. The percentage of CTE graduates directly entering the workforce—without also enrolling in college—increased across the cohorts. This increase could be due to Austin’s strong economy during the study period. In 2018, the city ranked as the strongest economy in the U.S., following 10 years of consistent growth.

“In reviewing the results,” Sheri Bonds notes, “the thing that most surprised me was how we compared within our region. Looking at the percentage of our students that were CTE completers in high-skill, high-wage, high-demand CTE program areas made us feel good that we were giving our students options that were valid in making decisions for their future.”

Study implications

Leaders in Round Rock ISD and other Central Texas districts could use the results from this study in multiple ways. Districts can use the results to refine their existing CTE programs of study or reallocate resources from programs of study not aligned to high-wage, in-demand career pathways to programs of study that are aligned. Findings may also help focus communications with students, families, and the community. For example, districts can publicize which colleges and universities in the region offer credentials in aligned high-wage, in-demand programs of study to help graduates identify suitable higher education options.

The study provides key information as Round Rock ISD leaders consider opening a CTE high school that could offer specialty courses and fund equipment that would be difficult to replicate across all high schools.

Other states and districts could replicate this study, applying these research questions and methods to better understand student participation in labor market–aligned programs of study in their regions.

And a final observation from Sheri Bonds: “In thinking about these key findings and how they might impact our future work, we’re always identifying our programs of study to see if there’s anything new that we need to bring in, if our student populations are changing, if our regional partnerships have adapted, or if industry is adjusting in any way. We’ll definitely go back and always reference this study to help us do that.”

1 O*NET Online (Occupational Information Network) created and maintains the Standard Occupational Classification taxonomy, a statistical standard that federal agencies use to classify workers into occupational categories.


For more information on career and technical education, see the following resources from around the REL Program:

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Author Information

profile photo of Lynn Mellor, Ph.D.

Lynn Mellor, Ph.D.

Deputy Director | REL Southwest

lmellor@air.org