Three Cheers for the CTE Research Network

Three Cheers for the CTE Research Network

Nancy Hoffman, Ph.D., senior advisor and cofounder of the Pathways to Prosperity Network at JFF, discusses how the CTE Research Network's projects are contributing to our understanding of the impact of CTE on student outcomes. JFF is one of the partners leading the network.

Until recently, only one study could answer the bottom-line question inevitably asked about career and technical education (CTE): Do CTE graduates do better in the labor market than similar students who do not participate in CTE? This study, a 2008 randomized controlled trial carried out by Jim Kemple and a team at MDRC, found that “eight years after high school, [career] academy students earned on average 11 percent more per year than non-academy students, with the effects concentrated among young men.”

It is 2020, and a great deal has changed in CTE since 2008. CTE has become much more academically challenging and is no longer regularly stigmatized as the default option for those who cannot do college prep or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. CTE schools, programs, and academies send significant percentages of students to college, rather than just providing a pathway from high school to a job, and a more diverse set of students are enrolling.

Whether called career pathways, career connect programs, or CTE, the emphasis on career is among the most identifiable high school reform movements of the last few years. With COVID-19 decimating the job market, workforce preparation will likely become even more important for young people who want to compete. We need to know all we can about how CTE can address the challenges that schools are facing in the next year and the years to come.

In my own state of Massachusetts, “vo-tech” high schools have become highly competitive and substantially outperform state averages in math and English. These schools are beacons of innovation, as are CTE schools in other states. Massachusetts’ schools have cutting-edge programs in such fields as advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and even veterinary science. Some schools host hair salons or restaurants, and two have veterinary clinics partnered with Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. A Hechinger Institute report on Massachusetts’ Essex Technical High School, one of the 25 regional vo-techs in the state, is headlined, “A Vocational School Curriculum that includes genocide studies and British literature.”

It is with great enthusiasm then that I and other practitioners welcome the work of the Career and Technical Education Research Network. The interest of top-flight researchers has been missing from the CTE field, but that has begun to change. The network’s research is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s independent research arm, and the network brings together teams focused on measuring the impact of CTE programs on student outcomes.

My cynical self says that CTE has gained greater attention because it is now an option for “our children” as opposed to “other people’s children.” JFF, a co-lead of the CTE Research Network, advocates for education programs that teach technical skills and hands-on work experience for all young people. Work experience introduces youth to adults whom they might not otherwise encounter and enhances students' earning ability—benefits likely to increase in importance in the post-COVID world.

A CTE student working in cybersecurity, for example, experiences what her adult life might be like. In fact, she may actually be doing paid work as a staff member to an enterprise her school hosts. A student earning a Certified Nursing Assistance certificate is set for a summer job to try out his skills. Why do a coding bootcamp after high school when you can do it as a 10th grader and have your skills and work experience on a college application and get a well-paying part-time job

For practitioners who are eager for a body of CTE research, it is particularly cheering to see that Jim Kemple is leading one of the CTE Research Network’s projects, a major study of various dimensions of CTE in New York City. He works with a team of younger scholars all now immersed in questions about CTE. The Kemple study “will rigorously assess CTE programs’ effect on students’ experiences (e.g., course taking, work-based learning, internships, job shadowing, career fairs, and career counseling); as well as on a range of intermediate and long-term academic and career-related outcomes.”

Learn more about the study Kemple is leading with the Research Alliance for New York City Schools:

Another IES-funded CTE Research Network study, led by researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Connecticut, looks at CTE participants’ earnings post–high school, giving us a glimpse into what an updated Kemple 2008 study might find today. Not only does the new study show large positive effects on high school graduation, it also answers the big question: Are employment and wage outcomes better compared to a matched control group? The answer is: Yes, significantly better.

The Network offers much to look forward to, including an MDRC study of the P-TECH model and a study of the North Carolina Career and College Promise Dual Enrollment Program, led by researchers at UNC at Greenboro and RAND. The results of these studies, and the network’s synthesis of CTE findings to come, will attract additional researchers to the field. At this moment when COVID-19 is challenging assumptions about the capacity of education to insulate against unexpected economic shock, CTE may become even more important. Expanding the body of rigorous research on CTE impact is an important step.

The big question for practitioners when trying to make use of a quantitative study is “Why?” What does a gold standard study tell us about the specific elements of a school or program or curriculum or a student population that produced a certain impact? The good news is that the Kemple team is studying CTE implementation along with impact.

There’s much more I would love to know about CTE. Take for example questions around work-based learning (WBL). Setting up strong WBL programs is perhaps the most resource-consuming activity for CTE programs, but it also appears to be the most attractive element to students. Why is CTE work-based learning such a powerful and often transformative experience? What should we know about how employers design appropriate tasks for youth? What are the most effective WBL preparatory strategies, those that enable a student to navigate an unfamiliar workplace and milieu? And always bedeviling the field, what would constitute high-quality work-based learning experiences when resources are constrained and employers under financial pressure, as they generally are and are sure to be for the near future? Do students benefit equally from a two-week paid internship with substantial prior preparation and robust post-experience reflection as much as they do from a longer experience?

There are many other avenues for research: a structural one, for example, such as looking at whether students benefit more from stand-alone schools, part-time centers, or comprehensive high school models. Which is most cost effective? Perhaps each structure has its place and advantages, but it would be helpful to know. And finally, in the COVID-19 world, online tools are the sine qua non. Do any of the emerging apps or platforms purporting to replicate in-person WBL have the power to fill the vacuum likely to be created at least in the short term by so many employers shutting their doors?

Finally, an extra cheer for CTE research in the post-COVID world. In the short term, many families may not be able to afford a four-year college. Evidence of the positive impact of a high school CTE program coming from the CTE Research Network's studies should be welcome and reassuring.

Learn more about the CTE Research Network's ongoing studies.