Equity: Alignment of Mission and Methods

Equity: Alignment of Mission and Methods

Funded in 2018 by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network aims to conduct and promote high-quality casual studies examining the impact of career and technical education. Aligned with the theme of the January 2020 IES Principal Investigators Meeting—Closing the Gaps for All Learners—the network’s activities include working to deepen the field’s understanding of issues of equity and inequity in CTE research and evaluation.

The importance of understanding equity in CTE research

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction defines equity in the following way:

“Every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background, and/or family income.”

An explicit focus on equity in CTE is particularly important considering that in the not so distant past, vocational education (a precursor to the term career and technical education, or CTE) often served as the track for youth deemed “unable to learn” or “not college material.” In many cases, vocational education was used to systematically relegate students—many of whom were low-income, Black or African American, Latinx, or American Indian—into low-wage jobs that offered limited opportunities for growth.

Today, the focus of CTE has expanded to include fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and represents for many young people an opportunity to graduate high school and enter postsecondary education or the labor market with highly valued skills and certifications in numerous fields. As CTE has evolved, participation has become associated with a variety of positive outcomes. For example, researchers have found that CTE course taking is associated with higher high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates, higher labor market earnings, and better overall student outcomes.

While these positive CTE outcomes are promising, there is more to understand about the causal outcomes associated with CTE participation, especially among subgroups of students based on race, gender, socioeconomic level, and ability status. IES and the CTE Research Network are committed to deepening the field’s understanding of equity and inequity in CTE studies. Along with acknowledging the pernicious ways in which vocational education has historically been used to discriminate against some students and disaggregating outcome data by student subpopulation (an emphasis in recent Perkins V legislation), the network concludes that at a minimum, engaging in equity-minded research and evaluation requires:

  • Establishing diverse research teams: Research has shown that diversity on teams yields greater innovation, more productivity, and better financial results (Levine, 2020). With these benefits in mind, it is important to be intentional in creating diverse research teams that can bring new perspectives, voices, and approaches to studies that aim to identify, analyze and interpret equity data.
  • Adopting an equity mindset in research and evaluation: To inform the field’s understanding of how CTE may promote or inhibit equitable student outcomes, researchers must commit to recognizing their own biases and examining how those biases may influence their research designs and analyses. An equity mindset also requires capturing and analyzing patterns of inequities that appear in administrative and implementation data.
  • Exploring intersectionality: Adopting an equity mindset—as important for research as is using valid and reliable measures—also requires conducting analyses of CTE outcomes that go beyond merely examining differences between subpopulations. Rather, analyses should also examine intersectionality within subpopulations (for example, by gender and race), which affords the field a more nuanced understanding of how outcomes for members of the same subpopulation may vary by other dimensions of identity (such as gender or ability status). Such analyses can help the field understand what works and for whom—information that can help drive policy and practice.
  • Addressing the systems, policies, and procedures that promote inequities: Inequities do not exist in a vacuum. Thus, it is important to contextualize causal CTE studies, acknowledging how systems, policies, and procedures may create barriers to success for some students. Analyses that take an ecosystems approach—focusing on how the social, economic, and geographic environment shapes outcomes—provide valuable insight into the nature of inequities that exist and how these inequities might be overcome. Equally important is to identify the possible or probable causes of inequities to understand how race, gender, and other variables influence students’ experiences in CTE. Analyses must also extend beyond merely identifying average effect sizes to investigating variation in treatment experiences by subpopulations, an approach that provides valuable insights into how young people in different subpopulations fare relative to their peers in specific contexts. Using data and analysis in this way can provide the evidence needed to support policy recommendations aimed at closing equity gaps and creating the conditions that all students need to transition successfully into adulthood.
  • Engaging the communities that participate in our studies: Because evidence is critical for making data-driven decisions, it is important when designing causal studies to include the participating communities and other stakeholders in the knowledge generation and interpretation processes. These communities and stakeholders can also play an important role in informing researchers’ understanding of the specific causes of inequities identified in study findings. Research should be an inclusive process—the communities being studied and those directly affected by research findings should be included in the planning, implementation, and interpretation of research.
  • Asking what more is needed to promote equity: Embracing equity as a measure of success in education research will take time and will require a significant shift in the way research is conceptualized, designed, and conducted. However, to promote a more just society, it is imperative that researchers keep equity at the center of their work.

Although the CTE Research Network is funded to conduct causal studies, which can play a role in identifying inequities, we realize that other research methods also play a role in deepening the field’s understanding of such inequities. For example, qualitative and implementation research can be used to gain important insight into the contextual factors that shape or reinforce inequities and can also be used to engage stakeholders as informants on the topic. Therefore, building the field’s knowledge of these issues will require employing a range of data collection efforts.

In the meantime, the CTE Research Network is taking the following action steps to continue to advance our equity-minded approach to CTE research:

  • Developing a set of equity questions to consistently consider during network convenings
  • Elevating issues of equity in all network presentations
  • Sharing resources on equity to help network members think critically about how best to bring an equity lens to bear on research and evaluation studies
  • Creating and promoting opportunities to help diversify researchers engaged in causal CTE research

As a network, we believe these research practices will shine a light on (in)equity in CTE. Where inequities exist, we hope our work will inform education policymaking that aims not only to close existing equity gaps but also to prevent the perpetuation of inequities in CTE. We invite other researchers to join us in this effort by taking similar action steps as part of their own research and evaluation endeavors. The following resources can inform researchers’ understanding of equity issues in general and in CTE studies in particular:


Andrews, K., Parekh, J., & Peckoo, S. (2019). How to embed a racial and ethnic equity perspective in research: Practical guidance for the research process. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Dougherty, S. M. (2016). Career and technical education in high school: Does it improve student outcomes? Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED570132

Hemelt, S. W., Lenard, M. A., & Paeplow, C. G. (2017). Building better bridges to life after high school: Experimental evidence on contemporary career academies. Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED572934

Hodge, E., Dougherty, S., & Burris, C. (2020). Tracking and the future of career and technical education: How efforts to connect school and work can avoid the past mistakes of vocational education. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/cte

Kemple, J. (2008). Career academies: Long-term impacts on work, education, and transitions to adulthood. New York: MDRC. Retrieved from https://www.mdrc.org/publication/career-academies-long-term-impacts-work-education-and-transitions-adulthood

Rosen, R., & Molina, F. (2019). Practitioner perspectives on equity in career and technical education. New York: MDRC. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED596458