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Career and technical education (CTE) programs are diverse. But, historically, they have all carried a common stigma: They are not academic.
CTE has traditionally been seen as an alternative to academic programs. This nonacademic stigma brings on a stereotype, especially for high schoolers: Students in CTE programs are unmotivated, uninterested in learning, and unfocused. What truth is there in this stereotype? Are students who lack the noncognitive skills generally associated with academic success (e.g., motivation, persistence, self-control, and conscientiousness) more likely to take CTE courses?
We draw on data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a US Department of Education survey that followed more than 15,000 American 10th graders for a decade, from 2002 through 2012. The data contain measures of noncognitive skills, such as student self-reports of self-efficacy in academics, teacher reports of student behavior, and observed levels of student conscientiousness and self-control (as measured by survey effort).
We examine two groups of CTE students: students in traditional comprehensive high schools who take CTE courses and students who enroll in stand-alone vocational-technical schools. Our analysis compares these groups of students to students who took few to no CTE courses in high school.
In traditional comprehensive high schools, students with lower test scores in math and reading are more likely to take large numbers of CTE courses. Yet once we control for test scores, CTE course takers are less likely to drop out of high school and on average have higher annual earnings by their mid-20s than students who take few or no CTE courses.
Students who attend vocational-technical schools also have test scores lower than the traditional high school student who takes few to zero CTE courses. Yet compared to these traditional high school students, students at vocational-technical schools are more likely to be employed full time by young adulthood and, hence, appear to have higher annual earnings. What can explain this difference in long-term outcomes?
We find that CTE course takers have other noncognitive skills that are higher than otherwise-similar students. Based on behavioral measures of noncognitive skills, we observe that CTE students exhibit more effort on routine tasks. According to teacher reports of student behavior, CTE students are just as attentive as their peers, just as likely to complete their homework, and much less likely to be absent from class.
In sum, CTE course takers have on average higher noncognitive skills, compared to otherwise-similar students. This conclusion belies the image of these students as unmotivated and unfocused, and it belies the stereotype that CTE programs recruit substandard students. To assess the true value of CTE programs, one should look beyond their participants’ test scores.
Career and technical education (CTE) programs differ in substance and structure, but they have customarily carried a common stigma: They are not academic.
In the United States, CTE is a loose set of programs and policies. All aim to provide students with skills needed for a particular career. CTE can refer to specific programs such as vocational schools or career academies or more vague offerings such as technical education classes or shop class.
CTE programs have historically served as educational alternatives to more conventional high school programs that focus on academics. This nonacademic conception brings an old, durable stereotype: Students in CTE programs are unmotivated, uninterested in academics, and unfocused. What truth is there in this stereotype? We seek to explore this question regarding high school students.
Questions of motivation and focus get to a person’s very character. So we ask: Do noncognitive skills predict whether students will pursue CTE offerings? That is, are students who lack the noncognitive skills generally associated with academic success (e.g., motivation, self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and grit) more likely to take CTE courses?
We use a national, longitudinal data set that allows us to look at students in two CTE settings:
Do students who select these CTE tracks differ from their peers, in terms of academic achievement, attitudes, classroom behaviors, and other noncognitive skills? Do students in different CTE programs differ from each other?
In common conversation, students who attend vocational-technical schools and students in traditional public schools who predominantly take CTE courses may be thought of in the same way and be similarly stereotyped. However, our analysis shows these two CTE programs are quite different from each other and from their non-CTE peers, in both 10th-grade skills and later life outcomes.
In comprehensive high schools, students with lower test scores in math and reading are more likely to take large numbers of CTE courses. Yet once we control for test scores, CTE course takers are less likely to drop out of high school and on average have higher annual earnings by their mid-20s, as compared to students who take few or zero CTE courses.
Students who attend vocational-technical schools also have lower test scores than the traditional high school student who takes few to no CTE courses. Yet compared to these traditional high school students, students at vocational-technical schools are more likely to be employed full time by young adulthood and appear to have higher annual earnings.
These patterns are consistent with the recent findings of economists Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange.1 Students with lower test scores take more CTE courses, yet taking more CTE courses is associated with higher earnings. Assuming that academic achievement is a key driver of long-run life success, this pattern of lower test scores appears inconsistent with the higher earnings experienced by CTE students.
Kreisman and Stange thus hypothesize that students who voluntarily enroll in CTE courses have higher unmeasured skills—presumably noncognitive skills—that lead to later life success. Our analysis will speak to this proposition. In other words, our paper examines a question that previous studies of CTE have almost entirely left out. Test scores aside, do the students who eventually pursue CTE offerings differ from their peers on measures of noncognitive skills?
Exactly what are noncognitive skills? Generally speaking, noncognitive skills are the skills that most standardized tests fail to measure. Such tests capture cognitive skills, by design. More specifically, noncognitive skills consist of character skills, emotional dispositions, and personality traits. Extensive research, including our own previous work, has demonstrated that high school students’ noncognitive skills are important predictors of later life success.2
Noncognitive skills are difficult to measure, especially in schoolchildren; doing so requires a mix of self-reported surveys, third-party reports, and behavioral (or task-based) measures. That is one reason that policy research, including CTE research, relies heavily on tests that assess easier-to-measure skills such as literacy and numeracy.
Self-reports consist of students considering a series of statements such as “I take a positive attitude toward myself” and choosing an item from a scale indicating their degree of agreement. Third-party reports are when others, such as teachers or parents, fill out questionnaires about their students. Such data sources are well-known and frequently used. Behavioral measures based on observing a student completing a task are rarer.
In our previous work, we developed new behavioral measures of noncognitive skills. For instance, we look at the amount of effort that students show when taking surveys.3 These effort-based measures, combined with those available in the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:02) data set, allow us to conduct a novel study of CTE students.
We explore whether those who sort into CTE courses and vocational-technical schools are measurably different from their peers on several noncognitive skills, including self-efficacy, motivation, and attentiveness. Like practically all the literature on CTE course taking, our findings are descriptive. We examine differences between CTE students and their peers in 10th grade by asking: Do noncognitive skills predict enrollment in CTE courses or vocational-technical school?
As mentioned, student test scores are predictive of CTE course taking. In traditional high schools, the relationship is negative. Students with lower 10th-grade test scores in math and English are more likely to enroll in a higher number of CTE courses by the end of 12th grade.
Regarding noncognitive skills, CTE course takers have poorer attitudes about their math and English language arts (ELA) abilities. True perhaps to stereotype, 10th-grade students who express low opinions of their own self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, study effort, or extrinsic motivation in these core academic subjects are more likely to eventually take large numbers of CTE courses.
However, on behavioral measures, CTE course takers score better than their peers even after accounting for demographic characteristics and test scores in math and reading. When it comes to teacher reports of student behavior and students’ own behavioral measures of effort, students with higher levels of desirable noncognitive skills are more likely to enroll in CTE courses. In particular, students who according to their 10th-grade teachers were less likely to be “frequently absent” were more likely to take high numbers of CTE courses. Likewise, students who performed better in terms of effort on the survey—that is, they were less likely to skip questions or “just fill in the bubbles”—were more likely to enroll later in CTE courses. In short, students who select into CTE courses act more conscientiously than their peers, even if they express lower self-efficacy and motivation in ELA and math.
We also examine students who attend full-time voc-tech schools. On average, these students do not differ from students who attend traditional high schools in terms of their cognitive and noncognitive characteristics.
Our analysis adds to an extensive descriptive literature on CTE course takers in traditional public schools. Previous and contemporary research shows consistently that students with lower test scores are more likely to sort into CTE classes. Yet, controlling for test scores, CTE course takers fare better at least upon entry into young adulthood. They are more likely to complete high school, and, though they may not necessarily be more likely to complete four-year degrees, they are more likely to be employed full time and have higher employment earnings.4 We observe these same patterns in our analysis.
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