Career and technical education (CTE) is one of the most popular education policy issues today, both across the states and at the federal level. In 2017, gubernatorial candidates mentioned CTE more than any other education issue in their campaigns. And in 2018, in “State of the State” addresses, more governors mentioned CTE than any other education issues. (Twenty-four of 46 speeches mentioned CTE.)
State legislatures passed 85 CTE-related bills, only five of which were vetoed, in 2018—more than any other education issue besides teaching. That is up from 42 CTE bills in 2016 and 61 in 2017. Federal legislators are also on board, and in late summer 2018, Congress reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act via voice vote, a sure indicator of bipartisan support in this political environment.
CTE’s popularity across states and across the aisle might not have been possible 10—and certainly not 20—years ago. What we now know as CTE was once thought of as “vocational education,” a term that not only carried substantial social stigma but also was associated with a general lack of egalitarianism and a specific role in tracking students by race and class. Running directly against the dominant grain of “college for all,” vocational education was often viewed as a step backward for students, pushing them (especially low-performing students) toward the dead-end jobs of yesteryear rather than the careers of the future through the promise of postsecondary education.
CTE’s surging popularity has been bolstered by good public relations and research that push back on the stigma long associated with CTE. Advocates such as the Association for Career and Technical Education have trumpeted promising statistics about CTE’s ability to increase graduation rates, academic motivation, course taking, and earnings, to name a few. After a successful rebranding, CTE has substantially shed the negative connotations of vocational education. Now it is widely hailed as a necessary and potentially viable path forward for students who have been poorly served by a college-for-all culture.
But this rebranding has made CTE more amorphous. One can advocate for precision welding and manufacturing in high school or for STEM career tracks that require significant postsecondary work, or even go outside traditional educational pathways to reskill adult workers, and still fall under the broad umbrella of CTE.
While there are marked differences from the stereotypical vocational education, today’s high school CTE programs, which were and are the main provision of CTE education in high school, are substantially shaped by recent history. The developments in those high school programs—and the programs likely to be left on the cutting-room floor as CTE continues to evolve—are evident in the transcripts of generations of high school students.
In this report, I examine 30 years of CTE course taking by examining transcripts of nationally 4 representative samples of US high school graduates in selected years from 1982 to 2013. Using a classification of CTE occupational subject areas used in the most recently available transcript data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), I show how CTE course taking has changed over that period, overall and by concentration. In addition, I use test scores to show changes in the relative academic level of CTE concentrators.
I find marked declines in CTE course taking over these three decades, declines that are larger and longer than previously detailed. Beneath that overall decline lie different patterns: Some CTE career concentrations are expanding and have participants with markedly higher test scores, while other concentrations, which are traditionally considered the heart of vocational education, are declining slowly and show no changes in participants’ low relative test scores.
Recent and distinct patterns in CTE participation reflect developments in vocational education and CTE over the past century, and they reveal the thorny problems our education system has faced throughout history. Although they may be hidden beneath the veneer of new conceptions of CTE, those problems persist today.
Whether they are resolved will substantially determine whether, and for whom, CTE provides the viable career pathways it promises. As states develop CTE plans pursuant to the latest Perkins reauthorization, they should grapple with these issues to ensure that CTE programs do not forsake the students who may need them the most.
To contact the author, or for more information on this report, please email [email protected] or call 202.862.5829.