New research points to benefits of high school CTE programs

Originally posted by Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange for EducationNext.org | Click here to read the original post

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, policymakers and politicians have worked to stave off a perceived decline in the academic preparation of American students. Stubbornly low scores on international exams and signs that many U.S. graduates are ill-equipped for college and the workforce have lent urgency to this perception, and many states have made high-school graduation requirements more rigorous in response. As a result, American high-school graduates today complete more academic courses and more advanced coursework than they did three decades ago. At first glance, this seems clear evidence of progress.

Students from Aviation High School in Queens, New York, are some of the only high school students to compete against adult professionals in the annual national Aerospace Maintenance Competition.
Students from Aviation High School in Queens, New York, are some of the only high school students to compete against adult professionals in the annual national Aerospace Maintenance Competition.

But much of those gains have come at the expense of student participation in vocational, or career and technical education, classes—a broad category of coursework that encompasses everything from welding, to sports management, to computer science. Many praise this shift, arguing that vocational education in high school deters capable students from college and prepares them for “dead-end” jobs. Yet an opposing camp points to shortages in the skilled professions, noting that not all students are college-bound and that for some, vocational training may be the difference between high- and low-paying jobs. Pushing all students to concentrate on core academic classes at the expense of vocational study, advocates say, takes the focus off the occupationally relevant skills and credentials graduates need for a smooth transition to adulthood.

This raises a central question: What is the relationship between modern-day vocational or career and technical coursework and high-school graduates’ success in college or in the workforce? Is vocational education an off ramp to college foisted upon lackluster students, or a different and less costly path toward adult success? We examined high-school and college transcripts and labor-market outcomes for about 4,000 adults to find out.

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