MDRC in the News

Putting Evidence on CTE to Work

Commentary by Shaun M. Dougherty


The expanded policy focus on career and technical education (CTE) at the local, state, and federal levels has brought many opportunities for innovation and growth. Labor market demand in health services and information technology (IT), as well as shortages of skilled tradespeople and increased employment in a variety of advanced manufacturing fields, has fueled the demand for change. In response, many states and local districts have worked to align their education program offerings with current and anticipated employment demands. The 2018 reauthorization of the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (now known as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, or Perkins V) supports these efforts by providing grants to states to support CTE programs. New Perkins requirements stipulate that program offerings must align with workforce requirements, emphasizing the need for education leaders to reassess and realign their program offerings.

Innovations in CTE policy have so far outstripped the pace of new research on the efficacy of these changes, but the research base is growing…..

…..In addition to the evidence that CTE can improve workforce outcomes, we are finding that CTE also can guide transitions to postsecondary education. This is especially true when CTE programming in high school has a clear pathway to additional required training for workforce entry (Ecton & Dougherty, in press). An example is health care, where a student might go from a health assisting program in high school into a licensed practical nursing (LPN) program in college. Aligned pathways also exist in engineering, business, hospitality, and other areas.

Some of the efforts to bridge this transition period are being studied in CTE whole-school models. For example, MDRC has been engaged in a multiyear study following students who were admitted via lottery to schools in New York City’s P-tech program. These schools span grades 9-14, providing four years of high school and up to two years of college. They are designed to ensure access to training in high-demand industries and occupations as well as to serve as a bridge to postsecondary certification and degrees, particularly in fields that require training beyond high school. Recognizing that CTE engages students in their studies, even if they do not plan to work or pursue further training in an applied field, this model facilitates the earning of college credits (and, potentially, an associate degree) while in high school. Evidence from the study suggests that students in P-tech schools are much more likely to take and earn college credits while in high school than students who applied but weren’t admitted. Though the study cannot yet see students through six full years of the 9-14 program, at the end of the fourth year, P-tech students earned the equivalent of two courses’ worth of college credit more than their peers outside P-tech (Dixon & Rosen, 2022)…..

…..Over the last five years, the Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, has funded a network of researchers and policy experts to expand the evidence base for CTE using study designs that allow for results to be interpreted in a “cause and effect” or causal manner. The CTE Research Network has convened research teams from across the U.S., performed trainings, and worked with the Association for Career and Technical Education and Jobs for the Future to disseminate findings and improve local policy and practice. At the same time, other research consortia focused on CTE have begun or expanded. MDRC has increased its focus on CTE research with its Center for Effective Career and Technical Education. Similarly, a group of researchers spanning five states have created the CTE Policy Exchange to provide both high-quality research on CTE and state-specific technical assistance. Each of these groups makes evidence available through their websites, hosts trainings, and disseminates their findings across national and international audiences. Much of the evidence cited above has been generated by researchers connected to these endeavors, and there is good reason to expect more in the years to come…..

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