Interest in the field of career and technical education (CTE) has experienced a resurgence over the last decade, as the global economy has grown increasingly competitive while students have continued to leave school underprepared for well-paying twenty-first century jobs. Together and separately, the education and workforce sectors have sought to address these challenges and better prepare students for viable economic futures. The results have been many new, innovative programs at both the secondary and postsecondary education levels that seek to give students technical training for specific careers, general training to prepare them for the workplace, and work-based learning opportunities where they can develop connections to employers and the workforce. While there are still many under-researched areas in CTE, this paper attempts to capture the evidence that has emerged—identifying areas where there is more evidence as well as areas where gaps in evidence still exist. The studies that have been conducted on CTE have demonstrated that it shows promise, but it is imperative to continue building evidence, particularly where there is policy interest and momentum but little data. Doing so will help demonstrate how those programs and models serve students and ensure that the continued scaling up of CTE is supported by a rigorous evidence base.
This paper begins with an overview of the issues in the education system and the labor market that have led to the current revival of CTE. It argues that the skills today’s employers need are not the ones schools are providing. The paper continues with a description of how various policies have fostered the growth of CTE. In the next section, it provides details on the types of programs and institutions that offer CTE, and the evidence base to support each of them. The paper provides evidence on the effectiveness of CTE at different educational levels, and for specific subgroups, including students with disabilities, and by gender. Further, the paper provides an overview of the available evidence to support different kinds of programs offered at both secondary and postsecondary education levels, touching on the amount of evidence available in each area and the level of rigor used in the studies that generated that evidence.
The paper concludes by suggesting that while CTE instruction at the secondary and postsecondary levels could bolster students’ economic mobility by helping them gain postsecondary credentials and obtain higher-paying jobs, there are challenges involved in turning that promise into reality. Investments in evidence-based practices can give CTE programs a better chance at success.