Learning from the Past: The Evolution of Vocational Education

While many of the high school career and technical education (CTE) programs of today have evolved since the vocational education “wood shop” classes of the 1970s, some students and their parents remain skeptical of work-oriented education. Some families and schools are hesitant to enroll high school students of color in CTE programs, remembering the history in which those students were often tracked into vocational programs that steered them away from college and into jobs that offered few or no opportunities for advancement.

However, many of today’s high-quality CTE programs are proven by research to improve high school graduation rates and subsequent labor market earnings. Some CTE programs also prepare students for both careers and college.

To learn more about how program designers, educators, and other stakeholders can learn from the vocational education programs of the past to build equitable CTE programs today, MDRC’s Center for Effective CTE spoke with Dr. Eddie Fletcher, an associate professor in workforce development and education at The Ohio State University. Dr. Fletcher started his career as a high school CTE teacher in business and marketing. Today, he studies high school career academies—“schools within schools” that aim to restructure large high schools into small learning communities and create better pathways from high school to further education and the workplace. Dr. Fletcher focuses particularly on the role of career academies for ethnically and racially diverse students and students whose families have low incomes.

MDRC: Vocational education fell out of favor in part because of criticism it was used to track students of color and students from families with low incomes away from college and into dead-end jobs. How can today’s CTE avoid the pitfalls of the old model? Why is it important that we have research on racially and ethnically diverse students in CTE?

EF: CTE’s negative stigma was the result of research demonstrating that students were tracked into vocational education subjects and were prepared only, or specifically, for low-wage work. Students were funneled into such jobs based on a host of factors, including their ethnic and racial backgrounds and their socioeconomic status. Then, starting in the 1990s, CTE as a field tried to transform its goals and image to align with schools’ current expectations, which are to ensure students are ready for both college and careers.

However, the stigma has not been easy to change. The lesson for CTE practitioners is that we must customize the curricula and student experience based on students’ own interests. Don’t target them for certain types of careers but see what they are interested in first. Students must have full autonomy to select the pathways they want to go into.

Yet ethnically and racially diverse students and those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often have limited exposure to high-demand careers. It's the job of school personnel and mentors to allow them to explore these possibilities.

CTE programs need to ensure students are experiencing high-quality programs with appropriate, work-based learning activities that lead to internships and industry certifications, for example. They need to be exposed to rigorous core academic courses, including opportunities for accelerated learning in the form of dual enrollment [simultaneous enrollment in high school and college] and advanced placement courses.

MDRC: So what do you feel are the biggest barriers to achieving equity in CTE programs right now?

EF: The proliferation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) college and career pathways in high school has generated a lot of interest in those programs in postsecondary education, but much of that interest is from students who come from more affluent backgrounds, and many of those students are White. Some of these programs have rigorous application processes that weed students out based on prior achievement, and that’s problematic. Programs need to have open-enrollment systems so that they are not limiting participation to certain groups of students.

Before, we had an issue of funneling ethnically and racially diverse students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds into vocational education programs. Now we are starting to see the opposite problem, where we are limiting access to high-quality CTE programs for those populations.

A second barrier to achieving equity in CTE programs is ensuring that our teachers are ethnically and racially diverse as well, and that they have the cultural competencies to address the needs and interests of diverse learners.

Right now, our teaching workforce is predominantly White, which does not reflect our student population. I've discovered in my own research that Black students are often motivated when they see people who look like them as role models. We must ensure that we have teachers, administrators, school counselors, and advisory board members who look like the students they serve. Otherwise, diverse students may think that a career pathway is not for them, or they may have difficulties connecting with those who can motivate them to pursue that pathway.

Related to that issue is the issue of a lack of interest in the teaching profession in general. This lack of interest is even more problematic in CTE because we rely on teachers who have some experience in the industry that they are teaching. It is a challenge to recruit teachers with experience in the field. The teaching profession is not appealing for the obvious reasons: low teacher pay, the challenge for teachers to accommodate the diverse needs of learners. We must be creative in marketing to and recruiting diverse teachers.

One emerging initiative is to “grow your own,” where school districts create career pathways and teach students in high schools with the idea that those students will one day come back to the districts and serve as teachers. There are a number of these programs across the country. The one that I collected data from is in Hillsborough County School District (Tampa, FL).

MDRC: With the explosion of interest in CTE programs, our country can promote the long-term success of students whose parents and grandparents were failed by vocational education. How can policymakers help design and support CTE programs that emphasize the success of students of color and students from families with low incomes?

EF: Policymakers can work to ensure that there are common guidelines and a framework across CTE programs throughout the country. So, for example, ACTE, the Association for Career and Technical Education, has developed a high-quality CTE framework that policymakers can use to establish guidelines and expectations for funding and for CTE programs, and can use for evaluating those types of programs. The framework has guidance for many aspects of effective program provision, including aligning programs to standards and core academic content areas, sequencing programs of study, assessing and instructing students, setting guidelines for the qualifications of program staff members, and ensuring access to and equity in those programs. ACTE also has guidelines for establishing business and community partnerships, building student organizations, and implementing work-based learning using data.

We still have some low-quality CTE programs out there, so it is the duty of policymakers to ensure all students have access to high-quality CTE programs—along the lines described above—and are ready for both college and careers. It cannot be that only certain schools or particular student populations get these high-quality programs. They must be the norm throughout the country.

MDRC: Where do you see CTE in 10 years? And what are the emerging trends that you are seeing in your research?

EF: It is probably not something that most people think of as futuristic, but one of the most enduring and popular high school reform initiatives is the high school career academy model.

Career academies are small learning communities that focus on a career theme or multiple themes. They provide work-based learning opportunities for students. They require advisory boards to get support and engagement from business and industry, postsecondary faculty, and other community members to help support the programs; that support may come in the form of money, of work-based learning opportunities such as internships, or of scholarships for students.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of career academies in many areas. Among other things, their students are more engaged in school and achieve better labor market outcomes after they graduate. More career academies nationwide will generate higher student engagement and better labor market outcomes for high school graduates in the coming years. We have different educational fads that come and go, but career academies are more than a fad and seem to be enduring. I don’t think it’s rocket science. All CTE programs should have some of the components of career academies: small learning communities, a focus on college and career readiness, integrated teaching, and work-based learning.