Report: Evidence Lacking for Current CTE Investments

A new report has examined whether career and technical education (CTE) deserves all the attention it's getting. The jury's still out. MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, undertook a study to understand what evidence existed to support the ongoing enthusiasm for CTE as a way to help employers bridge the skills gap and give students the training they need for "viable economic futures."

As the report noted, interest in 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 21st century jobs." An indication of that resurgence was the bipartisan support for the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. In mid-2018 that was signed into law as a reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Under the new rules, states have a bigger responsibility in setting goals for CTE programs and monitoring progress.

Many innovative programs have been introduced at both the high school and college levels to give students training in specific technical areas. (Several of those have been supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which funded this research project.) The goal of CTE is to outfit students with the skills for making "a successful transition to post-secondary education, which will in turn allow them to build sustainable careers with middle-class wages."

Yet, the researchers pointed out, the evidence base "has lagged" to back the value of investing in these programs. Where evidence does exist, it "varies in quality."

As detailed in the report, the most popular approaches for CTE are:

  • Instruction and training, "clusters" of courses in specific fields, such as healthcare;
  • Career pathways, which include integrated sets of classes dedicated to specific careers and work-based learning experiences;
  • Apprenticeships, paid or unpaid work that helps students acquire to job-specific skills and credentials; and
  • Career-readiness skills programs, for helping students develop soft skills.

The report examined each type of CTE and profiled the various types of studies they attracted (or didn't attract). While the most evidence exists for the first flavor of CTE--the instruction and training--in which multiple studies have suggested that CTE participation and improve students' outcomes and that career-related degrees or certificates lead to better incomes, there's "currently little to no evidence" about the effects of programs set up to teach readiness skills, the fourth kind of CTE training.

While enthusiasm is still high for CTE, it's time to examine what "challenges and threats" are likely to derail investments, the researchers stated. For example, can employers and educators in a region "accurately project" where economic growth will take place? Are K-12 and college systems "nimble enough" in adjusting their training to those skills sought by employers? Will under-represented or under-performing students have access to CTE in the higher-paying sectors? Will there be enough "work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities" to enable programs to scale sufficiently? Will support for CTE be sustainable? And can the programs be identified that have the greatest success rates for students, local labor markets and employers?

Now is the time, they advised, to consider making "astute investments" in six macro areas tied to CTE:

  • Helping states and regions "analyze their labor markets quickly and in a sophisticated way," so they can map their CTE efforts with those parts of the economy that are likely to grow;
  • Embedding the gathering of evidence into policies and practices associated with success, including tightly involving employers in course development and internship set-up;
  • Helping successful programs grow into new labor markets while still staying true to their models;
  • Building tracking systems to help CTE operators manage their programs and develop reporting on measures tied to participation, degree attainment, labor-market outcomes and equity;
  • Keeping policymakers and practitioners up to date on the investments that will help them reach goals, whether linked to education, the labor market or equity; and
  • Encouraging public participation with and awareness of intermediary organizations associated with CTE.

The report is openly available on the MDRC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.