Equity Issues

Preventing CTE Renaissance from Repeating Problems of the Past

How can the career and technical education programs of today avoid the equity problems that plagued vocational education in previous generations? That's the question at the heart of a new policy brief from MDRC.

The nonprofit, which tackles some of the stickiest problems facing the country, brought together practitioners from 14 "innovative" CTE programs to discuss the topic. The goal was to prevent CTE, which is currently "enjoying a renaissance" as a route to middle-skill jobs in high-wage, high-demand fields, from becoming mired in the problems of the past, where voc-ed was often used to divert low-income or minority students away from a college education and toward low-paying fields that lacked opportunities for career advancement.

What researchers found were programs that served different populations but with shared challenges, among them, how to define the term "equity" in the first place and how to increase equity in both access and outcomes in the second place.

Participants in the discussion "broadly agreed" that equity refers to the idea that everybody in CTE "should have access to high-quality opportunities and be supported to achieve equally high outcomes," no matter their "races, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds or geographic regions." They also acknowledged that as CTE gains in popularity, it could "reinforce existing inequities" by setting up a "bifurcated system" where students with educational advantages are directed into the high-quality, in-demand programs in growth industries, while everybody else is steered into programs of study for fields that resembled "the old model of vocational education."

Common challenges that surfaced during the gathering touched on three areas: the information made available to students and their families or to the adult participants; the eligibility or screening criteria; and more structural issues, such as access to employer partners or the necessity of meeting funder requirements.

For example, getting targeted information out about CTE opportunities to relevant people can be a challenge due to lack of personnel and resources. Two potential solutions were suggested during the session:

  • Peer communications, where students and alumni vouch for the programs and "describe the programs in ways that resonate with their peers." That's how CareerWise Colorado, P-TECH schools and YouthForce NOLA get the work out to prospective participants.

  • "Sustained, nonintrusive contact," which might take the form of text and email reminders sent out to those who have expressed interest in program, to keep them on track for applications and eligibility documents, a method used by Rutgers University | Newark.

As the brief noted, while practitioners in CTE "are making valiant efforts to invest in programs that can lead to productive careers and futures," structural inequities loom that those practitioners may not be "equipped to address." MDRC's advice: With the help of researchers, incorporate equity goals into the evaluation of programs and develop and test equity-based interventions.

"Practitioner Perspectives on Equity in Career and Technical Education" 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.