On July 31, 2018, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) was signed into law, giving state leaders a new opportunity to improve career and technical education (CTE) programs. High-quality CTE programs offer rigorous academic content alongside technical courses in specific occupations as well as hands-on learning experiences. However, these programs cannot only be available in the best-resourced schools. They must be available in schools that serve primarily historically disadvantaged students, designed so that these students have the skills and experience to participate in the high-wage jobs that comprise the future of the workforce. In doing so, they help prepare students for the future, allowing them greater flexibility to pursue career opportunities after high school.
CTE courses are considered electives in most schools. Thus, racial disparities and opportunity gaps in access to and completion of these programs show the need for CTE programs that reflect the demands of their communities and align with fast-growing and high-paying careers of the future. Perkins V adds flexibility for states to address the specific needs of students, schools, and employers by requiring applicants to create program performance objectives and local needs assessments and by encouraging states to better align CTE programs with local employment needs. In order to take full advantage of CTE programs, however, states must create objectives that address racial inequities in access and participation. High-quality CTE programs should address this alignment and be designed with equity in access and opportunity as a central goal.
Academic and workforce benefits of CTE programs
Improving CTE programs is a worthwhile investment. Research suggests that participation in CTE programs may improve students’ academic and workforce outcomes. A study of three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Indiana—found that earning a credential is associated with an increased likelihood of high school completion. Furthermore, participation in CTE programs increases the likelihood of community college enrollment and college completion. Students in these programs score higher on standardized tests, achieve higher GPAs, and show more progress toward graduation than comparison groups. For students taking upper-level technical skills courses, each additional year of coursework is associated with a nearly 2 percent increase in wages.
Despite these clear benefits, critics of CTE programs suggest that these programs involve trade-offs in the workforce. For example, acquiring technical skills can help graduates in the short term but provide fewer long-term career prospects for students who do not take upper-level coursework. Therefore, programs should place a focus on both technical skills and academic rigor in order to provide students with a path to good jobs and careers.
Why CTE programs should aim for racial equity
CTE programs that are designed with equitable access and outcomes in mind could help schools address existing racial disparities and narrow opportunity gaps. In 2016-17, Black and Hispanic students graduated from high school at rates lower than the U.S average of 85 percent—at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Since 1980, only 58 percent of Black adults and 45 percent of Hispanic adults have attended college, compared with 80 percent of Asians and 72 percent of whites; and a similar gap in college degree attainment has only grown during this time. Once Black and Latinx students enter college, they are more likely to leave academic programs in STEM fields. Several factors may contribute to this trend, including students experiencing racial bias, not meeting academic expectations, or choosing to pursue careers that are aligned to social justice issues. And even among college graduates, there are significant racial disparities in wealth; a recent study from the Brookings Institution found that white college graduates hold seven times the wealth of Black graduates and four times the wealth of Latinx graduates. These gaps also exist in the workforce, where African Americans comprise 12 percent of all working Americans but represent only 7 percent of those employed in the 10 highest-paying, middle-skill jobs. Meanwhile, Latinx Americans make up 17 percent of the workforce but hold only 12 percent of the highest-paying, middle-skill jobs.
Meaningfully improving racial equity would help to increase these groups’ access to and participation in CTE programs that improve academic and workforce outcomes, thus narrowing the significant opportunity gaps that exist along racial lines.
Problems with equity in CTE access and participation
Inequities in college and career outcomes have also plagued CTE programs. Historically, schools would place students into technical education programs as an extension of Jim Crow-era segregation, tracking students into low-quality programs by race and social class, leading to dead-end jobs. Research suggests that students of color still face disparities in access to and participation in high-quality CTE programs. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics on the federal CTE program show that white and Black students participate in at least one CTE course at about the same rate (82 percent), and their Hispanic peers participate at a rate of 78 percent. These data also show the gaps persist and worsen as students progress. Twenty-two percent, 18 percent, and 16 percent of white, Black and Hispanic students, respectively, achieve the CTE concentrator status of three CTE courses. A survey of Illinois High School Association CTE coursework found similar underrepresentation in CTE programs that consist of more STEM programming. From 1992 to 2013, all high school students earned progressively fewer credits in CTE coursework on average. In 2013, white students earned more credits on average in CTE (3.2 credits) compared with Black (2.9 credits) and Hispanic (2.6 credits) students.
These disparities in students’ upper-level coursework as well as access to and participation in career education only reinforce existing inequities in college and workforce readiness.
To be sure, the issue of addressing equity in CTE programs also extends to the employers who host CTE students in high-quality work-based learning experiences. However, given that the primary responsibility for operating and administering CTE programs lies with states, the author’s suggestions focus on state policy.
How states can increase equity in access and participation
Perkins V’s focus on data collection and sharing for subgroups of students is a necessary aspect of improving equity. The law requires data disaggregation on several indicators, including race and gender. In an analysis of research into CTE programs, only one-quarter of studies reported the racial and ethnic composition of their samples from 2005 to 2011. However, by increasing data collection on advanced academic and technical classes, Perkins V can help states illuminate and narrow existing opportunity gaps.
For instance, states can increase equity by creating goals and reporting data on access and participation. In Denver, for example, CareerConnect recently partnered with Denver Public Schools’ Division of Student Equity and Opportunity to make CTE programs available to all students. The program focuses on special CTE populations, offering work habits and technical skills that align with their chosen careers. Notably, this program facilitates student access to rigorous content, participation, peer interaction, and teacher attention with an awareness of various student cultures. The program also connects students with employers from industries with “the most opportunity for economic and educational mobility,” focusing on information technology, business operations, financial services, health care, and advanced manufacturing—the jobs of the future. These programs also increase student engagement with the workforce through internships and apprenticeships. Meanwhile, in Boston Public Schools, the Office of Opportunity Gaps is making conscious efforts to build programs that foster opportunities for marginalized students. One of its programs, Excellence For All, consists of developing equity programs in elementary schools that include capstone research projects and STEM coursework. By taking such steps, these programs are improving access and participation for underrepresented groups and, in doing so, helping them to prepare for the future.
America’s most racially diverse generation of students is graduating into a changing workforce. Almost half of Generation Z are people of color, and the majority of them are pursuing college. Unfortunately, the nation’s current CTE pathways are not providing more equitable access and participation, especially in CTE programs that do not lead to dead-end jobs.
Recent labor market data make a compelling case for school districts nationwide to prioritize equity by following the lead of innovative CTE programs such as those in Denver and Boston. Roughly three-quarters of new jobs created since 2009 have paid less than $50,000 annually, which is only slightly more than the threshold to be considered a middle-class household. By collecting data and acknowledging opportunity gaps in fields such as STEM, states can create programs that increase access to and participation in CTE programs that lead to well-paying jobs among Black and Latinx students.
School districts should also pair technical programs with an increase in rigorous coursework in order to better prepare students of color, in particular, for advanced coursework in college, putting them on a path to better-paying careers. This means increasing participation in upper-level courses and creating accountability systems to avoid tracking students of color into lower-track career preparation. To build equitable CTE programs, school districts must also give students the supports they need to become successful adults while working to address racial opportunity gaps. Creating these high-quality CTE programs will not be easy, but it is the right time for states to take the lead.
Ryan Smith is a former intern for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.