Is quick expansion of career and technical education a viable policy?

A student operates a drill press in a metalwork class

Editor’s Note:
This post originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report’s

Knowledge Bank


Are we ready to expand career and technical education offerings as the next frontier in education policy? “College and career ready” has been an aspirational label in education for years, though many in the know recognize the label is generally used as a stand-in for the Common Core State Standards—and the focus there is decidedly tipped towards college readiness and away from career preparation. Yet in recent years, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have been promoting the career side of the label more, making the case that technical education is not at odds with academic preparation. With union leaders, industry groups, and researchers joining the list of those backing it, career and technical education appears to be well poised to gain steam as the next viable policy lever to help improve the plight of America’s youth.

Last week, the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. released a new report on career and technical education that adds some fuel to this fire. In it, author Shaun Dougherty examines high school, college, and labor market outcomes for three cohorts of Arkansas high school students based on their differential participation in career and technical education coursework. This study stands out for its focus on this array of outcomes, as well as being conducted in a state with relatively robust career and technical education requirements for high school students.

The results of the study could be considered a hat trick for advocates of career and technical education: students taking more courses graduate from high school at higher rates, are more likely to enroll in a two-year college, and have stronger employment outcomes in the early years after exiting high school. So not only do these courses make high school more interesting for kids, they may even be helping to promote important policy-relevant outcomes that we care about.

Based on the data and research design, the author cannot entirely remove the possibility of selection driving some of these results; in other words, the students that were already predisposed to have strong academic and employment outcomes self-selected into taking more career and technical courses. Yet, the surprisingly small amount of differential participation based on other student characteristics suggests that selection bias is not a serious threat here.

One might argue the “college for all” approach, by sidelining career and technical education, could unintentionally harm major shares of its target populations by pushing marginally prepared students towards college and then leaving behind the remainder of students who don’t attend college with few marketable skills. This study’s results suggest career-oriented coursework may actually improve both college attendance and employment outcomes, a two-for-one that provides some benefits to all students regardless of the path they choose after leaving high school. What’s more is that many of the positive benefits of career and technical education appear to be especially strong for populations that tend to do poorly in the transition between high school and college: males and lower-income students.

Given this positive evidence and broad stakeholder support, schools should stand at the ready to quickly scale up career and technical education in a major way, right? Not so fast; based on the human talent behind these classes, it looks like we should be thinking about long-term growth strategies rather than quick startups. Let me explain.

First, there’s an ongoing national teacher shortage in career and technical education. According to the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, the last few years have seen a rapid increase of student enrollments in these courses (surging by more than 65 percent in the last decade). At the same time, the supply of teachers specialized in career and technical education is shrinking due to fewer education schools offering this certification compounded by baby-boomer retirees.

A second related issue is the dynamic nature of in-demand career and technical skills. The formula for providing kids with the academic skills needed for college does not vary much over time. Yet, the most valuable career and technical skills are determined by market forces, which can fluctuate considerably over time. The most in-demand career specializations, based on the most recent data, are in health science and STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). These are likely not the same specialties that were in vogue when many of today’s current technical educators were hired in years past.

And finally, in thinking about expansions of career and technical offerings we need to consider the implicit tradeoffs between quantity and quality of instruction. Quick expansions may offer more quantity soon, but will likely come at the expense of lower quality instruction in the classroom (as with class-size reduction policies in years past). Though instructor quality was not factored into the Fordham report in Arkansas, it likely played an unobserved role in the success (or not) of individual students.

These problems are all intertwined issues around the training and supply of instructors over time. To address these challenges, policymakers might promote more colleges of education to sponsor career and technical training programs, actively explore alternative certification programs for mid-career professionals to come into the classroom, and otherwise rethink the stereotypical career teacher to craft policies reflecting the ebbs and flows of skill demand among technical instructors over time.

In short, though career and technical education is poised to be the next education reform du jour—and perhaps rightly so, based on this recent evidence—policymakers should be thinking about long-term strategies to ensure student access to high-quality career and technical education coursework in the years ahead.