What’s CTE? And It Increased High School Graduation Rates by HOW Much?

If I had to guess, there is a general sense among adults in general that high schools in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country currently offer many fewer shop classes then they used to.  They’re right if they think that.

If I had to guess a second time, I would say people in general are less familiar with the rise of something called “Career and Technical Education,” which might be thought of as encompassing – and significantly adding to – the aims of old-time shop classes.

My own aim here is to report on an important 2016 study that found, among other things, that “Students who focus their CTE coursework are more likely to graduate high school by twenty-one points compared to otherwise similar students (and they see a positive impact on other outcomes as well).”

But first a copious definition, courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Career Technical Education programs offer academic and technical skills, knowledge and training to succeed in future careers.  [In a possible cost-cutting move, MDE’s website leaves out the ‘and’ between ‘Career’ and ‘Technical.]  CTE programs prepare learners for the future by providing learning experiences spanning career fields such as agriculture, architecture, culinary arts, engineering, fashion design, electrical and plumbing, health care, robotics, construction, veterinary medicine, education, or accounting.”

Adding specificity to this roster, Minneapolis Public Schools offer these high school courses:

  • Business and finance at Edison and Southwest.
  • Computer science at Patrick Henry, Southwest, and Transition Plus.
  • Radio broadcasting at North.
  • Web design & Digital Communication at Edison, Patrick Henry, Roosevelt, South Southwest, and Washburn.
  • Automotive at Roosevelt.
  • Engineering & Technology at North and Washburn.
  • Construction at Roosevelt.
  • Health care at Roosevelt.
  • And cosmetology at Edison.

It’s an impressive list, and to be frank, I have a lot to learn about these programs and plan on doing just that.  This is vital since my focus since last year in American Experiment’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project has been on programs and activities after high school.  The need to know more is further reinforced by the opening lines of a very good piece by Tom Robertson, reporting from Brainerd, on MPR News four years ago (April 5, 2013).

“If good jobs are going unfilled in parts of Minnesota,” he spoke and wrote, “some people will tell you the problem starts in high school.  Too many young people don’t get exposed to industrial technology careers available to them and thus have neither the awareness nor training they might make good use of, say employers who are in a hiring mode.”

Continuing, Robertson said, “Both career counseling generally and shop classes specifically have declined in Minnesota high schools in recent years.  Employers and higher education officials alike blame that for part of what they consider a skills gap.”

All true still, hence a further reason for the Center’s “Great Jobs” initiative.

With all that as useful prologue, what about the “important 2016 study” teased above?

Conducted by Shaun M. Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, it was published under the auspices of the Fordham Institute and goes by the title “Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?”  Its overall and short answer is “yes.”  As for how he came to his conclusions, he took advantage of an unusually “rich set of data from the Arkansas Research Center,” making it possible to follow three cohorts of students, more than 100,000 young people in all, “from eighth grade through high school, and into college and/or the workforce . . . .”  Here are four key findings among others.

  • “Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages.”
  • “CTE is not a path away from college: Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.”
  • “CTE provides the greatest boost to the kids who need it most – boys, and students from low-income families.”
  • And as noted above, “Students who focus their CTE coursework” are more likely to graduate high school – by a quite substantial 21 percentage points – than similarly situated students.

I would urge you to review all the paper’s findings, as well as consider Dougherty’s recommendations.  But for a concluding comment here, something in an anonymously written Foreword fits perfectly with what propels Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.

“American students face a double-whammy.  Not only do they lack access to high-quality secondary CTE, but then they are subject to a ‘bachelor’s degree or bust” mentality.  And many do bust, dropping out of college with no degree, no work skills, no work experience, and a fair amount of debt.  That’s a terrible way to begin adult life.  We owe it to America’s students to prepare them for whatever comes after high school, not just academic programs at four-year universities.”