Last week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report examining course taking and learner outcomes in CTE. The author used data pulled from the School Courses for the Exchange of Data (SCED), and looked specifically at CTE credits taken across 12 occupational areas from 1985 through 2013. The occupational areas were largely divided into two categories: “traditional,” which includes manufacturing, human services, transportation, construction, agriculture and public service; and “new era,” which includes engineering, computer science, communications, health care and hospitality.
The report found that while course taking in the “traditional” areas have either remained stable or declined over time, course taking for “new era” programs increased by 238 percent. The author also pointed to data that show while CTE students on average have outcomes on par with non-CTE students, that overall average masks differences in outcomes between students in “traditional” and “new era” programs, where those in the former are generally not experiencing the same positive outcomes and experiences as those in the latter.
The author recommends that policymakers address these gaps when developing CTE-related policies, and work to ensure that as CTE becomes more popular with more students, students who need higher-quality programs and more supports are not forgotten in a data system that still shows overall gains.
While this report contains a lot of valuable and interesting discussion, there are a few additional points to consider. What the report calls “new era” CTE are the program areas that represent growing industry sectors across the country, so the increase in course taking is an incredibly positive data point, worth celebrating. That finding validates that the field has been and continues to evolve to better meet the needs of the full economy. The occupational areas deemed “traditional” are still incredibly robust and vital fields but do not occupy the same share of the economy as they once did. For example, over 18 million jobs in 1980 were in the manufacturing sector, and that number declined to 12 million by 2013. The work is still rigorous and important, but increasing course taking in an area with declining job opportunities would not serve students or the economy well. CTE should encompass the entire world of work, not just a few limited fields.
An extremely important aspect of the report centers around data. State leaders continue to grapple with finding a better understanding of who is being served by the CTE system, and importantly, who is being served well. To date, states and locals have not been required under federal accountability systems to examine performance data by both student population and Career Cluster or program level to understand where programs are and are not having positive impacts. The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) presents important opportunities to address this knowledge gap with intention, and states should take advantage.
Ashleigh McFadden, State Policy Manager