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Overcoming the Stigma of Voc Ed In Today's CTE

In this except from their new book, Making College Work, Georgetown University Professor Harry J. Holzer and Urban Institute Senior Fellow Sandy Baum explain how vocational education fell out of favor and how today's Career and Technical Education can avoid some of the same pitfalls. Their book explores why more low-income students don't complete college and what policy solutions we can use to turn that around. 

Historically, most Career and Technical Education (CTE) in the United States—which was called vocational education or “voc ed”—was low in quality. The academic content was weak, the skills imparted were limited, and the jobs for which students were prepared were often low-wage and low-skill.

Voc ed was where students went if they were not “college prep,” and it was clearly seen as a last-resort option. Indeed, many of the skills taught were for declining occupations and industries, taught by instructors far from the frontier of knowledge of the contemporary labor market.

Even worse, there was a long tradition of tracking those with lower perceived achievement into voc ed. In many cases, race and class, as opposed to measured achievement through test scores, determined the tracks into which students were sorted. Minority and lower-income children were tracked into voc ed much more often than whites and middle-class students. Voc ed and tracking came to be viewed as mechanisms through which historical patterns of social stratification were maintained or even strengthened in secondary schools.

During the 1960s this type of tracking became politically controversial. Both parents and advocates for minorities and the poor fought against it. Unfortunately, opportunities for needed career preparation in high school were eliminated, along with the often pernicious tracking system.

[Read More: Making College Work: Nudging Student Behavior]

Reviving occupational preparation in high school, but making it appropriate for all students and integrating it with college preparation, is not a new idea. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 promoted similar goals, and the associated efforts to provide work-based learning and prepare students for a rapidly evolving labor market appeared to be making a difference. Other directions for reform prevailed in later years, but the incomplete efforts of the past should not prevent us from pursuing more sophisticated efforts in the future.

In recent years the evolution of occupational education into CTE has entailed major efforts to improve both its academic quality and its job market relevance. Gaps remain between the academic rigor of CTE and other high school courses taken, and CTE students are less likely than others to enroll in college.

But these gaps have declined in magnitude. In 2015, 45 percent of students taking four or more CTE classes completed the coursework necessary for four-year college attendance; 74 percent of non-CTE students completed similar course- work; comparable numbers for 1990 were lower for both groups, but especially for CTE concentrators.

Moreover, the expectation is that now those in CTE are there by choice, not because they have been offered limited options, although guidance counselors and teachers still help shape those choices based on their own subjective perceptions of student ability and potential, which are too often influenced by racial stereotypes.

There is some evidence that the lower average academic level of CTE students reflects their earlier academic achievement, rather than weaker standards in CTE programs. More generally, it is still true that more CTE students come from low-income families and have lower postsecondary expectations than other students, but these gaps have also narrowed over time.

Attitudes are changing, but negative perceptions of CTE among students and parents persist, based both on historical legacy and on the ongoing reality that CTE students tend to have weaker academic preparation and lower performance levels than other students.

For CTE courses and programs to represent viable alternative pathways to college and careers, the quality must continue to improve, and students and parents must come to respect this alternative approach. Attracting higher-performing students to these courses might be an important component of improving CTE quality.

It is worth noting that CTE and apprenticeships in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other European countries provide high school graduates with broad analytical skills as well as the technical skills for specific occupations. Partly for this reason, high school graduates in many of these countries do not lag as far behind college graduates in earnings as they do in the United States.

European countries seem more comfortable with tracking students permanently away from universities. Given the history of tracking in the United States and its negative consequences for minorities and youth from low-income families, our own view is that we must keep a variety of options alive for students choosing CTE pathways in high school.

Harry J. Holzer is a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University, an Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings. He is also a former Chief Economist at the US Department of Labor.

Sandy Baum is a higher education economist and a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute. She has written extensively on college access, college financing, financial aid, and student debt.

Their book, Making College Work, is set for publication by Brookings Institution Press on Aug. 29. Learn more and order the book here.