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Curmudgucation: The Benefits of Career and Tech Education

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released a study on the benefits of Career and Technical Education, and it is both terribly wrong and beautifully right.

"Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?" was produced by Shaun Dougherty at the University of Connecticut, and it asks exactly that question-- which is kind of the wrong question unless we take a generously broad view of what "student outcomes" means.

The study is based on data from Arkansas, a state that has both pushed CTE and collected a bunch of data on its students over the years-- which in and of itself might give us pause, but let's move on for the moment.

The study opens with a look at what has become of CTE studies over the years, noting that the emphasis on college-for-all and the narrowing of focus to math and English (because Big Standardized Tests with high stakes attached) have put the crunch on CTE studies. But Arkansas has come up with what, on paper at least, is an organized approach, starting with broad industry clusters that narrow all the way down through career pathways to specific courses of study. The three most popular areas of concentration in Arkansas are business, family & consumer sciences, and agriculture.

Daugherty found that students who took more CTE coursework were more likely to graduate, more likely to attend a two-year college, and more likely to be employed after high school. He also found they made more money, but more money here seems to mean either $28 to $45 per quarter which is not peanuts but not enough to write home about.

The report is confused about causation versus correlation. This comes through in headlines like "The more CTE courses students take, the better their education and labor market outcomes" which is meticulously correct while being simultaneously misleading. The most obvious explanation (particularly to those of us who teach career and tech students) is that students who are motivated to follow a CTE path in high school will continue to be motivated to follow that path after high school. Success is self-selecting. There's no reason to believe that slapping the aimless, unmotivated challenge children of a high school into CTE courses would suddenly produce success. Nevertheless, the recommendations of the report are A) that Arkansas stay the course and B) other states pursue CTE education more aggressively and widely.

However, here's the thing-- the study is asking the absolutely wrong question, but arriving at what I believe is the correct answer.

The question is not, "Do career and tech course improve student outcomes?" The question is, "Do career and tech courses meet student needs."

The relationship between a student's course of study and their goals, dreams and eventual place in the world is complicated and subtle. Slamming every student into an Honors English course will not make every one of those students suddenly dream of going to college as an English major, though it may inspire and nudge a few in that direction. But my goal as an English teacher has never been to create an army of English majors, but to help foster students who are headed at a wide variety of destinations and who are all a little better at reading, writing, speaking and listening than when they arrived in my classroom.

Likewise, making every single student sign up for welding will not automatically result in an army of welders.

Any educational plan that does not factor in the hopes, dreams, goals, talents and abilities of the students involved is a stupid, worthless, and probably unethical plan.

It is the privilege and right of every individual human being to choose a destination on the other side of the education forest. It is the privilege and duty of the education system to provide an assortment of paths that will aid the student in getting to their chosen destination (or, in many cases, help the student figure out what destination they would prefer and allow them to change paths without having to backtrack). The metaphorical problem with the college-for-all emphasis is that we then make some students try to get to the Meadow of Welding by way of College Prep Lane, which is way out of their way.

My school district is a part of a county-wide co-op of districts that together have run a career and tech school for over forty years. It started as a standard vocational-technical school and has evolved with the times, and many of my students attend. I am always surprised when I discover a school district doesn't have such a program-- why would you not?

I know part of the answer. Vocational, technical, and career education suffer from a deficit model-- studying welding is for students who aren't smart enough, focused enough, good enough to take honors courses. That's dead wrong. CTE education may serve students with different interests and skill sets, but "different from" is NOT the same as "less than." Imagine a world where a guidance counselor shakes her head sadly and says, "Well, Chris just can't handle working with power tools, so we'll stick Chris in AP Calculus and hope for the best."For my students, the career path is not their Plan B because they can't hack academically focused classes, but their Plan A because it takes them where they want to go.

And I suspect that some defenders of public ed will be put off by this report, thinking that it sounds like a method of grooming more drones for the corporate mill. It certainly has the potential to be abused that way, but I believe providing this sort of path for the students who set these sort of vocational and career goals is absolutely the right thing to do. 

The Fordham is correct-- every student in America should have access to these programs, because not every student in America wants, needs or is inclined toward a bachelor's degree. The built in pro-college bias in public ed is certainly not new, but the college ready (with "and career" added as a quick afterthought) push of reform has not helped. We need a clear and deliberate path available for all those students who would prefer to pursue, as Mike Rowe put it, the work that makes civilized life possible for the rest of us.

The Fordham is confused, in that the Common Core, test-driven policies that they so love work directly against CTE. The Core was absolutely designed as a let's-get-everyone-ready-for-college, and the last minute attempt to tack on "career ready" to plug the gaping PR hole didn't change the fact that the Core-flavored Big Standardized Tests are absolutely useless in determining whether a student is successful on a CTE track. Worse, as widely and repeatedly noted, the BS Tests have created pressure to squeeze out everything that's not test prep math and English-- and that includes CTE. When it comes to CTE, Fordham is literally one of its own worst enemies.

The Fordham is incorrect in asserting that the value of CTE can be measured by looking for improved student outcomes. This suggests that CTE (or any other program) needs to be justified and sold based on its utility in improving some sort of metric for some sort of report for some sort of overseers of public ed. That approach simply repeats the common reformsters mistake of turning education on its head and requiring students to serve the institution.

No-- career and tech education is valuable because it serves the needs of a large sector of the student population, and does so in the setting of public schools where students can easily exercise choices when it comes to switching or blending the many kinds of tracks available to them. There's more to say for extending that thought, but let's not go there now, because the most important part is the first part-- career and tech education is valuable because it serves the needs of many students. Period. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...