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What makes technical education successful today?

A conversation with Professor Shaun Dougherty

While earning a four-year college degree is one path to success in the labor market, college might not be the best choice for everyone. For students who recognize this early in their education careers, they can pursue career and technical education (CTE) at the high school level. CTE helps students build skills that are useful in specific sectors of the labor market, such as skilled trades, advanced manufacturing, health services, and information technology.

To learn more about how CTE has changed over time, I spoke with Professor Shaun Dougherty, a professor of education and policy at Boston College; he is a subject matter expert on CTE. This type of education spans a wide range of approaches, from single classes to immersive, dedicated high schools that students choose to attend. He told me about the ways CTE has changed in response to changes in the economy and how valuable employer partners can be in supporting a program’s curriculum and hiring its graduates.

While several states focus on building the most involved approaches to CTE, we do not have to look far to find examples in our own backyard; Cleveland’s Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School is an immersive example of the CTE model that I recently discussed with its founding principal Tim Jones. It also has an approach to public–private partnerships very much in line with the successful elements of CTE programs that Professor Dougherty described.

Of course, technical education is also of interest to people who recognize the desire for it after their high school experience. Community colleges and retraining programs offer a variety of flexible ways to acquire new skills. In another conversation I spoke with David Wintrich, the founder of a successful coding bootcamp, to hear about the features of training programs that help workers move into IT careers.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Career and Technical Education has changed over time

Dionissi Aliprantis

Could you give an overview of what is meant by the phrase “career and technical education”?

Shaun Dougherty

Sure. Career and technical education is the current language for what has been previously called, for more than half a century, vocational and technical education, at least here in the United States. Most of the rest of the world calls it vocational education and training. But career and technical education is the updated language that was adopted with a previous authorization of the federal Perkins Act. The idea, I think, was one, to change away from the vocational language that I think carries some negative stigma, at least in the US public school system. And two, to recognize the diversification of the career pathways open to students as a function of pursuing vocational education.

To be really specific about it, current technical education still very much encompasses skilled trades, mechanics, manufacturing, training, cosmetology, and culinary arts programs that we might think classically are a part of vocational education.  But it has also expanded to include advanced manufacturing, that is more and differently technical than in the middle of the 20th century, the rapidly expanding fields within health services, and information technology (as a few specific examples).

Dionissi Aliprantis

What types of schools might we classify as being a career and technical education school? And what do such schools do with their students?

Shaun Dougherty

In terms of where career and technical education takes place, most students in high school take at least one elective CTE course, whether they realize it or not. It doesn't always come with that label, but applied business courses, family and consumer science courses are all CTE courses. In addition, the specific, more technical fields are offered at most public high schools in the US, which is the most common place for students to take CTE coursework.

Now, many states also have regional technical centers where students attend part of their day at their residentially-assigned comprehensive high school, and then another part of their day at a regional technical center. And the advantage of those centers is, it allows for expensive equipment to be shared across school districts, sometimes countywide. This model allows more time. It's not a 45 minute or 90 minute period. Students can go and spend half a day in a lab and really get into the training and experience.

And then the least common format for CTE are in full-time CTE-dedicated high schools where students apply to these schools as schools of choice. This model doesn't exist in most states. But when students get into this model in states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, they spend their whole day with the integrated technical and core graduation requirements being offered in that setting, and in ways that are more integrated than is possible in the other settings.

CTE pays off for interested students, especially among males

Dionissi Aliprantis

Who tends to benefit the most from career and technical education?

Shaun Dougherty

Generally, the folks who choose to pursue technical education in high school or college are different in some way that we can't observe from the people who don't choose those pathways. And so there hasn't been a lot of great evidence of whether there's a positive impact of participating, in part, because we haven't been able to solve this selection problem.

The best available evidence, I think, comes from the least common format, the full-time technical high schools. In part, because they're so popular in many places that they're oversubscribed. And then we get some natural experiments that we can learn from. But the evidence there, I think, is pretty clear that students who express an interest and get into these schools have better outcomes on average. And we've been able to demonstrate this on both high school completion and early workforce outcomes.

To get into real differences in who benefits most, I'll just say that in work that I did in Massachusetts, we were able to show that students who came from less financially privileged backgrounds, at least as measured by eligibility for free or reduced price lunch, had an even larger benefit in terms of high school completion than their otherwise higher income peers.

And then I think, importantly for how we think about this in the policy context, in other work that we've been doing in Connecticut, we found that the only real benefits accrue to males who enroll in these technical high schools.  But there's no evidence of harm to female students. And quite honestly, the female students who apply and didn't get in have much better outcomes than the males who applied and didn't get in. And so some of it is a story of avoiding really bad social outcomes for males who are interested in technical education, rather than seeing an equal boon for females. And at least some of this is explained by sorting into really predominantly male fields, like manufacturing and construction trades that have really large payoffs early in the career.

Why CTE works when it works

Dionissi Aliprantis

Based on the research that you've done and your experience, what do you think are the critical features that determine the success of CTE programs or schools? And how do you think about the differences across the different modes of CTE that you described earlier?

Shaun Dougherty

So one feature that's present in the technical centers, which to be honest, I haven't been able to systematically study in the ways that we have for these full-time schools, is that they give students larger chunks of time to spend in their labs.  In this time they can really engage with their peers and learn some of the skills about how to work in teams and how to work out differences to help solve applied problems. And they have more time with teachers in terms of relationship building. So actually, I think the relationship building with adults who have knowledge and expertise to help train them and the larger chunks of time to get that training and build those relationships are likely a big part of what creates positive outcomes.

Dionissi Aliprantis

When you think about instructors coming from companies, how important would you say is the real world experience?  How much do you think success is also a matter of connections that they can set up students with internships or potential employment?

Shaun Dougherty

In quite a few technical education programs there is an expectation that there are employer partners and those partners are meant to both inform the curriculum, equipment use techniques, but also to help smooth these connections and create these work-based learning opportunities for students who are in the programs. But I would be stunned if we didn't learn through a qualitative follow up that in fact, the teachers’ persistent connections with employers help place students even after they graduate into full-time jobs.  I expect that having those networks and connections to the aligned industries really matter.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Do you see any approaches to engaging the private sector or with forming those partnerships that seem particularly effective?  How can we think about developing those mutually beneficial relationships between companies and schools?

Shaun Dougherty

So, I definitely have seen plenty of examples.  In Tennessee, I know that Nissan down in Murfreesboro and Volkswagen down in Chattanooga have similar relationships with their county public schools and have come to rely on those programs as suppliers of high quality and well-trained graduates to employ. And then they participate in some of that training.

Some of the secret for success is having proximity to an employer that's going to be desirable to students when they graduate and these two auto manufacturers here in Tennessee are certainly examples of big ticket, marque potential employers.

Small business owners and more localized employment also seems beneficial. I am thinking about having contractors, having local manufacturers, especially now in advanced manufacturing, making those connections. But I haven't seen a good playbook for how people make that happen. It does seem like a lot of shoe leather.

I'll throw an example out there that in Massachusetts, there is an additional level of state approval that CTE programs can get called Chapter 74 Approved Programs, where they have to meet all of the standard federal requirements to get the Perkins block grant. But then they have additional requirements above that. And one of them is that there need to be post-secondary employer partners and partners in organized labor or workforce investment boards. And I think that formal requirement does mean that, to some extent, they can select programs that have done a good job of making these connections.  But by making it a formal requirement and providing some guidelines on what should happen, I think it helps educators go out and contact employers and say, we need X, Y, and Z. And if you can help us with that, we can guarantee you a pretty reliable pipeline of employees.

Dionissi Aliprantis

It helps with coordination and expectations.  Because it can be very nebulous to say “Hey, let's partner.” This makes the terms of a partnership a little bit more concrete, both the ask and the outcome.

Shaun Dougherty

Exactly. In Central and Northern European countries this coordination is taken on by local government agencies. For example, cantons in Switzerland are probably roughly analogous to counties. But that coordination is where there's no clear playbook in the U.S. And outside of workforce investment boards, there is probably not an entity who's prescribed to take that on.

I realize I've been focused on thinking about K12 and high school CTE programs in part, because that's a large fraction of participation in the U.S. and my background is more in high schools.  But there's also increasingly state policy focused on thinking about pathways that have associates degrees or short or long certificate programs in community colleges.  Those policies are thinking about dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities to help students span the K12 and higher ed experiences, to go and get those certifications. So thinking about the future of CTE, there's room for both acknowledging and supporting and facilitating more of those pathway transitions that should also have similar upsides, both for individuals and for local economies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Shaun Dougherty

Professor of Education & Policy
Boston College

Shaun Dougherty is a Professor of Education & Policy at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education & Human Development. He is a national expert on career and technical education, having published related research in numerous leading journals. Professor Dougherty obtained a bachelor’s in mathematics and economics from University of Massachusetts-Amherst, an MS in Education Administration from Gwynedd-Mercy University, and an MEd and EdD from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

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