research shows

Lots of people are excited about career and technical education. But new international research points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Quick: What’s one education topic that Betsy DeVos, Randi Weingarten, Donald Trump, and Al Franken all support?

It’s actually career and technical education — something they’ve all said America’s schools need in order to better prepare graduates for the economy. President Trump even praised Germany’s approach to vocational education recently.

Trump’s budget actually cuts CTE funding, but, at least in theory, there’s wide support across the ideological spectrum for helping more students learn career-specific skills in high school.

Yet new international research points to a significant downside of such programs: students may benefit early in their careers, but are harmed later in life as the economy changes and they lack the general skills necessary to adapt.

The study raises concerns about the trade-offs that could come with significantly expanding career and technical training in the United States — at least any version that substitutes for broad knowledge and skills transferable across jobs.

“Individuals with general education initially face worse employment outcomes but experience improved employment probability as they become older relative to individuals with vocational education,” write four researchers in the study, which appeared in the winter 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources.

Many European and developing countries provide extensive vocational education, including apprenticeships with involvement from industry, the authors note. That contrasts with the U.S., which has reduced or eliminated separate vocational tracks in most high schools.

Looking at 11 European countries, the researchers compared students within the same country who went on the vocational track to similar students who went through a general education program. (The study excludes women, citing changes over time in their likelihood of participating in the workforce.)

The takeaway is that although vocational students make higher salaries and are more likely to be employed as young adults, that advantage fades over time; by their late forties, those who went through a general education program have higher employment rates. Those findings were confirmed with more granular data from Germany and Austria.

“The advantages of vocational training in smoothing entry into the labor market have to be set against disadvantages later in life,” the study concludes.

Germany requires students at age 10 to choose a vocational high school, academic high school, or what one Atlantic article described as “something in between.” Students have frequent opportunities to move between tracks down the line.

In the U.S., career-focused courses are often just a small part of a student’s course load. As of 2009, the average American student took 3.6 CTE classes in high school.

The authors of the latest research say the findings don’t imply that career-and-technical education is necessarily a bad idea, just that it is important to understand the trade-offs.

The results also suggest that policymakers looking only at the short-term impacts of such programs may not be getting an accurate understanding of their effects.

One recent study of Arkansas’s high school CTE program — which requires students to take six career-focused classes in high school in order to graduate and allows them to concentrate in specific areas — found that participants had higher earnings and employment rates as young adults. Longer-run impacts were not examined.

Shaun Dougherty, author of the Arkansas research and a professor at the University of Connecticut, praised aspects of the recent international study but said that it had limited ability to guide policy in the U.S.

“Opportunities and expectations for retraining and intermittent higher education and certification look very different now, in the U.S., than they did in Europe 30-plus years ago (or now for that matter),” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

The results likely depend on the precise design of CTE programs. Dougherty’s research found that CTE students were more likely to graduate high school and just as likely to attend four-year colleges, suggesting the program did not steer students away from higher education. Another U.S. study looking at the federal Perkins CTE program found that participation did not harm (or help) math performance.

Dougherty said more research on the topic is important, but noted the significant difficulty in making predictions about the future of the labor market.

“There may be a long-term trade-off [in CTE programs], but none of us can forecast accurately what will happen, even on average, with much reliability,” he said.

Building Better Schools

Hundreds of teachers will be displaced by Indianapolis high school closing plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Tina Ahlgren spoke to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board in June about the importance of making the high school closing process easier for teachers.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves a plan to close three high schools, students won’t be the only ones facing transition: Hundreds of teachers will need to find new positions.

Just what will happen to those educators remains uncertain. District leaders say most teaching positions will be moved, not cut. But educators have raised concerns that the process for reassigning teachers is murky and that the prospect of school closings will push teachers to flee.

A proposal from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee released last month calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School, and converting Arlington and Northwest High Schools to middle schools. Those four schools combined had 329 certified teachers in 2015-2016, the latest year available in the state performance report.

The district would also roll out a new career academy model, where students choose their high schools based on focus areas in fields such as business, construction and medical science.

All that transition means a lot of changes are in store for the hundreds of educators who work at the schools slated to close — and those at the high schools that will launch career academies and take the influx of new students.

For now, the district is not providing much information on what is in store for teachers. The details are expected to come after the IPS board votes on which schools to close in September. Eleven days after the board votes, central office staff are scheduled visit the high schools to discuss the timeline, next steps and personnel decisions.

But Ferebee said it will be even longer before the district has a full picture of how many teachers are needed at the career academies in each school because it depends on where students choose to enroll.

“Much of what we do with certified staff will be driven by enrollment interest of students,” he said.

By closing schools, the district expects to save $4.35 million in “classroom resources,” or expenses from the general fund, according to the report recommending closing high schools. The general fund is typically used to pay for costs including salaries for teachers and other school workers, equipment like computers and supplies needed to run the schools.

The administration does not expect it would save much from shrinking the teaching force, because they anticipate that the number of teachers will stay relatively stable, said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “Our student enrollment will stay about the same.”

IPS union president Rhondalyn Cornett, who leads the Indianapolis Education Association, said that she also expects the number of teachers to remain steady — as long as students don’t start leaving the district for charter and township schools.

The career academies may also lead to more jobs for teachers with new skills and credentials, but it’s not entirely clear how that will play out. Some teachers may already be qualified to teach in the new programs and others may be able to get the extra credentials relatively easily.

Even if the district maintains the same number of students and teachers in its high schools, however, the transition is hard for teachers at the schools that are expected to close, Cornett said.

“They are afraid. They don’t understand how this process works,” she said. “They don’t know what the future holds.”

Cornett said that the district should make the closing process easier for educators by being clear about how they can get jobs at other schools and giving teachers who lost their jobs because of  school closings priority for open positions.

Tina Ahlgren, the 2014 IPS Teacher of the Year, spoke to the board in June about the urgent need to make the process transparent for teachers. Ahlgren has been through this before. She lost jobs at two prior schools after one school was taken over by the state and a magnet program at another school was abruptly moved.

“During each of these transitions, I watched dozens of loyal, effective, IPS educators leave the district due to the chaos that ensued and the broken promises from this district,” she said. “I speak here today to remind you of those challenges in the hopes that we will learn from our past and not repeat those mistakes this time around.”

size matters

NYC class size limits could boost learning — but in practice, they often don’t. A new study explains why.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

A contentious debate about how much class size actually matters is getting some new data — and ammunition for both sides.

While former Mayor Michael Bloomberg dreamed of firing half the city’s teachers and paying the remaining superstars twice as much to teach larger classes, Mayor Bill de Blasio has argued that small classes are essential. But as classrooms have become more crowded, how much pressure should there be to reverse that trend?

A new study focusing on New York City offers some evidence for both poles of the debate: Reducing class sizes can significantly increase student learning, but those gains are often cancelled out in the short run by the lower-quality teachers who wind up staffing them — and disruptions linked to their quick hiring.

“My paper is quite supportive of the argument that class size [reduction] boosts student achievement,” explains Michael Gilraine, the study’s author, who will start this fall as a professor at New York University. But “when you reduce class sizes you’re going to have a trade-off because you need to bring in new teachers — and that might have its own independent effect.”

Gilraine’s findings come at an opportune moment for organizations like Class Size Matters and the Alliance for Quality Education, which recently filed a complaint with the State Education Department claiming the city has failed to meet required class size reduction targets.

Using data from 473 city schools, Gilraine isolated the effect of class size reductions by looking at third- through sixth-grade classes that moved just above or below the 32-student cap required for elementary grades. Classes that moved from 32 to 33 students, for instance, would have to reduce class sizes by adding a new teacher, while classes that moved from 33 to 32 students could reduce class sizes without adding a new teacher — isolating the effect of the newly added teacher.

Looking at schools near the cap between 2009 and 2014, Gilraine found that reducing class size by an average of four students produced gains in reading and math scores equivalent to roughly two and a half months of extra learning.

But there’s a big catch: The classes that shrank by bringing in a new teacher saw essentially no boost in student achievement. And since roughly 50 percent of the classes Gilraine examined depended on newly hired teachers, the overall effect of the class size reductions was cut in half.

Though Gilraine did not rigorously assess why half of these class size reductions didn’t boost student learning, he said there are a couple of likely reasons. For one, newly hired teachers may be less experienced or lower quality.

Second, there could be disruptions associated with bringing in new employees. Since class sizes were frequently lowered after the teachers union filed grievances, some reductions happened after the school year had already started — potentially disrupting classes mid-year.

The study has not been published or peer-reviewed, but Thomas Dee, director of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, said it appeared to be rigorous. He said the findings are not entirely surprising but illustrate the importance of understanding how class size policies play out across systems, not just in the context of smaller experiments.

Dee pointed to the gold standard of class size research: a landmark randomized experiment in Tennessee conducted in the 1980s that found significantly reducing class sizes in early grades improved student learning. “That really established in people’s minds that small class sizes — though they’re expensive — are effective,” he said. But “the kinds of things that might work in a small-scale study may not scale well.”

Gilraine’s findings dovetail with research on California’s billion-dollar effort to systemically lower class sizes in the 1990s, which showed reducing class sizes led to gains in reading and math but was dampened by hiring less experienced teachers.

Dee added that one conclusion to draw from Gilraine’s study is that class size reductions may be more effective when they’re targeted — at high-need schools, for example — rather than enforced system-wide.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said the study shows the city must do more to reduce class sizes — and do so more proactively. She emphasized that the city could avoid disruptive hiring practices, and that there’s no reason to assume hiring more teachers would reduce the overall quality of teaching in the long run.

“In a well-crafted class size reduction, you’re going to hire teachers earlier on and those teachers are going to be higher quality and stay longer and become more effective” she said. “If anything, this paper is an indictment of the current system.”