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.