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.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.