study says...

One big upside of career and tech programs? They push more kids to graduate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

As a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Shaun Dougherty noticed that students in career-focused programs seemed much more engaged than his other students.

Now a researcher, Dougherty set out to see whether data backed up his experience. Could the programs not just prepare students for the workforce, but keep students from dropping out of school?

To find out, Dougherty studied Massachusetts’ 36 vocational and technical high schools, where students alternate between academic coursework and full-time work in areas like auto repair, graphic design, and machine technology. What he found was striking: At those schools, students were substantially more likely to graduate high school than similar peers at typical high schools.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” said Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

Career and technical programs can come with downsides, too — in particular, offering training in skills that may eventually become obsolete or devalued. But the new research bolsters the academic case for the programs, a rare education initiative that carries bipartisan imprimatur.

In the study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, Dougherty finds that the career and tech high school students came out far ahead of similar students on a number of metrics.

In addition to being 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, students from low-income families scored slightly higher on standardized tests. Graduation rates were also higher for higher-income students, though they did not see any test-score gains.

Those are encouraging results. Still, it’s possible that the students who chose to attend the vocational high schools were more motivated than their peers to begin with, skewing the results.

Dougherty addresses this by narrowing his lens to just three schools and using a different approach to nail down cause and effect. Using school admissions data, he compares students who just missed the cut-off to earn entry to students who just barely earned a spot — the idea being that the two groups of students are essentially identical.

Again, the results show that the career and technical schools notably increase the chances of graduating high school for both higher- and low-income students: by 7 to 10 percentage points and possibly more. In this case, there was no clear effect on test scores.

The approaches in tandem suggest Massachusetts’ career-focused high schools really do boost graduation rates.

That’s consistent with recent studies on career and tech programs in a variety of settings. Analyses of data from Philadelphia and Wake County, North Carolina found that students who randomly won a chance to attend a career-focused high school were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Other research by Dougherty has found that students in Arkansas who took several career-focused courses in one focus area are more likely to graduate than similar students who don’t. And using national data, two other recent studies found that students who took more CTE courses, particularly later in high school, were also more likely to graduate on time, compared to demographically similar students. (Keep in mind, though, that these studies are less able to clearly isolate cause and effect.)

That research generally doesn’t show clear positive effects on math and reading test scores — but the students also don’t find negative effects, which to Dougherty is an encouraging sign.

“One of the classic concerns with vocational and technical education is that by specializing in an area of training you might be trading off general knowledge,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect their test scores to be higher, but we might worry that they would be lower.”

The reason for the career and technical schools’ particular success is unclear. It could be that CTE programs are particularly effective at boosting non-academic skills like grit — or that students benefit from peers all motivated to participate in the same program.

Dougherty suggests that students may benefit from being able to select a school or program that’s a good fit for them. He also points to the specific regional structure of CTE schools in Massachusetts, where the “learning environment may make learning more relevant and engaging, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with participating in CTE, and providing better mentorship opportunities.”

Still, Dougherty cautions that the positive finding doesn’t necessarily mean that policymakers should rush to expand the programs. One concern is that growing such offerings could actually train too many students for a small pool of specific jobs. Another is that it’s not clear what makes a high-quality program.

“I’m very skeptical that we know exactly how to scale it well,” Dougherty said.

Where the jobs are

Chicago invests $12 million into expanding pathway to construction trades

PHOTO: PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits Prosser Career Academy Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to announce a $12 million investment in vocational education.

What happens when Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlines a pep rally in a sweltering, Northwest Side high-school gymnasium to promote a $12 million investment in vocational education?

Lots of HVAC jokes, for one thing. And some students fanning themselves with the signs they’d been given that read “Thank you” and “Mr. Mayor.”

As he makes rounds in the city touting his accomplishments  — after announcing Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in February — Emanuel was flanked Thursday morning by luminaries from Chicago Public Schools, area trade unions and employers such as ComEd. On Wednesday, he dropped in on a pre-kindergarten class to push his early-education initiative.

Thursday, there was also lots of enthusiasm about the city’s push to develop career and technical education curricula, to bolster economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.

Part of a $1 billion capital plan announced over the summer, the $12 million investment at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy will expand the school’s vocational training beyond its current emphasis on the hospitality industry to include construction trades including carpentry, electricity and, of course, HVAC.  

Many welcome such initiatives as a long time coming. Vocational preparation has been deemphasized in favor of college-preparatory programs, said Charles LoVerde, a trustee of a training center run by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He’s glad to see the investment.

The city’s current construction trades program launched in 2016 at Dunbar Career Academy High in predominantly black Bronzeville. Prosser makes access easier for West Side students, including the predominantly Latino residents of Belmont Cragin, where it is located.

“Dunbar is a great program, but my kids are not going to go to Dunbar because it’s just too far — it would take them two hours to get there,” said 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who pushed Emanuel to launch Prosser’s CTE program.

Access is important because CTE offerings are among the district’s most in-demand programs, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Demand is not even across demographics, however, with vocational programs more popular among low-performing students, students from economically isolated elementary schools, and black students, according to the report.

Almost one in five seats at district high schools focus on vocational education. But Dunbar’s — and now Prosser’s — focus on the construction trades has Emanuel and Villegas excited, because Chicago’s construction boom means that jobs are readily available.

“There’s not a building trade in Chicago — a carpenter, an electrician, a bricklayer, a painter, an operating engineer — that has anybody left on the bench,” Emanuel told the crowd at Prosser.

Villegas sketched out an idealized, full-career path for a graduate of the new program — one that includes buying a home and raising a family in Belmont Cragin. “I see it as a pipeline that would extend our ability to maintain the Northwest Side as middle class,” Villegas said.

The investment in Prosser comes as part of a broader, national effort to invest in career-technical education. In July, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized  a national $1.1 billion program for job training and related programs.

The new program at Prosser not only will give more students access to training in the building trades, but also will provide proximity to some labor partners. The Laborers’ International Union of North America operates a training center less than a mile from Prosser, where students will have a chance to learn and also visit job sites, LoVerde said.

He said that college-track programs also have their place, but career education presents a clear path to a steady income.

“This gives [unions] a focused path to recruit and find students who are looking for a different path,” LoVerde said. “Becoming a career construction laborer is a job for life.”

future of work

Tennessee approves its first-ever computer science standards for K-8 schools

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

With regional jobs related to computer science going unfilled, Tennessee soon will introduce academic standards designed specifically to strengthen those skills beginning in elementary school.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Tennessee’s first-ever computer science standards for elementary and middle schools. The benchmarks will reach classrooms in the fall of 2019.

In the works for a year, they’ll replace computer technology standards that were last revised in 2011.

State officials say the current standards don’t capture the critical components of computer science, a growing field with jobs especially in healthcare, transportation, and banking. In 2015 across Tennessee, for instance, only a third of the 90,000 jobs posted for workers in IT, or information technology, were filled.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the employment gap represents a huge opportunity for students as the state also emphasizes instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.

“We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is,” she told members of the board earlier this year. McQueen cited research showing that 50 percent of people who pursue STEM careers trace their interest to exposure in first or second grade.

“Getting kids interested really does matter at those very, very early ages,” she said.

For elementary schools, the new standards will focus on introducing students to the basics of computer systems and programs — and helping them learn about safe and responsible device practices, such as protecting private information and using passwords securely.

For middle schools, students will study computer-related calculations and information-processing skills used to create computer programs. They’ll also discuss “digital citizenship,” which covers how to interact safely with people and content online. And they’ll explore career opportunities related to computer science.

Except for instruction in coding and computer programming — which will be taught as a stand-alone class — the skills are to be integrated into existing core classes in English, math, science and social studies. They’re “things our teachers are already doing,” said Melissa Haun, math coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, of most of the new computer science standards.

“We’re not asking teachers to do more things or give them a heavier workload. We’re asking them to be aware of the standards and be deliberate in how they can enhance their instruction with technology because we are in a very very digital world that moves very fast,” Haun told the state board in April.

"We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

School districts will have discretion on how to add coding and computer programming instruction to the mix. Many school systems already are piloting such curriculums after investing in digital devices in the ongoing transition to computerized state testing.

McQueen said coding represents “one of the most underutilized opportunities that we have.”

“If you can get kids to think like a coder and the problem-solving that occurs with that, … you can start to inspire them around opportunities,” she said. “That coding skill set, and the language of coding, opens up about 75 percent of jobs that they may have never thought about before.”

Computer science marks the latest new standards for Tennessee, which has or is in the process of revamping benchmarks in all four core areas of instruction.

New English and math standards start their second year this fall, new science standards are about to begin, and new ones for social studies reach classrooms in the fall of 2019, the same year of the first-ever standards for computer science.