Giving Compass' Take:

• MDRC collects insights from practitioners into building equity into career and technical education to ensure that these programs do not reinforce structural inequality. 

• How can funders work to improve CTE programs based on this information? 

• Read about the strengths and weaknesses of career and technical education

Currently, one of the foremost questions many in the CTE field are asking is: How can the design and delivery of CTE programs promote equity? CTE is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity with policymakers and practitioners, and its proponents want to avoid repeating the history of vocational education, which was too often used to “track” low-income and minority students away from college and into low-paying jobs that did not offer clear opportunities for career advancement. In contrast, many of today’s CTE initiatives attempt to offer access to middle-skill jobs in high-wage, high-demand fields. The most promising programs provide clearly articulated pathways from high school through postsecondary education, stackable credentials that pave the way for career advancement, and work-based learning experiences. However, questions remain about how students are selected for participation and how they are supported to achieve desired outcomes. The answers to these questions will reveal whether these new programs can avoid the mistakes of the past.

Participants broadly agreed that “equity” meant all students and program participants should have access to high-quality opportunities and be supported to achieve equally high outcomes, regardless of their races, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, or geographic regions. They also discussed the reasons equity is not fully realized in CTE, including the roles of systemic racism (the structural factors that serve to advantage some students over others) and implicit bias (the unconscious negative beliefs and attitudes about members of certain groups held by those in positions of power and decision-making). These two forces can undermine efforts to ensure that all students develop career-readiness skills, have access to the full variety of both academic and career options available to them, and have the skills and support they need to obtain positive outcomes.

Participants also recognized that as CTE becomes more popular, it could potentially reinforce existing inequities by creating a bifurcated system in which students with educational advantages fill high-quality, in-demand programs designed to provide entry into competitive, growth industries (for example, engineering, robotics, or health care), while students and trainees with fewer options only end up in those programs that are less well designed and funded, or that are in fields more like the old model of vocational education. These acknowledgments of the potential pitfalls in CTE set the stage for a discussion of how programs can be designed to avoid them.

Practitioners discussed the many challenges to providing CTE to a diverse group of students and participants. While some of the challenges they discussed were specific to a locality or sector (secondary, postsecondary, or workforce), others were shared. These common challenges touched on: (1) the information available to students (and parents) and adult participants; (2) eligibility or screening criteria that limit access; and (3) structural issues and policies, such as geographically based access to employer partners, or the necessity of meeting funder requirements. Participants saw some of these challenges as lacking practitioner-level solutions. However, they also described many creative efforts that their programs are making to address them.