Career and technical education (CTE) is enjoying renewed interest as the stigma sloughs off and students pursue it as a viable and affordable path to high-paying in-demand careers. But equity in CTE presents challenges–challenges with fledgling solutions that could help ensure equity for all students.
While CTE was once used as a way to move low-income and minority students into low-paying jobs, it has moved away from vocational education and has morphed into programs offering pathways through high school and postsecondary education with credentials and work-based learning experiences.
Practitioner Perspectives on Equity in Career and Technical Education, a new report from MDRC, notes that there are lingering questions about equity in CTE, namely, how students are selected for CTE programs and what supports they receive to reach their goals.
The report is based on input from innovative CTE practictioners who identified common challenges to equity in CTE, along with common concerns such as how, exactly, to define equity and to increase it in both access and outcomes.
The need to cast a critical eye on CTE programs is especially important, because “as CTE becomes more popular, it could reinforce existing inequities by creating a system in which only students with educational advantages fill high-quality, in-demand programs,” according to authors Rachel Rosen and Frieda Molina.
Challenges to equity in CTE
Common challenges in the report include the information available to students and adult participants; eligibility or screening criteria that limit access; and structural issues sand policies. The report also identifies potential solutions for each challenge.
Challenge 1: Advising. Many report participants stressed the importance of helping students determine what CTE program is the best fit for their interests and talents. Better advising can help students understand the immediate and long-term benefits of a particular program. This is an equity challenge because counselors in underfunded schools juggle many students and responsibilities, and might even carry biased views on students’ abilities based on race or socio-economic status.
Challenge 2: Information flow. Ensuring that information about CTE opportunities is transmitted to all relevant stakeholders — including students, participants, and parents — is a challenge. To do so, schools and programs must have the right people and enough resources to distribute messages about CTE opportunities widely and evenly, and must at the same time target different audiences with messages tailored to them, in different languages.
Challenge 3: Stigma. Largely because of the history of vocational education, CTE programs are still stigmatized, and many students and parents have outdated views of what it means to be enrolled in a CTE program.
Challenge 4: Enrollment criteria. In some schools, criteria such as grades, test scores, and attendance are used to identify which students gain access to the most coveted opportunities. While these requirements may provide easy ways to control access to oversubscribed programs, or to accommodate employer or funder requests, they may lead students to question whether programs they are interested in are really for people “like me.”
Challenge 5: Soft skills. Even when students and participants meet eligibility criteria for various programs, many of them lack training in or knowledge of “soft skills”: those skills that help individuals be successful in workplace environments, such as professional communication, collaboration, social awareness, problem solving, and teamwork.
Challenge 6: Social networks. Many students who are involved in CTE programs lack access to well-developed professional networks. If they are from historically underrepresented communities, they may not know many other people who have pursued careers in their fields of interest, and may lack social support for completing programs, particularly when they do not have a vision of what success in those fields looks like, or role models in those fields who share similar backgrounds.
Challenge 7: Employer preparedness. Several participants stated that employers engaged in offering work-based learning opportunities are not always prepared to work with students. Some employers struggle to provide high-quality learning opportunities. Some have unrealistic expectations of teenagers. Some carry unconscious biases into interactions with students from minority and other underrepresented backgrounds.
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