Research & Commentary: Massachusetts Career Technical Education Programs Increasing Graduation Rates, Raising Test Scores

Published April 25, 2018

The author of a peer-reviewed study published in Education Finance and Policy in March 2018 found low-income students engaged in career technical education (CTE) at Massachusetts’ 36 regional vocational and technical high schools (RVTS) are 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school than their public school peers.

CTE programs, also called “vocational education,” train and prepare students in trades and crafts, of which apprenticeship programs can be a key part.

Conducted by Shaun M. Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, the study findings “suggest that CTE participation in an RVTS is associated with higher probabilities of graduating from high school on time, remaining enrolled in high school through grade 11, earning an industry-recognized certificate, and passing both exams required to earn a diploma.” Dougherty also found low-income CTE students scored higher on standardized tests than their public school peers.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” Dougherty told Chalkbeat. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

The study reinforces previous research conducted by Dougherty of CTE programs in Arkansas, which he completed for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Dougherty found greater exposure to these programs caused students to be more likely to graduate high school, attend college, have gainful employment, and earn higher wages.

The benefits of CTE programs are not limited to Dougherty’s research. A 2013 “gold standard,” random-assignment Johns Hopkins University study that followed three separate grade cohorts of almost 20,000 Philadelphia CTE students from their entrance in enrollment lotteries through high school graduation found “CTE schools had higher on-time graduation rates in each of the three cohorts.  This CTE advantage continued to five-year graduation rates for the two cohorts for which these data were available and to the six-year graduation rates for the one cohort for which data were available.” Philadelphia CTE schools also had a “positive impact on postsecondary enrollment.”

Another gold standard, random-assignment study of CTE programs, this time conducted in North Carolina’s Wake County by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research in 2017, showed these programs increased the likelihood of graduating high school and attending college by 8 percentage points.

A 2017 study published in American Education Research Journal by researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found “CTE coursetaking in high school was linked to lower chances of dropout and increased chances of on-time graduation, especially when these courses were taken later in high school.”

For decades, high school students have been told repeatedly the only way to make a good living is to obtain an expensive college degree. This mindset has led to surging tuition costs, skyrocketing student loan debt, a glut of graduates flooding job markets, and a large number of high school dropouts. Many good, high-paying jobs remain unfilled because of this unsustainable model. In 2017, there were more than six million unfilled jobs in the United States because employers are unable to find employees with the proper skills.

In December 2017, researchers measured career readiness of the 50 states’ Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans and found most states missed an opportunity to “fully leverage” ESSA to advance a “statewide vision” of career readiness. In the future, policymakers should look to advance these statewide visions, and give students more choices when it comes to their educational options by allowing more students to have greater access to career and technical training opportunities.

The following documents provide more information about career and technical education.

Career Readiness & the Every Student Succeeds Act: Mapping Career Readiness in State ESSA Plans
This brief from Advance CTE and the Education Strategy Group examines career readiness in all 51 Every Student Succeeds Act state plans. The researchers found while more than half the states studied plan to adopt measures of career readiness in their accountability systems, most states missed an opportunity to fully leverage ESSA to advance a statewide vision of career readiness.

State Policies Impacting CTE: 2017 Year in Review
This paper is the fourth annual review of CTE and career-readiness policies in the states and territories produced by Advance CTE. In 2017, 49 states and the District of Columbia carried out a total of 241 policy actions relevant to CTE, including laws, executive orders, board of education actions, budget provisions, and ballot initiatives, a marked increase compared to 2016 activity.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

The Effect of Career and Technical Education on Human Capital Accumulation: Causal Evidence from Massachusetts
This 2018 study published in Education Finance and Policy finds students enrolled in career technical education programs at Massachusetts regional vocational and technical high schools have higher probabilities of graduating from high school on time, earning an industry-recognized certificate, and passing both exams required to earn a diploma than their public school peers. Further, low-income students at these schools are 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school than their public school peers. They also score higher on standardized tests.

Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?
This 2016 Fordham Institute study explores whether Arkansas students benefit from career technical education (CTE) coursework. The Fordham study shows students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages. Further, students who focus their CTE coursework are more likely to graduate high school by 21 percentage points compared to similar students.

The Academic Impacts of Career and Technical Schools: A Case Study of a Large Urban School District
This 2013 random-assignment Johns Hopkins University study shows CTE students in three separate Philadelphia grade cohorts had higher on-time graduation rates in than their public school peers. Further, the study reveals CTE schools had a substantial impact on the probability of successfully completing the college preparatory mathematics sequence of Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry.

Building Better Bridges to Life After High School: Experimental Evidence on Contemporary Career Academies
This 2017 National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research study of career technical education (CTE) programs in Wake County, North Carolina shows enrollment in CTE schools increases the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment, each by about 8 percentage points, with the attainment gains concentrated among male students.

CTE State Profiles
This database maintained by the Association for Career & Technical Education is a useful tool for policymakers, business, and media looking for information on each state’s CTE system.

Opportunities for Connecting Secondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) Students and Apprenticeship Programs
This report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, profiles eight secondary apprenticeship programs to identify strategies to connect CTE with apprenticeship programs. The report classifies each program as an apprenticeship, youth apprenticeship, or pre-apprenticeship and maps each program by the degree of instructional alignment and program articulation. To help state and local policymakers learn from practices in each of the profiled sites, the report outlines key takeaways and recommendations for program design, program effectiveness, student-parent engagement and communications, financing, and equity and access.

The Value and Promise of Career Technical Education: Results from a National Survey of Parents and Students
Advance CTE, with support from the Siemens Foundation, commissioned focus groups and a national survey to explore the attitudes of parents and students currently involved in CTE, as well as prospective CTE parents and students, to better understand the promise and opportunity these programs provide.  


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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