Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?

Editor’s Note: The following, co-authored by Shaun M. Dougherty, assistant professor in the Neag School, and Dara Zeehandelaar, national research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is an excerpt from an article featured in ACSD Express, a newsletter published by the nonprofit educational leadership organization ACSD — formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Ask any group of high school teachers, and they will report that the most frequently asked question in their classrooms is, “When are we ever gonna use this?” In a traditional college prep program, the honest answer is usually, “Maybe when you get to the university.” But in the real world? Depending on the class, students may not find their learning as useful.

In high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, however, that question is moot. Students learn skills that will help them prepare for stable careers and success in a modern, global, and competitive economy. A student who wants a future in architecture doesn’t question his first drafting course in high school. One interested in aerospace sees value in her introduction to engineering design class. An aspiring medical professional is enthusiastic, not indifferent, about high school anatomy.

We owe it to America’s students to prepare them for whatever comes after high school, not just academic programs at four-year universities.

A Damaged Brand

Unfortunately, for millions of American students, CTE is not a meaningful part of their high school experience. In large part, this is because CTE has been chronically neglected by American education leaders and policymakers. Many CTE advocates suspect that this oversight has happened because of the damaged “brand” of vocational education. And it’s damaged for a reason; there was a time when the “vo-tech” track was a pathway to nowhere. “Tracking,” as practiced in the 20th century, was pernicious. It sent a lot of kids —especially low-income and minority students — into low-paying, menial jobs, or worse.

America’s failure to prioritize CTE is an anomaly. In most industrialized countries — nearly all of which outperform us on measures of academic achievement, such as PISA and TIMSS — students begin preparing for a career while still in high school. These countries see the value in developing career and college-based competencies that all students need in our increasingly interconnected world. In short, CTE around the globe is not a track away from a successful adulthood, but rather a path towards it.

American students face a double-whammy: They not only lack access to high-quality secondary CTE, but are also subject to a “bachelor’s degree or bust” mentality. And many do bust, dropping out of college with no degree, no work skills, no work experience, and a fair amount of debt. That’s a terrible way to begin adult life. We owe it to America’s students to prepare them for whatever comes after high school, not just academic programs at four-year universities.

ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 9. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit