Education Today: CTE and keeping kids in school

Education Today
CTE and keeping kids in school

One of the critical goals of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal legislation is to raise student achievement. But before we can think about how to do this, we must first ensure that students are actually in school. Clearly, if students leave school prematurely, schools will not be able to help them master the skills thought to be necessary in the workplace or in future education. Preventing students from leaving school before graduation is therefore the necessary first step to increasing student achievement. It has been the focus of much of my work as a school counselor locally for the last 12 years.
Career and Technical Education, because of its ability to engage students hands-on, has long been thought to have a role in reducing dropout rates among high school students. Until recently however, there has been little data to support this claim. In addition, CTE has undergone tremendous changes in the past decade due to reform-oriented federal legislation. Although more time is needed to assess the real impact of this legislation on American schools and students, there is already evidence that CTE students are taking more math and science and higher levels of math and science than their general track counterparts.
But what is the impact of participating in CTE on the likelihood of dropping out of high school? And if CTE does help reduce dropout rates, what is it within CTE that we can link to this outcome? For the purpose of this discussion, we focus on students with a CTE "major" or concentration; in a career pathway or career academy; in tech prep, and/or in any of a range of work-based learning activities (cooperative education, job shadowing, mentoring, school-based enterprise, and internship/apprenticeship).
(BOLD)Who are the drop-outs?
While the federal government estimates that drop-out rates are 5.8% for 16 and 17 year olds and 12.6% for 18 and 19 year olds, others estimate that the figure is closer to 29% for all students. However, the rate varies across groups. (BOLD)Research shows that dropouts tend to:
* Enter high school poorly prepared academically;
* Live in arrangements other than with two biological parents;
* Live in an urban location.
* Males drop out more than females;
* Hispanics drop out more than Non-Hispanics;
* Youth from poorer families drop out more often than other income groups;
(BOLD)How does CTE affect student thinking about school?
The relationship between taking CTE courses and staying in school is complex. At worst, according to some studies, students who are CTE concentrators do not differ from other students in their likelihood of dropping out of school. At best, taking CTE courses of all kinds can lower the risk of dropping out. Two useful approaches I am familiar with are career pathways and work-based learning.
(BOLD)Career Pathways and Career Majors
Participation in career majors significantly reduces the probability of dropping out of school. What are career majors? Career majors and career pathway programs incorporate a vocational focus in high schools by organizing curriculum around career clusters, such as health, automotive or business careers. Similarly, students can choose a career "major," and take CTE classes that prepare them for their selected career. Pathway programs may foster closer relationships with industry and offer students work-based learning experiences.
(BOLD)Work-Based Learning
There is some evidence that participating in work-based learning (WBL) reduced the likelihood of dropping out of high school by as much as 30%. WBL, when done well, allows students to put skills and knowledge to use in a work setting. WBL can serve three purposes for students: 1) connect school learning to the world of work, 2) increase school coursework relevancy, and 3) prepare students with skills necessary for the workforce. WBL is a broad category that includes any of the following learning opportunities: cooperative education, internships and apprenticeships, job shadowing, mentoring, and school-based enterprises. I have found this to be a very effective approach for keeping students in school.
(BOLD)The Power of CTE
In sum, there is a growing body of research that links high school CTE, particularly career majors and pathways and work-based learning, to reducing the likelihood of youth leaving school prematurely.
From my own personal experience and the current body of research, it seems that the reasons these programs work are that they help make school work real and engage youth in school. Students in CTE courses, career pathways, or WBL have the opportunity to apply school coursework in practical, relevant contexts. They hold much promise for a future solution to keeping our kids in school until the finish a high school diploma.

Budd A. Moore, Ed.D., is a school counselor at South Hagerstown High School and The Washington County Evening High School. Questions or comments about this column can be directed to him at