Friday, 7 December 2018

New Causal Evidence Suggests Technical Education Positively Impacts Students

Shaun M. Dougherty of Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, on the positive effects of the US Career and Technical Education  (CTE) system

Vocational education and training (VET) has a long history in Britain and Europe, perhaps based on connections to the rise of guilds in the middle ages. Career and technical education (CTE, as VET is now called in the United States) has had a formal place in US education for at least the last 100 years. For much of this time CTE occupied a less favored status, though this has started to shift in recent years as policy makers have started to admit that, though postsecondary training will be almost universally necessary in the next half-century for well-compensated employment, pursuing a bachelor’s degree full time at age 18 may not be the best path for everyone. In fact, the policy shift has gone beyond just realizing the importance of having more postsecondary options. Changes in secondary education, and increased demand for CTE in high schools (upper secondary) education has increased the demand for applied learning, and exposure to skills valued by employers at earlier ages. 

The increased focus on and demand for CTE access has led to an unexpected phenomena in some places. Schools that are dedicated to preparing students in secondary education in CTE and that two decades ago were in disrepair or under-enrolled, now see more interest than they can accommodate. The sharp increase in demand for particular schools has created new opportunities to learn about the impacts of participating in these programs, and the students who apply and attend.

One of the main challenges in assessing the effects of CTE or VET programs is that students who select into them are, almost by definition, different from students who do not. As a result, these observable, or unobserved, differences render the two groups incomparable, and thus we cannot estimate the causal effect by comparing two clearly different groups. However, when there are a lot of students who want CTE and a limited supply, application and admissions processed – if they include a component of randomization (or pseudo-randomization) offer a rare opportunity to estimate effects.

In the US, most CTE happens as individual elective courses that are spread throughout a student’s school day. These classes take place amidst other core academic classes, and there is typically no overlap in content between academic and technical coursework. In addition, only about half of all high school students in the US deliberately take more than one CTE elective course in the same subject area (think information technology, health services, or plumbing). Other schools have students spend half a day in a traditional high school taking academic coursework, and then get bussed to a local technical center where they spend the second half of their day doing technical coursework. In both of these settings, there are rarely chances to observe levels of interest that exceed capacity, and so no causal estimates of the program effects.

However, in a handful of US states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey), there are stand-alone CTE focused schools where all students participate in some form of CTE. In these schools, academic and technical coursework often overlap in content, and typically they spend 3 of their 4 years in high school in the same shop getting exposed to a consistent set of peers and instructors. When students are in 8th grade (just before high school at about age 13) students can apply to attend these schools. Often, in their first year of high school students can explore four to eight different programs before, at the end of the year, settling on a single program to pursue for the rest of high school (through age 18, on average).

As demand for CTE has grown in the US, it has been particularly strong in these stand-alone technical high schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York City. Early evidence from Massachusetts and Connecticut suggest that there is a large positive effect on high school completion among those who apply and get in, relative to those who apply and are not admitted. In fact, the graduation probabilities are about 10 percentage points higher among those who were just admitted, relative to those who just missed being admitted. In both of these states, students apply to attend these technical high schools, and in both contexts they are scored on application criteria that include grades, attendance, and discipline data from middle school (lower secondary). Students are then ranked on their score and admitted in descending order until schools run out of seats. This process creates a de-facto lottery around the cutoff score and allows for the estimation of these large effects. To put the effects in context, this is like taking a student whose baseline probability of graduating from high school was below average, and pushing them several percentage points above average. In Connecticut, there is also suggestive evidence that enrolling in college may also be higher among students who were just admitted to technical high schools, but limited sample sizes (so far) mean those estimates are less precise.

By no means are the large estimates of CTE participation impact in these specialized school representative of all high school CTE programs in the US. However, these effects do seem a compelling example of what might can possible among students who are interested in technical education and under conditions that immerse students in their environment. One concern that policy makers have about CTE is that it may sacrifice general skills given the focus on specific technical skill in instruction. What we found in Connecticut, and with earlier work in Massachusetts though, is that test scores were higher (Connecticut) or no different (Massachusetts) among students in technical schools compared to those who just missed getting in.

The results from US technical high schools (at least this subset we’ve studied) seem promising and perhaps an example of what to expect could happen in similar efforts in the UK. For instance, though University Technical Colleges were set up in a manner similar to the technical high schools in the US, similar positive effects have not yet been apparent. Of course, the technical high schools in the US did not always have such rosy records either, and since the US system has been growing and improving over the last 15 to 20 years, some time may be needed for comparable models just getting set up in Britain to show similar effects. 


Dougherty, S.M. (2018). The Effect of Career and Technical Education on Human Capital Accumulation: Causal Evidence from Massachusetts, Education Finance & Policy, 13(2),

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