If we want all of our young people to have the opportunity to
it is more important than ever that high schools be designed to
maximize the chances that students will graduate, and that when they
do, they are prepared to enter college or have skills valued in the
labor force. High-quality career and technical education (CTE) has the
potential to help students achieve both of these ends, and there is
increasing evidence in Massachusetts that regional vocational and
technical high schools (RVTS) may be particularly effective at ensuring
school completion and the earning of potentially valuable
industry-recognized credentials while in high school.

Earlier research has demonstrated that CTE can provide long-term
financial benefits to participants, yet hardly any studies rigorously
explored academic impacts. In new research, I show that students who
are just admitted to three oversubscribed RVTS have substantially
higher probabilities (7-10 percentage points) of persisting in and
graduating from high school and are more likely to earn
industry-recognized credentials (see chart below). They also score just
as well on the state MCAS exams compared to students who also applied
and just missed getting in. In addition, when extending the analysis to
other RVTS, effects appear to be similar, though data limitations
affect how much these results can be generalized to other schools. The
higher levels of attainment of high school diplomas and industry
credentials right at the threshold of being admitted, compared to not,
demonstrate the positive effects for students on the margin.

These findings are important to education policy in Massachusetts, but
also to those interested in college and career readiness, and
cost-effective social policy in general. They suggest that under
certain circumstances, it is possible to generate large impacts on
graduation probabilities, without sacrificing subject-specific
knowledge (at least in math and language arts), and the potential to
earn credentials that may also have market value to employers.

bar graph: Students admitted to regional vocationla schools more likely to graduate, earn industry credentials

What Makes the Bay State
Special When It Comes to CTE?

In Massachusetts, many students have access to a fairly unique CTE
program through the regional vocational and technical high
Unlike many states, Massachusetts offers an atypical
option to access CTE. In an RVTS every student who attends takes some
form of CTE course of study (multi-course sequences in the same area or
program). While students in traditional high schools may also take a
series of courses in the same CTE program, the RVTS structure offers
other important differences. For instance, students in an RVTS remain
in the same CTE area in grades 10 through 12 often with the same peers
and teachers. In addition, by offering both traditional academic and
technical coursework under the same roof, they also have the potential
for increased coordination among instructors in both classroom
settings, thereby bringing some of the relevance of the CTE coursework
into the realm of math, English, science, and social studies. These
structures, as well as the fact that they often offer a greater variety
of CTE programs from which students can choose, mean that the CTE
experience in an RVTS is quite different from what is possible in a
traditional high school setting.

The Massachusetts case is also interesting because, for years,
descriptive evidence revealed two things: first, RVTS have, on average,
higher high school graduation rates than the state, and two, that many
of the RVTS were oversubscribed and therefore could only serve a
fraction of the students who expressed interest in attending the
school. Both of these factors have complicated efforts to both
understand the true potential impact of these schools, and to ensure
full access to the RVTS model for students who would like to attend.
However, because many RVTS receive more applications than they have
seats available in a given year, and because I have data on application
scores, admissions cutoffs, and subsequent student performance, it was
possible to compare outcomes of students who just got in with those
that just missed getting in. By making this comparison, I then could
attribute differences in outcomes to the causal effect of getting into
an oversubscribed RVTS.

Limitations & Takeaways

In my analysis, I did not examine college enrollment after high school,
however, I found no difference in the average MCAS score for those who
did and did not attend RVTS schools, nor in their probability of
passing both exams required to earn a high school diploma. This means,
despite popular concerns that CTE may not be as academically focused,
there is no evidence of differential or negative impacts on academic
outcomes. In addition, my research relied on gaining access to
admissions records from a relatively small number of schools with a
history of being oversubscribed, meaning that if there are substantial
differences between the conditions at the schools I studied and other
RVTS, these findings may not generalize as well to other settings.

My analysis and research suggests at least four important, and policy
relevant conclusions. First, RVTS participation in Massachusetts seems
to positively impact student persistence in and completion of high
school. Second, student performance on test scores is not adversely
affected, with RVTS students scoring comparably on the MCAS. Third, for
those just admitted to an RVTS the chances of earning an
industry-recognized credential are bolstered, suggesting that even
while the general skills measured by the MCAS are maintained, the
specific skills offered in CTE coursework is enhanced. Finally, the
positive impacts on the marginal students admitted to RVTS that are
oversubscribed suggests that those marginal students who just missed
attending likely also would benefit if access was expanded.  

Shaun M.
Dougherty is an
Assistant Professor of Education & Public Policy at the Neag
School of Education and the Department of Public Policy at the
University of Connecticut. He is also a former high school teacher and
administrator. This issue brief summarizes the report “The
Effect of Career and Technical Education on Human Capital Accumulation:
Causal Evidence from Massachusetts” in the journal
Finance and Policy.


Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee have
models analogous to that of Massachusetts, though Career Academies in
other states may share some characteristics.

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