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Quality in CTE Programs: It’s All About the Data

• Adriana Harrington

Quality career and technical education (CTE) programs can offer students a leg up in a promising career or a head start in postsecondary and career. But, unfortunately, not all CTE programs are high quality. Why? Because it’s not easy for states to ensure rigorous and robust CTE offerings. Yet it is possible, and data can help.

Step 1: Get the Data

By analyzing CTE program and outcomes data, states can make informed decisions to ensure students are preparing for high-skill, high-wage or in-demand occupations (a requirement for Perkins V-funded programs).

But before states can even determine what high-skill, high-wage and in-demand occupations look like, they must first have data to analyze. And, as Advance CTE’s new brief Aligning to Opportunity: State Approaches to Setting High Skill, High Wage and In Demand notes, this is not a simple process. The brief examines the importance of states utilizing data to create definitions for “high-skill,” “high-wage” and “in-demand” credentials in their state.

However, the brief omits the essential next step: State education agencies—at the K-12 and postsecondary level—must also collect the data back from districts and schools in a systematic and actionable way to know if CTE programs, including the credential attainment, are meeting these definitions.

States need to have the data necessary to answer the following questions:

  • Are the CTE programs of study offered really matching labor market demands?
  • Do students earn credentials in these high skill, high wage and in demand sectors?
  • Are students earning credentials at the rate employers need?

ExcelinEd experienced firsthand this issue with missing data while developing the online tool Credentials Matter with Burning Glass. This tool helps state education agencies and policymakers identify ways to create quality alignment between industry credential attainment in K-12 and workforce demand. In the first round of data collection for Credentials Matter, 28 states responded to ExcelinEd that they collect quantitative data on the attainment of credentials. That means 22 states and the District of Columbia either chose not to participate, had data in a form that could not be analyzed or did not collect the data.

Step 2: Analyze the Data

Once states have their key data, they can then analyze it to inform efforts to align CTE offerings with workforce demands and ensure a high-quality experience for learners.

In our Credentials Matter study, for example, we analyzed credentialing outcomes for 24 states, and not a single state was highly aligned to workforce demand. Advance CTE’s brief highlights three states with robust tools that identify high-skill, high-wage and in-demand jobs in the state or region. But the report doesn’t indicate whether policymaker, school counselor and individuals are using these powerful tools to shift practices.

Thanks to Perkins V, state education agencies will have their definitions for what high-skill, high-wage and in-demand credentials look like—meaning the timing is just right for a thorough CTE audit. A CTE audit allows state education agencies to analyze data to identify misalignments, see what programs of study need to be shifted and determine what guardrails to place on credentials. This diagnostic tool can drive effective, informed change going forward. To get started, check out ExcelinEd’s CTE playbook Auditing a State Career and Technical Education Program for Quality.

Step 3: Use the Data

As Aligning to Opportunity stresses, the power of data and these analyses is only fully realized if the information gets back into the hands of those who can use it: policymakers, employers, parents, students, districts and school personnel. All stakeholders need to know what credentials are being earned and how they align in order to determine what practices need to be continued, improved or phased out.

About the author

Adriana Harrington @AdrianaHarrin17

Adriana Harrington is the Director of Innovation Policy. Prior to joining ExcelinEd Adriana worked at the Tennessee Department of Education, most recently serving as the Director of Project Management for the Division of Consolidated Planning and Monitoring and the Division of School Improvement. In this role, Adriana lead the department’s statewide school improvement initiatives to increase student outcomes in schools performing in the bottom five percent. She previously served as the Program Manager, Student Readiness for the Division of College, Career and Technical Education. Adriana was also a high school social studies teacher in Memphis for several years and a Teach for America Corps Member. Adriana earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in History from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters of Public Policy from Duke University.