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The Academic Impacts of Career and Technical Schools: A Case Study of a Large Urban School District

The Academic Impacts of Career and Technical Schools: A Case Study of a Large Urban School District

With growing public recognition that too many students in the United States fail to complete high school and that those who do graduate often are inadequately prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce, policymakers and education leaders are turning their attention afresh to the American high school.


Within the past decade, public investments and private donors have sought to remake the high school in various ways: by organizing high schools around unifying themes, creating improved curricula for students who enter high school underprepared, developing standards and end-of-course exams, breaking larger high schools into smaller units, and creating small autonomous schools.

Despite this flurry of activity, there has been relatively little discussion about the role of Career and Technical schools in preparing students to enter higher education and the workforce.  More than 90 percent of the approximately 18,000 public high schools in the United States offer some type of career and technical education course.  However, for approximately 900 high schools known as “career and technical high schools” (CTE schools), workforce preparation is the central and primary mission.  In 2002, career and technical high schools enrolled approximately nine percent of the in-school population of tenth grade students in the United States.

Research Focus

A result of the lack of research focus to CTE schools (as opposed to just CTE courses taken at any type of school) is that there has been no gathering of evidence on the effects of CTE schools on a variety of student outcomes, including academic achievement, labor market outcomes, and postsecondary enrollment.  This report provides a basic questions about academic outcomes associated with CTE schools:

  • What is the effect of CTE schools on educational attainment, specifically credit accumulation, grade promotion, and graduation?
  • What is the effect of CTE schools on college-preparatory course taking in mathematics, science, and foreign language?
  • What effect do CTE schools have on academic performance, specifically grade point average (GPA), and academic growth in mathematics and reading comprehension?

This report presents findings from a case study of five CTE schools in the School District of Philadelphia.  Three cohorts of students – the Classes of 2003, 2004, and 2005 – are the focus of this report.  Students in these cohorts were admitted to the CTE schools through a lottery that admitted students through random selection, taking into account student race/ethnicity in order to achieve court-ordered racial balance in the schools.  This study takes advantage of this so-called “natural experiment” by comparing outcomes for applicants who were admitted with those for students who did not receive an acceptance.  Two types of estimates are created for each outcome: 1) an Intent-to-Treat estimate, which compares outcomes for students who were accepted to CTE schools to outcomes for students who were not accepted, and 2) a Dosage estimate, which compares students who attended a CTE school to students who did not attend.

Key findings include:

  • CTE schools had higher on-time graduation rates in each of the three cohorts.  This CTE advantage continued to five-year graduation rates for the two cohorts for which these data were available and to the six-year graduation rates for the one cohort for which data were available (13-27% increase in individual’s odds of graduating using ITT estimate and 111-183% increase using Dosage estimate).  Likewise, there were CTE impacts on total credits earned (0.7 – .0.8 credits with ITT estimate, and 5.9 – 6.6 credits with Dosage estimate) and total CTE courses taken (0.33-0.38 with ITT estimate, and 2.30-2.34 with Dosage estimate).
  • CTE schools had a substantial impact on the probability of successfully completing the college preparatory mathematics sequence of Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry.  The Intent-to-Treat estimates placed the odds of completing this course sequence as one-quarter to one-third greater for CTE students (25-32% increase in the odds of completing the sequence), while the Dosage estimates placed the odds for CTE attenders as between two and three times as great as for those who attended other schools (232-255% increase in odds of completing mathematics course sequence).
  • The Intent-to-Treat and Dosage estimates of impact for completing both Chemistry and Physics credits were inconsistent across cohorts and often not statistically significant. 
  • The Intent-to-Treat estimates of impact for earning two course credits in foreign language was inconsistent across cohorts.  However, the Dosage estimate indicated a substantial CTE impact (145-148% increase in odds of completing foreign language course sequence), with those who attended CTE schools having over twice the odds of successfully completing two years of a foreign language.
  • Across the cohorts, CTE schools had virtually no impact on achievement growth from 8th to 11th grade.  The CTE effect for learning growth in mathematics and reading comprehension was generally statistically insignificant, and the effects were always small.

A descriptive analysis of mean outcomes by cohort and CTE school indicates that while the magnitude of the differences between treatment and control students varies from school to school, the impacts are not being driven by a single CTE school or subset of schools.

Download the Report

Download the full report available here in pdf.

Supplement on Post-Secondary Outcomes

Download the supplementary report available here in pdf.

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