A Guide for State Leaders: Equity in Career and Technical Education (CTE)

Maria Durate,
AYPF Policy Research Intern

Modern-day Career and Technical Education (CTE) is challenging what CTE programs have historically been able to accomplish. In the last decade, the movement has undergone a renaissance, transforming from low-quality programs to programs involving innovative, real-world experiences. This shift is in part due   to changes in the US economyResearch shows there is a significant shortage of skilled workers in the US, a number that is projected to reach eight million by 2030. Moreover, in 2018 46 percent of US employers reported having difficulty filling roles.

Employers, educators, and students have started to recognize there’s an overlap in the competencies needed to be college and workforce ready. This overlap in skills is evident through a growing body of research illustrating students who participate in CTE programs are better prepared for academic classes, less likely to need remedial education, and more likely to enroll in a two-year college. The implications of recent findings suggest a more holistic approach to education is needed, one that includes developing a broader range of skills such as: listening, decision-making, creativity, integrity, and other soft skills like collaboration, and a sense of purpose. As a result, practitioners, researchers, and business leaders are thinking creatively about ways to strengthen CTE programs in secondary and postsecondary education. The passage of the Perkins V Act provides stakeholders and state policy leaders with additional opportunities to leverage business partnerships and innovative curricula to ensure youth are developing the proper skills to thrive in the 21st century economy.

The ultimate goal of CTE is to ensure students are developing the proper skills necessary to thrive in both college and the workforce. The challenge, then, becomes de-stigmatizing the CTE movement from its controversial history of being an unchallenging, “tracking” path. Historically, CTE has been perceived as a dumping ground for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with programs failing to prepare students for postsecondary education. Thus, leaders are being challenged to confront historical inequities to ensure quality CTE programs are accessible to every student.

Confronting inequities, rebuilding trust

This next section will be guided by the Making Good on the Promise Series, developed through the New Skills for Youth Initiative, a partnership between the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Advance CTE, and Education Strategy Group. The series highlights three key strategies state leaders can follow to de-stigmatize CTE programs and rebuild trust within historically underserved communities.

Brief 1: Understanding the Equity Challenge in CTE

The first action state leaders can take is to simply acknowledge and confront CTE’s negative legacy. In particular, the brief goes into detail about CTE’s history of “tracking” students, overt discrimination including sex and class discrimination, and implicit bias. They are calling on state leaders to not only accept our nation’s harsh reality, but to take action to counteract historical inequities, focusing on eliminating systemic barriers. The following quote from the brief summarizes this point:  “…access to all will require identifying and dismantling historical barriers, both overt and implicit—that have had an adverse effect on learners based on their race, socioeconomic background, disability and gender.”

Brief 2: Examining Access and Achievement Gaps

Next, it is important for state leaders to think creatively around ways they can leverage data as a tool to disrupt historical inequities. In particular, the brief highlights the following states for their robust, linked data systems: Maryland, Minnesota, Delaware, and Oregon.

These states are working to close equity gaps by:

  1. Leveraging accountability to draw attention to inequities;
  2. Committing to data transparency; and
  3. Examining root causes of achievement and access gaps.

Leveraging accountability to draw attention to inequities

One strategy to draw attention to inequities can be valuing career preparation in state and federal accountability systems. Collecting such information allows leaders to identify access gaps in CTE programs, for example, and therefore creates a sense of responsibility to take action. While the brief notes the many states that have started moving in this direction, it cautions leaders to move away from meta-indicators, which combine several options for students to demonstrate college and career readiness, and encourages the disaggregation of performance data by sub-groups. Accountability alone, the brief argues, is only the beginning for achieving equity in CTE.

Data transparency

In addition to having well-designed accountability systems, state leaders must also commit to CTE data transparency. This includes not only thinking creatively around accessibility, privacy, and transparency of the data to the public, but also providing professional development and training to administrators and policymakers so they can use the data for improved equity. Currently, Maryland allows any member of the public to access enrollment and data reports for each of the state’s 24-school systems and 16 community colleges through visual dashboards and filters. The availability of such detailed data has allowed Maryland to intervene to expand equity and access, and the state recently revisited their admissions selection process for CTE programs to reduce bias. Similarly, Minnesota has leveraged their accountability system to provide data on labor market outcomes for graduates of different institutions of higher education. By doing so, they’re demystifying postsecondary pathways by providing the public with the necessary information to make informed decisions.

Examining root causes of achievement and access gaps

Data can also be used to examine root causes of achievement and access gaps. In Delaware, for example, the Department of Education (DOE) looks at school-level, program-level, and state-level data, disaggregating data by different sub-groups. Such data is then compared to the general student population to determine whether enrollment and performance for certain students deviates significantly from expectations. When structured inequities are identified, a protocol is followed,  which includes a collaborative effort between school-based staff and district leaders, students, and parents, with students’ and parents’ opinions carrying the most weight in the process.

Brief 3:  Building Trust to Promote Equity in CTE

Lastly, state leaders should prioritize how to communicate the promise of CTE to communities that were previously not served equitably. Specifically, state leaders are encouraged to commit to both equity and quality in CTE programs by building trust in communities and promoting a culture that values equity. By doing so, state leaders will be more successful at implementing strategies to gain buy-in from communities and other stakeholders. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to elevate the voices of communities that have been historically unserved by CTE with the purpose of exemplifying the opportunities CTE can bring if rooted in equitable access and outcomes for each student.

I am encouraged by the growth and improvement CTE has undergone within the last several decades. In particular, I remain optimistic about the ample opportunities CTE can bring for communities of color if rooted in equity. My hope is that we continue centralizing equity, much like the CTE movement is currently aspiring to do, so that all students can have access to a quality education.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.