Career and technical education has experienced a resurgence and seems poised to shake off the dark legacy of vocational education tracks that, decades ago, funneled people of color into dead-end jobs, often by design. Recent research suggests that secondary and postsecondary CTE programs can be a ticket to the middle class for students who would otherwise find few pathways to prosperity.
Yet states report little information on whether students of color pursue the most prosperous CTE pathways. Perkins V aims to change that. The newly reauthorized law requires states to break out data on participation and performance in each CTE program of study by race and ethnicity, among other categories.
Perkins IV required states to report on how many people of color take and complete CTE programs in high school and college, but few break this information out by subject matter. It is very difficult to determine how many African American students take classes in engineering technology, for example, or how many Latinx students take classes in manufacturing. These numbers matter, because fields like these are more likely than others to lead to stable, high-paying jobs. The little research available on racial and ethnic disparities in CTE suggest that students of color are less likely than their peers to have access to CTE programs or to participate in science, technology, engineering or mathematics programs.
Unsurprisingly, those disparities play out in the workforce: African Americans comprise about 12 percent of the workforce but only 7 percent of workers in the 10 highest-paying, middle-skill jobs (which typically require more than a high school diploma and less than a bachelor’s degree). Latinx Americans make up 17 percent of the workforce but hold only 12 percent of those jobs. In the 10 lowest-paying, middle-skill occupations, by contrast, African Americans and Latinx Americans comprise 18 and 19 percent, respectively.*
These gaps may have their roots in high school or earlier. CTE can be an important pathway to the middle class for young people from across the social and economic spectrum, yet racial and ethnic gaps in CTE courses may worsen, rather than ease, later inequities in the workforce. Without public data on the racial and ethnic composition of CTE courses, decision-makers and advocates who aim to tackle such inequities have little to go on.
Perkins V’s emphasis on better data can help advocates, educators and policymakers identify and address disparities that have remained mostly submerged until now. Only then can CTE fulfill its promise as a guarantor of opportunity.
*Our analysis of the racial and ethnic breakdown of the U.S. workforce derives from 2015 U.S. Census data. We analyzed 2015-16 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections Program to estimate the racial and ethnic composition of the highest- and lowest-paying middle skill occupations. We defined middle-skill occupations as occupations where at least half of employees had a high school diploma but less than half had a bachelor’s degree. We did not include occupations for which racial or ethnic data were not available.