The Challenges and Opportunities in Addressing Equity in Career and Technical Education

Man and woman technical apprentices

The current nationwide labor shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, underscores the need to prepare a new and more diverse generation of workers with the knowledge, skills, and attributes to take advantage of the high-demand, high-wage jobs that are the backbone of the economy. U.S. businesses are facing challenges filling so-called “middle-skills” jobs in trades, telecommunications, health care, IT, and similar professions. These roles require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, 52 percent of jobs match this requirement but only 43 percent of American workers have the necessary skills to fill them.

Formerly known as vocational education, CTE has expanded significantly in recent decades to include new industry areas, increased rigor, and opportunities for certification and skills development that can position students for post-secondary success.

This gap has direct implications not only for the U.S. economy but also for our education systems, which are uniquely positioned to provide all students—inclusive of race, ethnicity, gender and gender orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status—with opportunities to prepare for careers, as well as for college. Career and Technical Education (CTE) is an existing and promising pathway that can address this gap. 

With the 2018 passage of The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), Congress reinforced the importance of CTE and created new opportunities for states to strengthen outcomes for all students, especially for those in special populations who have historically been underserved and therefore have had reduced access to promising career pathways. The legislation charged states to improve access to CTE programs for these students, with the goal of creating programs and career pathways that lead to industry-recognized credentials.

Ohio’s Experience

Improving equity in CTE is a complex undertaking that requires leadership and persistence, something we saw in action as we worked with the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Career-Technical Education.

The workforce gap in Ohio is significantly greater than in the U.S., with 64 percent of jobs in 2020 requiring postsecondary education and only 44.6 percent of working-age adults possessing postsecondary certificates or degrees. To close this gap, the state committed to increase annually the percentage of graduates who are enrolled and succeeding in post-secondary learning, with the goal of ensuring that 65 percent of Ohioans aged 25 to 64 have postsecondary credentials by 2025.

To achieve these goals and reduce disparities and performance gaps among CTE students, Ohio devised a plan for targeted technical assistance using Perkins V state leadership funds. The plan focused on:

  • Identifying and closing equity gaps discovered through Regional Equity Labs;
  • Facilitating data-driven decision-making, using the results of comprehensive local needs assessments; and
  • Strengthening program quality through the use of tailored review processes and clearly articulated standards.

This ambitious plan brought the CTE Office face-to-face with the current reality of CTE in the state, where students in special populations are underrepresented in CTE programs and teachers are overwhelmingly white and male.

Becky Crance, equitable access program administrator at the department’s CTE Office, realized that her department had to address this challenge directly. As her team examined the needs of each special population, she came to an important conclusion: “We needed to build capacity within our office for the foundational knowledge of the historical, systematic barriers that existed for these students and reflect about the barriers that existed within our own lives. In building capacity within our team, we could build capacity within the state of Ohio.”

Strengthening Understanding, Capacity, and Resources

Crance understood that to improve equitable outcomes in CTE, the department needed to help staff deepen understanding of inequitable practices and policies in CTE programs and provide them with the tools and resources to support meaningful change across the state’s Career Technical Planning Districts (CTPDs).

Drawing on our experience with equity audits, data analysis, and professional development for supporting states and school districts to advance equity in education, AIR proposed a plan to realize this vision. We designed and implemented a mix of professional learning sessions and resources tailored to the context of Ohio and in response to the CTE Office’s needs for implementing technical assistance in alignment with the Perkins V state plan.

In addition to creating a safe space to explore an often-difficult topic, the professional learning sessions provided staff with concrete opportunities to practice new skills and apply their learning by:

  • Identifying language and terms staff could use to invite discussion and dialogue about equity, since even the term “equity” could detract from a chance to find agreement on shared values of fairness and opportunity;
  • Practicing reframing communications such as reworking statements that center students as the root cause of low performance to emphasize system-level responsibility. For example, instead of “Students with the greatest needs appear to be attaining technical skills at significantly lower rates than more advantaged students,” rephrasing as, “What actions could the CTPD take to improve outcomes for students who are not receiving the supports they need for success?”;
  • Participating in tailored scenarios of equity-related conversations relating to hiring new CTE staff, conducting equity data reviews, and initiating annual program reviews; and
  • Reflecting with peers on personal experiences in small groups and using problems of practice protocols to highlight and tackle real-world challenges with advancing equity in CTE.

By the end of the workshop series, all participants indicated that they had a medium to high level of preparedness to engage in equity-related conversations and a majority (78 percent) expressed a medium to high level of confidence in their ability to do so.

Although these investments have initiated the changes Ohio is seeking, they are insufficient for sustaining progress. Ohio has committed to continuing this work in partnership with AIR. Over the next two years, the state will focus on supporting staff as they apply what they’ve learned by addressing problems of practice (as they arise) and by providing guided practice for teams and equity champions on how to counter deficit perspectives and biases, challenge policies and practices perpetuating inequities, and expand access to CTE for students from all special populations.

Lessons Learned

At the heart of any transformation involving equity and access to CTE is acknowledging biases that often influence our attitudes, behaviors, and ultimately the decisions we make personally and professionally.

At the heart of any transformation involving equity and access to CTE is acknowledging biases that often influence our attitudes, behaviors, and ultimately the decisions we make personally and professionally. As we observed in Ohio, leaders need to make space and time to examine these biases and create opportunities to hear from the constituents they impact the most: students and their families. Doing so will create new frames of reference, shift perspectives and attitudes, and ultimately shape decisions toward change.

While we acknowledge this is incredibly challenging, we’ve also learned that a few simple tenants can help guide the journey toward advancing equity in CTE:

  • People matter, and their needs must be addressed first. Systems, policies, and practices are designed and perpetuated by individuals, who are influenced by conscious and unconscious biases;
  • Self-reflection provides context for understanding, not judgement or blame;
  • Dialogue creates windows and mirrors that allow us to process difference in productive ways;
  • Discomfort is a necessary tension for change. Don’t avoid it, embrace it;
  • Start somewhere to avoid action paralysis; and
  • Change is incremental, not linear.

As Crance describes it, “Our team is so far from where we started. It’s such a process … this work has been so important for our office in tackling complex topics and truly focusing on what is best for each career-technical student.”

Reflective Questions for Advancing Equity in CTE

By reflecting on the following questions, CTE directors and system leaders can begin to identify opportunities for advancing equity in CTE:
  • What additional data might refine your understanding of equity gaps in CTE programs?
  • How might you systematically and collaboratively review data on CTE programs if you are not doing so already?
  • What additional voices might offer new perspectives when examining CTE data?
  • How might you review policies through an equity lens to surface assumptions and identify potential impacts that may disproportionately affect special populations?
  • How prepared and confident are you and your staff for engaging in equity-related conversations?
  • How can you support staff professional learning that creates a safe space for meaningful exploration of systemic biases and inequitable outcomes?
  • What resources and exemplars can you and your staff use to learn more about effective and promising practices for improving equitable outcomes in CTE for special populations? (CTE leaders might consider these five core principles for equity.)
  • What refinements to your state plan or local plan might you consider to ensure that CTE programs, practices, and policies are aligned with the equity-related goals in Perkins V?