A Quick Word With: Katherine Hughes, on Career and Technical Education

Career and technical education (CTE) continues to gain traction with state and national policymakers, researchers, and educators across the country—evidenced by the creation of a federally funded center investigating CTE programs: the Career and Technical Education Research Network. AIR is leading this research network partnership—with the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), Jobs for the Future (JFF), and Vanderbilt University—under the direction of principal researcher Katherine Hughes, Ph.D. Hughes answered a few questions about CTE, the research network, and her background.

Q: What sparked your interest in researching CTE?

Hughes: After graduate school, I took a position with the Institute on Education and the Economy (later the Community College Research Center), which is part of Teachers College at Columbia University. At the time, we had some grants to research how career exploration and work-based learning programs were being implemented.

The most interesting and fun research I’ve ever done was at the institute, observing several high school and community college students at their internships. I did some in-depth work with one young man who was working at a Days Inn in midtown Manhattan, and it was fascinating to explore how he was making sense of the experience. It was then that I came to believe quality work-based learning is very important for young people’s overall development, as well as for learning specific skills.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about CTE?

"There’s a real need in the field for causal, rather than descriptive or correlational, research: We need to know much more about which programs produce positive outcomes for which students."

Hughes: That CTE is a lesser educational option—that it doesn’t prepare students for or lead to college, that it only teaches blue-collar work, or that it’s for lower-achieving students. While there have been some valid concerns about CTE educational tracks over the decades, in recent years, program offerings have expanded into new fields and postsecondary preparation is increasingly an intentional component.

Several years ago, I led a study of CTE-focused dual enrollment—CTE programs that offered high school students the opportunity to earn college credits—and we found positive outcomes for the participants. Those programs were in a wide range of fields: health, education/teacher preparation, multimedia, architecture/construction, engineering, and others.

Q: What’s one of the most innovative things you’ve seen high schools do to advance CTE?

Hughes: A current trend is to encourage high school students to earn industry-sponsored certifications. For example, Florida provides funding for students to take such assessments from an approved list, and rewards schools for student participation. I think it’s innovative, but we need more research to know whether these certifications improve students’ achievement and/or earnings.

Q: You’ve just begun leading AIR’s work with the Career and Technical Education Research Network. Can you give us a glimpse into the network and what you have planned for 2019?

Hughes: The general aim of the research network (one of three funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, or IES) is to encourage information sharing and build new knowledge. We want to improve coordination among CTE research projects, while also encouraging new research on how CTE policies, programs, and practices affect students’ academic and employment outcomes. We also hope to increase the pipeline of new CTE researchers.

We’re currently starting our evaluability assessment, which involves identifying and recommending a number of established CTE programs for future research. It’s a multi-step nomination and screening process to identify four to six programs or models that are ready for and amenable to a rigorous evaluation.

Q: What do you hope the CTE Research Network will contribute to the field?

Hughes: There’s a real need in the field for causal, rather than descriptive or correlational, research: We need to know much more about which programs produce positive outcomes for which students. One of our key goals is to encourage more impact studies on CTE programs.

As important as it is to expand the amount of rigorous CTE research, it’s also critical to increase the field’s access to, understanding of, and use of the research. We plan to help network researchers disseminate their findings in accessible and useful ways. We’ll also bring researchers and practitioners together to better understand research and research needs. We want to get the entire field talking about causal research.