The positive effects of vocational schools

More than 90% of high schools in the US offer a vocational training option for pupils, and more than one in five pupils participate in these career and technical education (CTE) programmes. Traditionally in CTE, career-training courses are offered during each school day, and non-career classes contain a mix of CTE and non-CTE pupils. Massachusetts has taken CTE a step further by offering 32 regional vocational and technical high schools (RVTS), where all pupils participate in CTE, alternating one week of schooling with one week of career training.

Shaun Dougherty of the University of Connecticut recently studied the effects of attending an RVTS. In this study, pupils had to apply to attend, with admission based on middle school (Key Stage 3) record of attendance, standardised test scores in maths and disciplinary record. Using state data and admissions applications, Dougherty compared 4,000 ninth grade pupils (Year 10) in three RVTS schools, 2,000 of whom were just above and below the cutoff points for admission, inferring that RVTS participation would be the main variable affecting their performance. Following these ninth grade pupils through to twelfth grade (Year 13), he found that, as compared to pupils who barely missed the cutoff, pupils who had participated in RVTS:

  • Were 7-10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school
  • Were more likely to earn industry-recognised credentials while in high school
  • Were likely to receive comparable state test scores that qualified them for graduation

Given that state test scores in core subjects were similar for the pupils who did and didn’t participate in the RVTS, Dougherty concluded that RVTS schools positively influence graduation rates without sacrificing knowledge in core subjects.

Unlike traditional CTE programmes, where pupils may study one course one year and switch the next year, RVTS pupils stay within the same course of study from tenth to twelfth grade (Years 11–13), often with the same teachers and peers. They offer a larger selection of courses, and classes are taught within the same building, allowing vocational-training teachers to confer with traditional-course teachers and carry over career training into the traditional realms of maths, English and social studies.

Source: The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: causal evidence from Massachusetts (October 2017), Education Finance and Policy doi: 10.1162/EDFP_a_00224