American Enterprise Institute

The Evolution of Career and Technical Education: 1982 – 2013

In this report, the author examines 30 years of CTE course taking by examining transcripts of nationally representative samples of US high school graduates in selected years from 1982 to 2013. Using a classification of CTE occupational subject areas used in the most recently available transcript data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the author shows how CTE course taking has changed over that period, overall and by concentration. In addition, test scores show changes in the relative academic level of CTE concentrators.

Executive Summary

Nearly a year after Congress reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, states are in the thick of developing the CTE plans the law requires. Over the past three decades, the courses and students making up CTE have shifted dramatically. What we now know as CTE was once thought of as “vocational education,” a term that not only carried social stigma for its nonacademic connotations but also harked back to a troubled era of schools’ tracking of students by race and class.

By most accounts, we have moved past the “voc-ed” stereotypes. Some rigorous evidence has shown specific CTE programs have boosted student outcomes, and more generally, students concentrating in CTE courses boast increased graduation rates and higher earnings. However, the transformation from voc-ed to CTE may have hidden, rather than solved, the durable challenges in vocational education.

Examining 30 years of CTE course taking through transcripts of nationally representative samples of US high school graduates in selected years from 1982 to 2013, this report tracks how CTE course taking has changed over time, overall and by specific occupational areas. In addition, by examining the percentage of students who concentrate in a given CTE occupational area and the trends in those areas, the report finds distinct patterns among business, traditional vocational, and other CTE concentrations that should inform and challenge CTE policies and programs moving into the future.

Report Highlights

As vocational education has evolved into career and technical education (CTE) over the past several decades, it has progressed away from the stigma and stereotype of “voc-ed” as an academic dead end. However, the transformation from vocational education to CTE may have hidden, rather than solved, the durable challenges of vocational education.

  • Over 30 years, the percentage of graduates concentrating in “Traditional Vocational” occupational areas—such as manufacturing or agriculture—has fallen, while the percentage concentrating in “New Era” areas—such as computer science and health care—has grown dramatically.
  • Across many measures, including school engagement, academic performance, and college attendance, New Era CTE concentrators consistently show no measurable differences from average graduates, while Traditional Vocational CTE concentrators consistently fall below average.
  • New Era concentrators’ growth and relatively higher outcomes have had an outsized influence on CTE concentrators’ average outcomes, suggesting average improvements may be driven by compositional rather than programmatic effects.
  • For CTE to be successful, leaders (especially those currently developing state plans) must ask themselves not just whether CTE programs are producing adequate outcomes, but also whether CTE systems target the students who need them the most.

Additional Resources

The American Enterprise Institute is a public policy think tank dedicated to defending human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a freer and safer world. The work of our scholars and staff advances ideas rooted in our belief in democracy, free enterprise, American strength and global leadership, solidarity with those at the periphery of our society, and a pluralistic, entrepreneurial culture.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation