CTE Conference Causes ‘Good Trouble’ for Equity

Career and Technical Education (CTE) is a critical pipeline to one of the 30 million American jobs that pay good wages without requiring a bachelor’s degree. But the benefits of CTE are not shared equally. On last Thursday, CTE professionals from 20 states and at least three countries gathered virtually for “Good Trouble: Busting Inclusion, Access, Equity, and Diversity Barriers in CTE”, a conference to discuss efforts to make CTE fairer.

“CTE is a proven strategy for increasing high school graduation for a subpopulation of learners who are traditionally marginalized,” said Dr. Amanda Bastoni, inclusion, access, equity, and diversity coordinator for the Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE), which organized the conference in partnership with Butler Tech, an Ohio school that offers CTE for high school students and adults.

In addition to being more likely to graduate high school, CTE concentrators, students who take two or more high school classes in the same CTE subject area, are more likely to enroll in post-secondary education, and to earn more than those who don’ t have that CTE background. But according to data from the US Department of Education, in the 2019-20 school year, a higher percentage of white high schools are CTE concentrators than Blacks or Hispanics in almost every state. In some places, the disparities were particularly stark: Nevada had just 88 Black students take a career-oriented STEM course, and in Alabama, only 16 Hispanic students took more than one information technology course.

These disparities stem in part from CTE’s racial history: in the past decades, racist teachers and administrators would dump Black students into low-quality vocational programs, a form of educational segregation that limited economic opportunities for African Americans.

“There was a time when CTE programs had a janitorial program and there was a push to steer Black students into that,” Bastoni said. In subsequent years, this legacy made teachers and administrators reluctant to suggest CTE options to the minority students, for fear of reinforcing stereotypes. Ironically, this may have barred them from excellent opportunities. Thursday’s conference was an attempt to open those doors back up.

“Conferences like these are attempts at acknowledging barriers that certain students experience more than others and at sharing best practices, because one of the problems is that nobody quite knows the answer,” said Bastoni.

One answer presented by Butler was particularly bold: replacing its interview-based admissions process with a random lottery. Having concluded that interviews, in addition to being time-intensive, could harm equity by favoring students who have good access to transportation and support from home, butler simplified things greatly by selecting from eligible applicants arbitrarily.

Although research has shown that admissions lotteries might not improve diversity at highly selective institutions, Butler considered every applicant who had sufficient high school credits. Prospective students only had to submit some basic information and a choice of program and were randomly picked for admission by computer. Final demographic numbers for the first lottery class were not available, but admissions officials described signs of success. Butler had its highest number of applicants ever and filled 98% of its places within a week.

“Our students look a little different than they had in the past, and that makes me feel good,” said Tony Huff, Butler’s director of student services. Admissions specifically highlighted a notable increase in special education students.

Butler also described its collection and usage of student data to improve equity. Since 2020, Butler has obtained demographic information from students and used it to better the school experience for marginalized groups. Data from the first year revealed that companies with which Butler was partnering were hiring students of color at a lower rate than white students. This led to what executive director of strategic planning Nick Linberg described as “hard conversations” with those companies and more balanced numbers the next year. The data also showed a particular difficulty for students studying subjects in which they were one of the only people of their gender: men in nursing, for example, or women in welding. This led to adjustments in the culture of those classes as well as greater efforts to hire more diverse faculty.

Although these efforts represent progress, there is still much work to be done to make CTE equally accessible for all. But the Good Trouble conference provided reason for hope.

“I want you to be crazy enough to believe that we’ll be the ones to transform it,” said Butler CEO and superintendent Jon Graft in his closing speech. “[When] good people create good trouble, you get good outcomes.”

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