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District study: Students in career and technical education programs do well

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia students who take part in career and technical education programs in District high schools are much more likely to graduate than their academically similar peers who do not participate in these programs, according to a new School District research study.

District researchers presented the findings at a public meeting at District headquarters on Wednesday. The results are a boost to proponents of career and technical education (CTE), once referred to as vo-tech and sometimes in the past derided as less rigorous than academic classes.

The District now has nearly 6,000 students in CTE schools and programs and plans to increase that number, based in part on these results. The study looked at outcomes for students who entered high school in 2010. Among the findings presented:

• The on-time graduation rate for students who participated in CTE programs was 22 percentage points higher than non-CTE students, despite the fact that the reading and math test scores of the two groups in 8th grade were statistically similar.

• "The CTE cohort demonstrates a significantly narrower achievement gap than the non-CTE cohort." African American and Latino students in CTE programs graduated at rates close to those of their White and Asian peers.

• In some CTE programs, there’s more work to be done to ensure that participants are representative of the student population as a whole. For instance, only 12 percent of students in construction programs are female; girls make up only 15 percent of engineering technology students.

In a panel discussion about the findings, Olga Torres, a 19-year veteran CTE teacher at Mastbaum High School, highlighted the advantage of giving students hands-on learning experiences and real-world internship opportunities before they graduate high school. "Students have a skill under their belt so they are not working at McDonald’s," she said. "They’re able to be out there and be somebody."

A limitation to the study was that it did not look closely for ways that the cohort of students entering CTE programs may be different from non-CTE students. Although test results of the two groups were similar in 8th grade, attendance rates were not. Students who entered CTE programs had 8th-grade absenteeism rates of only 2 percent, while the non-CTE students were absent three times that much. The researchers said they did not look at whether the behavior records of the two groups in 8th grade were different.

District CTE schools require that entering students have good attendance and behavior records.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that to be categorized as part of the CTE cohort for this study, students had to continue past 9th grade. In fact, students who did not progress past 9th grade but for whom a CTE school was the last school of record were counted as part of the CTE cohort. In other words, any student who dropped out from a CTE school was counted as a CTE dropout.

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