Career and Technical Education Reforms and Comprehensive School Reforms in High Schools and Community Colleges: Their Impact on Educational Outcomes for At-Risk Youth

Publication January 2001

This literature review explores the intersection of several broad areas of education research. In the first section, we cover three areas within secondary education research: an examination of student risk factors in education; the state of the art in secondary vocational education, increasingly known as career and technical education (CTE); and the interplay of these new forms of CTE and other comprehensive school reform efforts in high schools. In the second section, we turn our attention to reforms and other trends in postsecondary CTE, usually located in community colleges. Our goal is to examine the effects that these reform efforts have had on outcomes for at-risk students. Because these are relatively independent strands in the literature, we have cast a wide net. We draw connections across the fields wherever possible, so as to explore ways to improve the education and life chances of students placed at risk of school failure or dropping out.

Section One of this report examines student risk factors in education; student-level, family-level, school-level, and community-level risk factors are discussed, with the conclusion being that students with any of these factors could be at risk of not graduating from high school. Students who attend schools where many of these factors exist have a greatly increased likelihood of dropping out. This research-based definition of at-risk students frames our subsequent analyses. Next, we examine whether school reforms in general, and CTE reforms specifically, have had any impact on schooling outcomes for at-risk students—achievement, attendance, course-taking, or transition to postsecondary opportunities.

We found little research that documented whether CTE reforms have influenced outcomes for at-risk students. A major reason for this is related to the shortage of hard evidence on overall student outcomes resulting from school reform efforts, so the subset of evidence for at-risk students is lacking as well. One finding of this literature review is that much more work needs to be done to empirically document the improvements that are heralded anecdotally, gathered internally within reform organizations, or noted in descriptive studies of secondary school reform.

Historically, vocational education programs tended to include those students who were at risk of not finishing high school. These were students whom counselors and other adults assumed would not go on to any postsecondary education, and they were provided with vocational education so that they could earn a decent living after leaving school. Such a use of secondary education has become problematic, as there is widespread agreement that some postsecondary education is very nearly a necessity for economic self-sufficiency. In most parts of the country, vocational education has begun to develop high-tech programs to meet new demands of businesses and industries.

However, although vocational educators promote career preparation goals as important for all students, in most cases vocational education has retained its reputation as a track for those not interested in or talented enough for college. For this reason, and due to the paucity of research information, we review known outcomes for the various vocational reforms, assuming that many of the students in these programs have been, in fact, at risk. We recognize that this is not exclusively the case, and we advocate for research that separates outcomes by student risk factors.

Section Two of this report reviews education reform in secondary schools from 1985 to 2001. We describe secondary school CTE-specific reform efforts that were driven by Federal legislation, such as tech prep and School to Work. Both of these initiatives have seen some success, although few manifestations of tech prep and School to Work incorporate all of the elements outlined in the legislation.

We then discuss efforts to develop career and technical education that exist without the aid of legislation. The High Schools That Work design attempts to ensure that students in vocational programs receive high-level academics in order to be eligible for postsecondary education, and structures such as career academies, career magnets, and career pathways attempt to provide all students with career exploration and experiences within a curriculum that also prepares them for college. Despite the relative newness of these initiatives, the mounting anecdotal evidence suggests that they are having positive effects on at-risk student attendance, course-taking patterns, and transition to postsecondary education. However, there is little substantive research validating the claims of reform advocates, demonstrating the need for more rigorous research, especially on elements of these reforms such as contextualized learning, curriculum integration, and career pathways.

Next, we describe the comprehensive school reform movement. Although there have been calls for reform at nearly every point in the history of American education, the most recent wave stands apart by virtue of the level of national support for reform (e.g., the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration [CSRD] initiative), and the remarkable growth of specific designs. Various organizations have developed, marketed, and delivered comprehensive school reform designs to schools across the country. We briefly describe examples of these designs, such as Talent Development High Schools, Urban Learning Centers, and the New American High Schools initiative, all of which are being implemented in high-poverty areas. As with reform efforts stemming from CTE, there are studies indicating increased attainment of goals such as a decrease in dropouts and an increase in secondary and postsecondary attendance. Some studies suggest improved academic achievement as well, but methodological problems with such studies remain, such as a reliance on internal research. We call for a stronger research base to help schools, districts, and policymakers decide whether a particular reform design might be useful in their context.

The last part of our review of secondary school reform describes efforts in which CTE reforms have been integrated with comprehensive school reform. To date, these studies have been descriptive, and we note the need for more research on this type of integrated reform approach. Such research should include disaggregated outcomes data so that the impact on at-risk students is clear. We conclude this section of the review with a summary of the characteristics of sustainable reform, and recommendations for activities and efforts that integrate CTE and whole school reform at the secondary level.

Section Three of this report focuses on CTE-based and broader reforms at the community college, the site of postsecondary career and technical education. It is just as important to examine outcomes for at-risk students at the community college level as it is at the high school level for two reasons. First, many at-risk students who continue their educations do so in pre-baccalaureate institutions, variously known as 2-year colleges, junior colleges, technical colleges, and community colleges. Second, a general consensus exists today that some postsecondary education is necessary for economic self-sufficiency, thus attempts to improve the life chances of at-risk students must include an examination of career and technical education at the community college level.

There is little empirical research at the postsecondary level on outcomes for at-risk students. One problem is nomenclature: if students are attending a community college, they have graduated from high school and are no longer “at risk” in the sense of “at risk of failing to graduate high school.” However, poor and minority students are at risk of failure at a later stage: that is, failure to complete their postsecondary studies. A second difficulty in determining outcomes for community college students is that many of them “stop out,” or discontinue their studies for a time. Students may resume their education at a different institution, making outcomes difficult to track. Finally, community colleges have evolved differently in different regions of the country, and states have widely varied governance structures for them. While the same can be said to a lesser extent for the nation’s high schools, it is easier to draw conclusions about the state of secondary education than about the state of community colleges. In addition, there is no institutionalization of “reform designs” for community colleges as is the case for secondary schools. There are national trends, which we review, but community colleges lack the strong research, development, and technical assistance infrastructure that the K-12 system enjoys.

In summary, the current state of the art includes limited evidence of improvement in outcomes such as student attendance and transition to postsecondary education. This literature review finds that there is very little strong research on student outcomes that intersects at least three of the four broad areas reviewed. However, school-level and non-experimental evidence appears to show positive outcome trends, and descriptive studies of current reform efforts give cause for cautious optimism regarding their ability to improve the education and life chances of at-risk students. Our schools and community colleges have a great need for robust studies of high school CTE reforms, whole school reforms, and their intersection. There is a particularly pressing need for studies located in areas with low income, high minority, or high limited English proficient (LEP) populations.

We provide recommendations on specific elements of reform that appear to yield positive results when combined in a manner consistent with an individual school’s context and needs. Some of these elements include high academic standards, sustained professional development, new forms of pedagogy and assessment, reorganization of the learning environment into smaller communities with a broad career focus, and partnerships with business and postsecondary institutions.

The report concludes with a section on implications for further research and practice. The field is badly in need of a set of overlapping studies of diverse efforts in school reform. These studies should be longitudinal, and they should take advantage of naturally occurring contexts. Funding should be increased for these research efforts in order to move the field to a more data-informed level. With respect to the practice of reform efforts within schools, school administrators need to enhance interdepartmental collaboration, to provide joint professional development across traditionally separate areas of the school, and to incorporate career-based learning into more secondary schools. High schools should consider external partners to provide technical assistance in reform and to seek out ways to conduct research on their reform efforts.

Finally, the postsecondary education system should increase pedagogical and other reform efforts. The reform and accountability movement that has swept the K–12 system is only now beginning to touch postsecondary education, and community college leaders need to acknowledge, support, and disseminate innovative practices throughout the system, or risk seeming anachronistic. The research task ahead is large, but these reform elements must be tested to see whether they indeed make a difference in the lives of at-risk students. Their numbers are growing, and their calls for equal opportunity must be met if we are to live up to our nation’s ideals.

Castellano, M., Stringfield, S., & Stone, J. R., III. (2001). Career and technical education reforms and comprehensive school reforms in high schools and community colleges: Their impact on educational outcomes for at-risk youth. St. Paul, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota.

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