Helping Disadvantaged Youth Succeed in School: Second-Year Findings from a Longitudinal Study of CTE-Based Whole-School Reforms

Publication March 2002

This report provides second-year findings from a 5-year longitudinal study. The study examines diverse and promising programs for integrating career and technical education (CTE, previously called vocational education) with whole-school reforms in schools that serve predominantly disadvantaged students. We define disadvantaged students as those living in poverty (indexed by participation in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program), and those who are members of groups that have been historically discriminated against in U.S. society (African Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants groups for whom English is not their native language). This interim report begins the process of providing longitudinal descriptions of CTE-enhanced whole-school reforms that appear to have strong track records of improving the educational chances of concentrated groups of highly disadvantaged students.

The larger study of which this report is a part asks several questions, two of which are addressed in this report:

  1. How have comprehensive school reform models affected CTE and overall education in middle schools and high schools—especially those that serve large disadvantaged populations?
  2. How do students choose the career and technical concentration they will pursue for their high school years? Are issues of equity (e.g., encouraging nontraditional career choices, preventing CTE from becoming a dumping ground for low-achieving at-risk students) considered in the structuring of this choice?


This report is based largely on findings from qualitative data gathered to date, although the larger study incorporates both qualitative and quantitative methods. The longitudinal component of the study involves following the progress of three cohorts of students as they proceed through 10 schools at three sites over a 4-year period. The choice of the 7th-, 9th-, and 11th-grade cohorts allows for examination of the effects of the individual schools on student progress, as well as an examination of the effects and effectiveness of various transitions among schools and community colleges in these “feeder patterns.” Quantitative data on inputs, processes, and outcomes are being combined with qualitative, longitudinal case studies of each site.

Further methodological details, although not a part of this preliminary report, provide a fuller picture of the larger study. Findings from the longitudinal sites will be compared to analogous data collected at three demographically and geographically matched control sites to provide evidence that the effects observed at the longitudinal sites are likely the result of the reform efforts, and not simply due to characteristics of these or similar student populations. Findings from the longitudinal sites will also be compared to data gathered at three replication sites that are demographically similar to the longitudinal sites and involved in similar reforms. Replication site data will allow us to parcel out which factors at the longitudinal sites are unique to those contexts, and which are more probably applicable to a wider range of contexts.


The three sets of sites in the study’s longitudinal sample each include a middle school, a high school, and a community college. One site also includes a regional vocational center, bringing to 10 the total number of schools in the longitudinal component of the study. Despite differences in geographic location and urbanicity, the three sites share similar demographics and concerns. Each high school serves a racial or ethnic minority population of over 50%. The sites have varying percentages of students who speak English as their second language. At each high school at least half of the students live in poverty, as indexed by participation in free or reduced-price lunch programs.

Three broad types of CTE-based whole-school reform are being studied. One of the longitudinally studied high schools is organized into five career pathways. Students choose a pathway around which to organize their elective classes and their senior projects. The second high school is a vocational-technical high school with over a dozen programs that they call shops. Students spend half of their time in their chosen vocational concentration, and the other half in academic courses. The third high school is divided into three career academies that include academy-specific English and social studies classes. Math, science, and elective courses are open to students from any academy.

Preliminary Findings

Our findings address several sub-questions of the two main research questions presented above. Much longitudinal data remains to be collected, so all conclusions are tentative and subject to further examination.

Whole-school reforms and curriculum integration. While levels of integration vary among schools and among teachers within schools, all three of the high schools in this study have integrated CTE and academic education. Our current hypothesis is that integration is easier to implement in high schools that have reorganized into academies or some other structure that is defined by interdisciplinary teacher teams (e.g., a 9th-grade “house”) than the other types of CTE-based whole-school reforms we studied. Teachers in these structures are expected to jointly develop curriculum and jointly serve students. In contrast, at the schools where teacher teams are not an integral part of the reform, curriculum integration is more piecemeal and dependent on individual teacher initiative.

Professional development. Faculty members at all three high schools being examined longitudinally participate in many professional development activities, including designing and leading workshops, as well as attending them. All three high schools have faculty teams or committees that monitor faculty members’ professional development needs. Faculty choice of professional development activities was also present at these sites. Two of the high schools share professional development activities with their feeder middle schools, so that middle school teachers can help their students make connections between what they learn in middle school and what they will be required to do in high school. Teacher collaboration across disciplines is encouraged at all of our sites.

Computer technology. All of the high schools in the study use computers for various purposes across the school, including student assessment and reporting requirements, teaching students about computers and computer systems, instruction, and remediation. Two of the high schools use their own students to maintain and repair all high school hardware systems. Students of all levels and abilities have been observed using computers at these high schools. Teachers at these high schools have been trained in the use of computers to make their work more efficient and to teach students how computers are used in various workplaces. Computers are well-integrated into the lives of students and teachers at the high schools in our study.

Middle school reform. Career and technical education is not a driving force at the middle schools in the study. However, all of these middle schools are involved in some reform effort aimed at providing students with a strong academic foundation. This is a useful role, since much of the academic skill improvement required by the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 has its foundation in middle school. Two of the middle schools in the study have strong connections to their respective high schools, either through common professional development, or through co-location on a shared campus. The third middle school is less closely connected to its high school; however, the two administrations and the counseling offices are in regular contact and coordinate events for middle school students to learn about the programs offered at the high school.

The importance of leadership. Across all three high school sites, strong leadership has been a crucial factor in effecting change. Strong principals and other leaders did not and possibly cannot force change; but they have been critical in setting an agenda and the tone for change. All three principals projected a dynamic vision of their schools’ potentials as academic and career-preparation leaders. All of the principals were either able to secure the funding necessary to support their agendas, or they found people who could provide those skills. Extra funding proved to be a necessary component of most reforms, because professional development, student materials, or special activities at schools undergoing reform were consistently beyond what the basic school budget could provide in these high-poverty contexts.

Principals who have been effective leaders of school improvement efforts in demanding, high-poverty contexts are often lured away by new challenges, and, typically, higher pay, in other contexts. This has happened at two of the study’s high schools in the past two years. The research team will be particularly attentive to exploring the extent to which the reforms have been institutionalized at these schools, and how well the reforms will survive and evolve after the changes in leadership.

Student identification of program. Student choice usually refers to the choice of which middle school or high school to attend. Here we refer to which unit within the high school students will choose: which pathway, shop, or academy. We are interested in how schools attend to issues of racial and gender equity and balanced enrollment across units. In each of the high schools in this study, the administrations and faculties attempt to allow students to have their first choice of unit, since these options are designed to be related to a student’s life goals.

Achieving gender and racial equity appears to be easier for the high school that is organized by career pathways than it is for the high schools divided into shops or academies. Career pathways do not determine student scheduling to the same degree that shops and academies do. At the pathway high school, pathways are manifest in students’ electives, and many courses can be considered part of one or more pathways. In contrast, at the other two high schools in the longitudinal sample, once students have chosen their shop or academy, much of their coursework is predetermined. This has an impact on efforts to achieve equity, because if a shop or academy attracts one gender over the other, educators must decide between having a relatively gender-based distribution of students, or assigning students to shops or academies that were not their first or second choice.

Next Phase of the Study

One of the major advantages of longitudinal studies is the ability to follow up on emerging themes. At this point in our study, several important themes have emerged that will be included in future data collection activities.

Sustainability of education reform is an ongoing question, especially in “high stakes” testing contexts. We will be examining transitions more closely over the next several years. First, there is transition in leadership, as administrators and teachers who have initiated the reforms of interest to this study leave. We will be able to observe and report on the continuity of reform efforts as schools use various strategies to induct new faculty members into the reforms. The second transition of interest to this study is student transitions to and through successive levels of education. We will report on the 7th- and 9th-grade cohorts’ transition successes to and through high school. We hope to say more in future years about the efficacy of the diverse mechanisms developed by schools and community colleges to facilitate the transition of students from high school to postsecondary education. The majority of the initially 11th-grade cohort will graduate from high school in the spring of 2002. Following their progress will provide information on the effects that schools’ CTE-related reforms are having on students’ rates of success in moving from high school into college and the workplace.

Finally, we will report in future years about how these reforms function to narrow the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. Final analysis of outcome data will necessarily be done in the final year, although interim analyses will be conducted. As the study progresses, we will be refining and reporting on emerging understandings of the relationships among whole-school reform, career and technical education, and desired long-term student achievement for disadvantaged students.

Castellano, M., Stringfield, S., & Stone, J. R., III. (2002, March). Helping disadvantaged youth succeed in school: Second-year findings from a longitudinal study of CTE-based whole-school reforms. St. Paul, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota.

Download the report (PDF)