NYC as a Laboratory for Learning About Career and Technical Education

Lessons from CTE-Dedicated High Schools

By James J. Kemple, Rebecca Unterman, Shaun M. Dougherty

During the last decade, career and technical education (CTE) has retaken a prominent place in federal, state, and local education policies. The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) oversees one of the largest and most diverse CTE systems in the country. In collaboration with researchers from MDRC, Boston College, and the University of Connecticut, the Research Alliance for New York City Schools has undertaken a multiyear study of CTE that is informing policy decisions in New York City and nationally. Findings from the study are particularly relevant to the work of the NYCDOE’s Office of Student Pathways, which is overseeing a large expansion of “career-connected learning opportunities” across New York City’s high schools.

This report is one of several that will emerge from the ongoing study. It focuses on 37 CTE-dedicated high schools, which are structured to ensure that all enrolled students participate in a CTE Program of Study from 9th through 12th grade. These programs are organized around an industry-aligned theme (for instance, construction, IT, and health services) and offer a sequence of career-focused courses, work-based learning opportunities, and access to aligned college-level coursework. This study uses an especially rigorous approach to compare the experiences and outcomes of nearly 19,000 NYC students who were assigned to a CTE-dedicated high school between 2013 and 2016 with those of similar students who also applied to CTE programs but were assigned to another high school during the same period. Among the key findings:

  • A majority of students assigned to CTE-dedicated high schools completed the required number of CTE credits, and about one-quarter participated in a work-based internship. While these rates are substantially higher than for the non-CTE group, many students in CTE-dedicated high schools were not completing the most intensive aspects of a CTE Program of Study. It is important to note that the internship data only include students who received course credit or were paid through the DOE’s Internship Management System. This highlights the need for better, more consistent tracking of students’ participation in work-based learning.
  • The CTE-dedicated schools produced modest but positive impacts on student engagement, including staying on track for a New York State Regents diploma. One concern about CTE generally has been the idea that requiring students to complete career-specific courses and internships might distract them from other academic requirements and impede their progress through high school. This study found no evidence of this. While students in CTE-dedicated high schools earned somewhat fewer credits in academic subjects, they earned substantially more CTE course credits—and more credits overall—than their non-CTE counterparts. Students in CTE-dedicated high schools had higher attendance and were consistently more likely to be on track for a Regents diploma.
  • CTE students graduated from high school and enrolled in college at rates that were similar, on average, to their non-CTE counterparts. Although students in the CTE-dedicated high schools were more likely to be on track in 9th through 11th grades, the findings show that non-CTE students were equally likely to graduate. This appears to be due to the non-CTE students “catching up” in the 12th grade. The non-CTE group had slightly higher immediate college enrollment rates, but this difference disappeared when students were into the second year after their scheduled high school graduation.
  • There was a great deal of variation in both programming conditions and impacts across the 37 CTE-dedicated high schools. In general, the study found that smaller, nonselective schools with a single or coherent set of career themes appear to have produced meaningful improvements in high school graduation and college enrollment rates—particularly in programs focused on occupations requiring a bachelor's degree for entry-level jobs. In contrast, larger, more selective schools with a range of programs focused on occupations that often require limited postsecondary education had null or negative effects on graduation and college enrollment. The study does not yet have data to determine whether students in these schools opted for employment immediately after high school or if they enrolled in postsecondary education later on.

The study team is working to obtain data on students’ employment and earnings, as well as on longer-term college enrollment, persistence, and completion outcomes. This information will be crucial to fully understand the impacts of NYC’s diverse CTE options. Upcoming reports from this study will assess the costs associated with CTE and the implementation and impact of CTE programs in comprehensive (that is, non-CTE-dedicated) high schools.

This study is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305A170498 to the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Kemple, James, Rebecca Unterman, and Shaun M. Dougherty. 2023. NYC as a Laboratory for Learning About Career and Technical Education. New York: MDRC.