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First nationwide look at racial breakdown of career education confirms deep divides

In Nevada, just 4 percent of students who took a career-oriented science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) course in the 2019-20 school year — 88 students total — were Black, even though Black students make up more than 11 percent of the state’s public school enrollment.

Only 16 Hispanic students in Alabama took more than one information technology class — less than 1 percent of all those who did so. Meanwhile, Hispanic students accounted for 9 percent of the state’s K-12 students.

Those statistics, released for the first time as part of new federal data on student enrollment in career and technical programs, help paint a picture of a school system in which Black and Hispanic students benefit less often from classes connected to higher-paying careers and college degrees than their white peers. Despite years of work by some educators and advocates to increase equity in career and technical education, deep disparities remain. White students are more likely than Black and Hispanic students to take classes in fields such as manufacturing, information technology and STEM, while Black students are more likely to take courses in hospitality and tourism.

The findings provide further evidence of a trend identified last year by a Hechinger Report/Associated Press analysis of data gathered from 40 states that revealed a racial divide in career and technical education, or CTE.

“It shows that we have a lot of work to do,” said Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy for the nonprofit Association for Career and Technical Education. “There are a lot of historical challenges to overcome in how Black students, in particular, interface with CTE dating back decades to when there was segregation in programs.”

In recent years, career and technical education has worked to shed its reputation as a dumping ground for students — too often those of color — who are not seen as college material. Once limited primarily to classes such as auto shop and construction, the programs have broadened to include courses designed to prepare students for higher education and jobs in fields like engineering and health care, and have become more attractive to white and wealthy students. Yet CTE advocates have long had concerns — but little proof — about inequities that lie beneath the surface.

Previously, the Department of Education only reported enrollment in CTE career areas by gender. The 2018 reauthorization of the federal law that governs career and technical education mandated racial data be reported as well.

The newly released data includes information on all secondary students who take a course in a career area, as well as those who concentrate in that field by taking at least two classes in the subject. The numbers suggest that white students reach this advanced level of study more often than their Black and Hispanic peers, with the gaps in attainment being particularly acute in certain fields, including manufacturing and STEM.

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Without this information, state and local administrators might not know which programs have problems — or how to start fixing them, Hyslop said. “You don’t know what interventions to offer unless you really dig into the data and then start asking questions about why it looks this way,” she said. “Is it a career guidance issue? Is it entry requirements into these high-level CTE programs that are keeping students out? Or lack of transportation?”

Education officials in Nevada and Alabama say they are trying to eliminate these disparities. Allegra Demerjian, a spokesperson for Nevada’s education department, said that the state has begun to use the new data to provide increased guidance to districts and will require programs that receive federal grant money for career and technical education to report how they are promoting equity.

But expanding access to STEM is particularly difficult, Demerjian noted, as finding qualified teachers can be a challenge and courses sometimes require expensive equipment. Still, she said, Black student participation in STEM classes ticked up slightly, to 5 percent, in the most recent school year.

Alabama officials said they face similar obstacles in expanding access to STEM and information technology. The state tried to address the issue in 2017 with an advisory council to the governor that focused on the problem and a 2019 law that requires all public schools in the state offer computer science classes, said Jimmy Hull, assistant state superintendent.

Even states that have been working for years to improve equity in career and technical education often have a long way to go. In Delaware, for instance, in 2015, state administrators began disaggregating enrollment data by race and started working directly with schools to help analyze their numbers and develop plans for improvement, according to Luke Rhine, the state’s director of career and technical education and STEM initiatives. By now, they’ve worked with most districts in the state.

But white students were still twice as likely to concentrate in STEM as both Black students and Hispanic students according to the federal data. Meanwhile, white students accounted for less than a third of students concentrating in hospitality, while Black students made up 44 percent. Statewide, 43 percent of students were white and 30 percent Black.

Rhine said that the state has seen improvements, but not universally. “Schools that are committed to elevating student voices and seeking to understand barriers are moving the needle,” he said. “We have not seen the same movement in every school.”

Racial gaps in CTE can be a particularly complex problem to solve, Rhine added, noting there are often multiple explanations for inequities, including limited access to certain courses in some schools and a failure to make all students feel included.

“The hardest part in engaging school districts is just helping them find a place to start,” he said. “Once it starts and they find success, they’re going to continue to build on that.”

Explore the data for course enrollment and concentrators for yourself.

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This story about CTE was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Patrick Siebert|CC BY 2.0

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan visits Washington County Technical High School on March 25, 2021.

“It shows that we have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of historical challenges to overcome in how Black students, in particular, interface with CTE dating back decades to when there was segregation in programs.”

— Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy for the nonprofit Association for Career and Technical Education