Is Career and Technical Education Making the Grade in Metro Milwaukee?

By Joe Yeado

Career and Technical Education, often shortened to CTE, has become a hot topic in education in recent years. Teachers, parents, school leaders, and policymakers have all come to focus on this strategy as a means to better prepare students for a changing economic environment. Proponents say the integration of academic and technical skills provided by CTE can help students prepare for the 21st century economy.

But what, exactly, is Career and Technical Education and how is it being implemented in public school districts in Wisconsin and Metro Milwaukee?

Our latest report — Building Bridges: An Analysis of Career and Technical Education in Metro Milwaukee — addresses this question. Using the most recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, our analysis answers a number of questions, including:

  • How is Career and Technical Education defined by the state and local school districts, and how is it different from the general curriculum?
  • How extensive are CTE course offerings and how many students are CTE efforts impacting?
  • What are the academic and employment outcomes for CTE students?
  • What does the CTE teacher workforce look like and how is that impacting the provision of CTE?

Overall, we find that the majority of 11th and 12th grade students in the region and the state take at least some CTE courses during high school, yet a smaller percentage of students — less than one third — concentrate on CTE by taking two or more courses in a program of study. Additionally, we find:

  • Women and students of color are underrepresented in CTE courses, though their participation has increased in recent years.
  • CTE participants and concentrators have higher high school graduation rates than non-CTE students.
  • CTE concentrators have a mixed performance on state assessment exams, with higher proficiency rates in math than the district average, but lower proficiency on the reading section.
  • Nearly 75% of CTE concentrators continue their education after high school, with 68% attending a 4-year college.
  • Less than 17% of CTE concentrators in the region enter the workforce directly from high school and most take jobs unrelated to their CTE training.
  • The number of CTE teacher assignments in Metro Milwaukee has grown in nearly 14% in recent years, yet a shortage of CTE-licensed teachers remains a constraint to expanding CTE courses.

These findings provide insight about CTE in the region. The omission of private schools, who do not submit the same data, means the results of the report are not complete. However, this research contributes to the understanding of how students in Metro Milwaukee are utilizing CTE, how CTE is impacting their post-graduation endeavors, and how districts compare to one another.

Some questions for future research include:

  • What are the enrollment and completion patterns of CTE students who go on to attend Wisconsin higher education institutions?
  • What are the employment outcomes of CTE concentrators four to five years after high school?
  • Is the CTE curriculum effectively aligned to the workforce needs of employers?
  • Have recent changes to CTE teacher licensing resulted in more teachers hired and more CTE courses offered?

While often thought of as a relatively new phenomenon, Career and Technical Education has existed in some form for more than a century. We know that a high-quality CTE curriculum should contain several key elements, but this report suggests that not every school or district in the state or region incorporates each of those elements. We encourage school leaders and policymakers to carefully review these findings and we hope they will use them to improve the effectiveness of CTE programs and enhance their role in boosting post-graduation outcomes and preparing our future workforce.