From track to field: Trends in career and technical education across three decades


Dalton, B., Lauff, E., Henke, R., Alt, M., & Li, X. (Feb 2013). From track to field: Trends in career and technical education across three decades: Prepared for the National Assessment of Career and Technical Education (NACTE). Submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service. Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI International.


This report examines change and stability across two decades in the sociodemographic characteristics, educational experiences, and postsecondary outcomes of high school graduates with different occupational coursetaking patterns. Occupational coursetaking is part of the broader field of career and technical education (CTE), which also includes general labor market preparation and family and consumer sciences education courses. Historically, CTE and
occupational studies provided low-achieving or academically disengaged students with courses that prepared them for immediate entry into the labor market. However, the expansion of new types of career education within magnet schools, career academies, and traditional high schools, and the increasingly accepted perspective that all students can benefit from training that improves their workplace skills, suggests that the older dichotomies between college-bound academic education and work-oriented occupational preparation are less salient. To examine whether this is the case, this report analyzes three high school cohorts—the graduating classes of 1982, 1992, and 2004—and compares their involvement in CTE and occupational courses, their academic coursetaking and achievement outcomes, and their initial postsecondary school and work experiences.

We find that CTE, as measured by occupational coursetaking, has moved from being a clearly delineated vocational track for graduates headed to jobs immediately after high school to an exploratory program for an increasing proportion of both academic and general curriculum graduates. This shift from “track to field” involves smaller groups of graduates intensively studying an occupational area and larger groups of graduates earning a few occupational credits. It also coincides with shifts toward more academic coursetaking, improved academic achievement in math, and more involvement in postsecondary education for those with more involvement in occupational preparation. Before describing these findings further, the definitions and methodology for the report are explained.