08/19/2013 05:45 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

For Students With Disabilities, Career and Technical Education Programs Offer More Than Just a Trade

Co-authored with Dr. Shaun Dougherty, and Dr. Thomas Hehir

Last month, leaders from the worlds of special education policy, research, and practice gathered in downtown Washington, D.C. for the annual IDEA Leadership Conference. The meeting's agenda featured a wide range of discussions about how various policies and programs- from preschool participation and teacher preparation to extracurricular activities and accountability policies- could help to support the development of students with disabilities. Conspicuously absent from the agenda was any focused discussion of career and technical education.

This should come as no surprise. Despite an overhaul in the early 1990s, career and technical education (CTE), previously known as vocational education, has been by and large left out of the recent heady efforts to rethink U.S. public education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's occasional exhortations about the importance of CTE have unfortunately not been supported in policy. CTE programs have been generally left out of the Investing in Innovation grants and Race to the Top competition and federal spending for CTE fell by nearly 20% between fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

For all students and students with disabilities in particular, CTE programs offer more than an opportunity to learn a marketable trade. Enrolling in these programs can also make it more likely that students will complete the academic requirements necessary to graduate from high school. A report released this week by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education find that students with disabilities who attended a regional CTE program in high school were nearly 70 percent more likely to graduate from high school in four years than similar peers who enrolled in traditional comprehensive high schools. In other ongoing work in Massachusetts, we also find evidence that similar benefits accrue to nondisabled students who enroll in regional CTE program, with an improvement of between 10 and 20 percentage points in the probability that they will graduate on time from high school.

This is no minor accomplishment. Graduation rates for students with disabilities are abysmal. Estimates suggest that one out of every three students with disabilities do not earn a high school diploma. Graduating from high school in four years provides a faster transition to post-secondary education and access to the workforce. The higher rates of graduation for CTE enrolled students are particularly striking when we consider that CTE students split their days between their specific career training and traditional academic classes. This means that these students are graduating at higher rates in spite of spending less time on the core subjects measured by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests students are required to pass before graduating.

Career and technical education programs have long been an important source of secondary education for students with disabilities. Across the country approximately one in five students who participate in CTE has a disability compared to around one in 10 in traditional high schools. Prior work indicates that students with disabilities who enroll in CTE are more likely to be employed as adults and once employed, earn higher wages. This is likewise true for students without disabilities. This new study, and our other ongoing work, suggests that CTE participation yields academic benefits as well.

Importantly, not all the CTE programs examined in this study yielded such dramatic benefits. In our study, we found that only students who enrolled in the more comprehensive regional vocational and technical schools, that specialize in offering CTE exclusively and that, on average have stronger partnerships with private industry, realized these educational benefits. These regional CTE schools are unique in that all enrolled students participate in some form of CTE program. Our ongoing work finds similar results for students without disabilities, with the largest graduation benefits accruing to students in the regional vocational and technical schools.

Massachusetts regional vocational technical schools also have explicit partnerships with local employers to ensure that instruction, technology, and program enrollments are consistent with industry practices and the employment needs of the community. The better performance of students in the regional schools may be due to the fact that, if everyone in the school participates in some form of CTE there is no stigma to taking "shop." Core academic teachers in these regional programs can also tailor their mathematics and language arts instruction to show students the relevance of what they are learning in the "real world." For instance, in one recent visit to a Massachusetts regional program, we observed a plumbing instructor presenting a complex geometry lesson on regular polygons and angle relationships all within the context of preparing students to run pipe in a model home.

Career and technical education deserves a place in any discussion of how schools can better support students with disabilities in high school. Students with disabilities face many challenges as they prepare to enter an increasingly competitive labor market. For many of these students, learning the tools of a particular profession will provide greater opportunities for independence and a fulfilling adult life. We have long known that CTE programs can provide an invaluable source of training for students who are not interested in a four-year postsecondary degree. What this study tells us is that enrolling in a CTE program need not mean letting go of hopes for post-secondary education for students with disabilities. Rigorous well-designed CTE can provide an accepting and productive environment for students with and without disabilities who do want to attend college. Especially for students with disabilities, CTE is clearly an idea whose time has come.

Shaun M. Dougherty is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. His work focuses on education policy in middle and high school, especially career and technical education, and educational inequality. Dougherty is a former high school mathematics teacher and assistant principal, and has conducted policy research for The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Thomas Hehir is the Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Hehir served as director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. As director, he was responsible for federal leadership in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Hehir played a leading role in developing the Clinton administration's proposal for the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, 90 percent of which was adopted by Congress.