Once seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color, career and technical education has rebranded itself as a pathway to college. On the surface, there appears to be equity in who takes these career-oriented classes. But The Hechinger Report and the Associated Press dug deeper. Our original reporting and data analysis found that Black and Latino students were less likely than their white peers to take STEM and information technology classes – geared toward college prep and high-wage jobs – and more likely to take classes in hospitality and human services fields, which tend to pay less.
This project, and the data behind it, is helping to shape conversations on education policy in communities around the country. Following publication, Sarah Butrymowicz, Hechinger’s investigations editor and lead reporter on the project, received requests for more information on the data from the Legislative Policy and Research Office of the Oregon State Senate’s education committee and from a Missouri nonprofit that helps legislators conduct research on policy questions. An advocate from the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center also reached out, hoping to help state-level advocates advance equity in career and technical education in their own states.
The data analysis for this project was primarily done in Excel. Butrymowicz first compared participation rates by race in individual career and technical education subject areas to overall statewide enrollment by race to establish that there were patterns of disparity. To ensure that those inequities were not owing to chance, Butrymowicz performed a statistical analysis. She calculated odds ratios comparing the number of students of each race who are enrolled in the career cluster to those who were not enrolled. She also calculated a 95 percent confidence interval for these odds ratios and identified the states and career clusters where statistically significant differences existed. These findings revealed clear patterns and served as the launching point for the article.
But Butrymowicz also wanted to explore potential reasons for these trends. She obtained lists of career and technology courses offered by high school for 10 states and merged them with school enrollment data to see if students of color had equal access to these classes. In some states, Black and Latino students attended schools with STEM and IT classes at the same rate as white students. But in others, such as Mississippi, the data indicated that Black students had less access in their high schools to these courses. Butrymowicz and AP reporter Jeff Amy explored this dynamic further in the story.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Data gathering and cleaning was the most difficult part of this project. While states are required to track some career and technical education data and report it to the federal government, collecting course enrollment by race data only became mandatory this year. Beginning in 2019, The Hechinger Report and AP reached out to all 50 states asking for their data, the vast majority of which had never made it publicly available.
Ultimately, we were able to secure at least some data from 40 states, a remarkable accomplishment given the absence of federal mandates for sharing the data and the fact that states did not keep this information in a uniform way. Some reported information only on students who had taken two or more classes in a particular subject area, while others reported students who had taken a single class. Some collected data by broad categories, such as information technology, while others broke down the information by more specific career pathways, such programming, computer science and web design. It took dozens of hours to parse these differences and make the data as comparable and reader friendly as possible.
What can others learn from this project?
This project shows why seeking disaggregated data is so important. Overall enrollment in career and technical education has become much more representative of student populations over the last several decades. Simply looking at that data would give the impression that the field had solved its equity problems. But digging into the data revealed the deep racial divides in who takes which classes and demonstrated that there is still a long way to go.
Additionally, the federal government will soon begin publishing data on career and technical education participation by race. This article offers a sneak peek at what that data will tell us and provides a foundation for journalists looking to report on the updated numbers.