A new research report examines the confluence of career and technical education (CTE) and the academic trajectory of high school students with learning disabilities (SWLD). The impetus for such an investigation is the existence of two separate “leaky pipelines”: large numbers of students with disabilities who fail to transition successfully to postsecondary education and employment, and a projected dearth of new recruits for numerous STEM jobs. The research team, led by Ohio State University’s Jay Plasman, was looking for a possible approach to sealing both leaks—hoping to find that high school CTE courses propelled SWLDs into further STEM education, where employers could find a previously-overlooked group of prospective recruits—and get those pipelines flowing more strongly. The study’s findings are inconclusive, but point in positive directions.
Primary data come from the High School Longitudinal Study (HSLS), which followed a nationally-representative cohort of students who entered ninth grade in 2009 through high school and into postsecondary education and early career, ending in 2019. The robust dataset includes full course-taking histories (including grades and credits earned), as well as detailed demographic information. The researchers narrowed their sample down to 870 HSLS students whose parents responded affirmatively when asked if they had ever been told by a doctor or other professional that their child had a specific learning disability. This identification method—used because the HSLS administrative data on IEPs is incomplete—has been employed successfully in prior research.
Course-taking data were narrowed to those classes with an engineering or technology focus (called E-CTE here and comprising such things as computer aided design, coding, and laboratory research). Prior research suggests that the hands-on and practical instructional aspects of such courses align with recommended learning strategies for SWLDs and thus support such students’ educational pursuits. (A direct connection between such courses and related postsecondary education and career pathways also underpins this research.)
The researchers ran several different analytical models to determine how E-CTE coursetaking in high school links to two specific college preparation outcomes—math SAT scores and dual credit course participation—and to two specific college transition outcomes—FAFSA completion and application to college. No further outcomes, such as college degree or employment, were studied. Their favored model is a robust school fixed effects analysis, which compares SWLDs who participated in E-CTE to SWLDs who took fewer such courses or none at all.
The findings link E-CTE course-taking in high school to positive and statistically significant outcomes across the board. For each E-CTE credit earned, SWLDs could be expected to score about 74 points higher on their math SAT assessment, and had a 15 percent higher probability of participation in dual credit courses. As to college transition outcomes, each E-CTE credit was associated with a 17 percent increase in FAFSA completion among SWLDs and a 13 percent higher probability of completing at least one college application. Among the limitations noted by Plasman and his team: the age of the data, a lack of clarity on the courses’ curricula and skills taught, and not knowing how readily available E-CTE courses are to SWLDs in every school—especially those with more severe learning disabilities. This is a promising start, but not much more than that.
Plasman and his team suggest a number of ways that the positive impacts thus far indicated—that students with learning disabilities can do well and go further with E-CTE type courses—can be disseminated to educators, parents, policymakers, and STEM employers. They also suggest ways in which the research can be extended with newer and longer-term data. (The Holy Grail would be some solid information on college or credential completion and employment data.) Much has changed in the CTE world since 2019—including a rise in short-term credentialing programs and apprenticeships. The potential for students with learning disabilities to benefit even further from these changes is high.
SOURCE: Jay S. Plasman, Filiz Oskay, and Michael Gottfried, “Transitioning to Success: The Link between E-CTE and College Preparation for Students with Learning Disabilities in the United States,” Education Sciences (January 2024).