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CTE Teacher Licensure: The Wild West of the Wild West and Its Impact on Students with Disabilities

Positive career and technical education (CTE) experiences have the potential to lead to long-term success for students with disabilities. Yet the pathways into this field for teachers are highly variable. In honor of CTE Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with NCSER-funded principal investigators Dan Goldhaber (left below) and Roddy Theobald (right below), who have been investigating the relationship between preparation pathways for CTE teachers and student outcomes. In the interview below, Drs. Goldhaber and Theobald share their findings and how their research can influence CTE teacher licensure. 

What led to your interest in studying CTE for students with disabilities?Headshot of Roddy TheobaldHeadshot of Dan Goldhaber

A growing body of research—including prior work we’ve done with a NCSER grant on predictors of postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities—has found that participation in a concentration of CTE courses in high school is a strong predictor of improved postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. Moreover, in another recent NCSER-funded project, we found that pre-service preparation of special education teachers can be a significant predictor of outcomes for students with disabilities in their classrooms. Our current project lies directly at the intersection of these two prior projects and asks the following question: Given the importance of both CTE courses and special education teachers for predicting outcomes for students with disabilities, what role do CTE teachers play in shaping these outcomes, and what types of CTE teacher preparation are most predictive of improved outcomes for these students? This question is important in Washington state because individuals with prior employment experience can become a CTE teacher through a "business and industry" (B&I) pathway that does not require as much formal teacher preparation as traditional licensure pathways. Likewise, this question is important nationally because over half of states offer a similar CTE-specific path to teacher licensure that relies on prior work experience as a licensure requirement.

Your research team published a report last year from your current research project with some surprising results related to the teacher preparation pathway and outcomes for students. Can you tell us about those findings?

In the first paper from this project, now published in Teacher Education and Special Education, we connected observable characteristics of CTE teachers in Washington to non-test outcomes (including absences, disciplinary incidents, grade point average, grade progression, and on-time graduation) of students with and without disabilities in their classrooms. The most surprising findin­g was that students with disabilities participating in CTE tended to have better non-test outcomes when they were assigned to a CTE teacher from the B&I pathway compared those assigned to a traditionally prepared CTE teacher.

What do you think may be the underlying reason for this finding?

We discussed several hypotheses for this result in the paper, including the possibility that the content knowledge and experience of B&I pathway teachers may matter more than traditional preparation for students with disabilities. This conclusion, however, comes with two caveats. First, preliminary results from the second paper (presented at the 2023 APPAM Fall Conference) suggest that these relationships do not translate to improved college enrollment or employment outcomes for these students. Second, we cannot disentangle the effects of B&I teachers' prior employment experiences from "selection effects" of who chooses to enter through this pathway.

In what ways can this research influence CTE policy and practice?

We have described teacher licensure as the "Wild West" of education policy because 50 different states are responsible for developing state teacher licensing systems. CTE teacher licensure is like the "Wild West of the Wild West" in that over half of states offer a CTE-specific pathway to licensure, which relies on prior industry experience as a requirement for licensure, each with different requirements and regulations. As states continue to navigate challenges with staffing CTE classrooms with qualified teachers, it is important to understand the implications of the unique CTE-specific pathways for student outcomes, particularly for students with disabilities. This project is an early effort to provide this evidence to inform CTE licensure policy. 

How do you plan to continue this line of research?

The next steps of this project leverage data provided through the Washington state’s P-20 longitudinal data system maintained by the Washington Education Research and Data Center (ERDC). ERDC has connected high school students' CTE experiences (including their teacher) to college and employment records. This allows us to consider the implications of CTE teacher characteristics for students' postsecondary outcomes. Moreover, due to the question about the prior employment experiences of CTE teachers, ERDC has agreed to link records on CTE teachers’ prior employment so we can disentangle the importance of different pre-teaching employment experiences of CTE teachers. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

We are grateful to NCSER for their support of this project and the two prior projects that motivated it!

Dr. Dan Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.

Dr. Roddy Theobald is the deputy director of CALDER and a managing researcher at AIR. Thank you, Dr. Dan Goldhaber and Dr. Roddy Theobald, for sharing your experiences and findings about CTE!

This blog was authored by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Akilah Nelson, NCSER program officer, manages grants funded under the Career and Technical Education for Students with Disabilities special topic.