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Unlocking Opportunities: Understanding Connections Between Noncredit CTE Programs and Workforce Development in Virginia

With rapid technological advances, the U.S. labor market exhibits a growing need for more frequent and ongoing skill development. Community college noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs that allow students to complete workforce training and earn credentials play an essential role in providing workers with the skills they need to compete for jobs in high-demand fields. Yet, there is a dearth of research on these programs because noncredit students are typically not included in state and national postsecondary datasets. In this guest blog for CTE Month, researchers Di Xu, Benjamin Castleman, and Betsy Tessler discuss their IES-funded exploration study in which they build on a long-standing research partnership with the Virginia Community College System and leverage a variety of data sources to investigate the Commonwealth’s FastForward programs. These programs are noncredit CTE programs designed to lead to an industry-recognized credential in one of several high-demand fields identified by the Virginia Workforce Board.

In response to the increasing demand for skilled workers in the Commonwealth, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 66 in 2016 to establish the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program (WCG) with the goal of providing a pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit training. The WCG specifically funds FastForward programs that lead to an industry-recognized credential in a high-demand field in the Commonwealth. Under this model, funding is shared between the state, students, and training institutions based on student performance, with the goal of ensuring workforce training is affordable for Virginia residents. An important implication of WCG is that it led to systematic, statewide collection of student-level data on FastForward program enrollment, program completion, industry credential attainment, and labor market performance. Drawing on these unique data, coupled with interviews with key stakeholders, we generated findings on the characteristics of FastForward programs, as well as the academic and labor market outcomes of students enrolled in these programs. We describe the preliminary descriptive findings below.

FastForward programs enroll a substantially different segment of the population from credit-bearing programs and offer a vital alternative route to skill development and workforce opportunities, especially for demographic groups often underrepresented in traditional higher education. FastForward programs in Virginia enroll a substantially higher share of Black students, male students, and older students than short-duration, credit-bearing programs at community colleges that typically require one year or less to complete. Focus groups conducted with FastForward students at six colleges indicate that the students were a mix of workers sent by their employers to learn specific new skills and students who signed up for a FastForward program on their own. Among the latter group were older career changers and recent high school graduates, many of whom had no prior college experience and were primarily interested in landing their first job in their chosen field. Moreover, 61% of FastForward participants have neither prior nor subsequent enrollment in credit-bearing programs, highlighting the program’s unique role in broadening access to postsecondary education and career pathways.

FastForward programs offer an alternative path for students who are unsuccessful in credit-bearing programs. The vast majority of students (78%) enrolled in only one FastForward program, with the average enrollment duration of 1.5 quarters, which is notably shorter than most traditional credit-bearing programs. While 36% have prior credit-bearing enrollment, fewer than 20% of these students earned a degree or certificate from it, and less than 12% of FastForward enrollees transitioned to credit-bearing training afterward. Interviews with administrators and staff indicated that while some colleges facilitate noncredit-to-credit pathways by granting credit for prior learning, others prioritize employment-focused training and support over stackable academic pathways due to students’ primary interest in seeking employment post-training.

FastForward programs have a remarkable completion rate and are related to high industry credential attainment rates. Over 90% of students complete their program, with two-thirds of students obtaining industry credentials. Student focus groups echoed this success. They praised the FastForward program and colleges for addressing both their tuition and non-tuition needs. Many students noted that they had not envisioned themselves as college students and credited program staff, financial aid, and institutional support with helping them to be successful.

Earning an industry credential through FastForward on average increases quarterly earnings by approximately $1,000. In addition, industry credentials also increase the probability of being employed by 2.4 percentage points on average. We find substantial heterogeneity in economic return across different fields of study, where the fields of transportation (for example, commercial driver’s license) and precision production (for example, gas metal arc welding) seem to be associated with particularly pronounced earnings premiums. Within programs, we do not observe significant heterogeneity in economic returns across student subgroups.

What’s Next?

In view of the strong economic returns associated with earning an industry credential and the noticeable variation in credential attainment between training institutions and programs, our future exploration intends to unpack the sources of variation in program-institution credential attainment rates and to identify specific program-level factors that are within the control of an institution and which are associated with higher credential rates and lower equity gaps. Specifically, we will collect additional survey data from the top 10 most highly-enrolled programs at the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) that will provide more nuanced program-level information and identify which malleable program factors are predictive of higher credential attainment rates, better labor market outcomes, and smaller equity gaps associated with these outcomes.


Di Xu is an associate professor in the School of Education at UC, Irvine, and the faculty director of UCI’s Postsecondary Education Research & Implementation Institute.

Ben Castleman is the Newton and Rita Meyers Associate Professor in the Economics of Education at the University of Virginia.

Betsy Tessler is a senior associate at MDRC in the Economic Mobility, Housing, and Communities policy area.

Note: A team of researchers, including Kelli Bird, Sabrina Solanki, and Michael Cooper contributed jointly to the quantitative analyses of this project. The MDRC team, including Hannah Power, Kelsey Brown, and Mark van Dok, contributed to qualitative data collection and analysis. The research team is grateful to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for providing access to their high-quality data. Special thanks are extended to Catherine Finnegan and her team for their valuable guidance and support throughout our partnership.

This project was funded under the Postsecondary and Adult Education research topic; questions about it should be directed to program officer James Benson (James.Benson@ed.gov).

This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), NCER program officer for the CTE research topic.

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.

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Train Special Education Researchers

Through different programs within the Department of Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizes funding that can provide doctoral students with valuable training in special education research. These different funding mechanisms work independently or, in some cases, can be leveraged to work synergistically. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students through grant programs that are part of the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program to help prepare future faculty, researchers, and administrators for leadership positions. Through this program, OSEP awards funds to institutions of higher education to provide doctoral students (OSEP Scholars) with advising, mentorship, and research experience. In exchange for service to the field following graduation, scholarships may cover such student expenses as tuition and fees, health insurance, books, supplies, and research-related expenses.

IES grants allow faculty to hire doctoral students on their NCSER-funded research projects, providing another potential avenue for these students to obtain research experience. Sometimes OSEP Scholars receive their research experience and mentorship through work on NCSER-funded research projects, as either their primary research focus or an additional research training opportunity. When this occurs, the benefits of both funding sources can provide students with opportunities to apply their training and knowledge in true research settings under the guidance of seasoned researchers.

In a new blog series, we will interview doctoral students who participate in both kinds of federally funded opportunities to better understand the unique contributions of each and how the two funding sources complement one another. We asked each doctoral student to tell us about their experience as an OSEP Scholar, their work on IES-funded grants, the synergy between their OSEP supports and NCSER grant work, and how they believe these experiences will help them achieve their career goals.

Matt Klein, Texas A&M University

Headshot of Matt Klein

I am in my third year as an OSEP Scholar, supported through the Research Interventions in Special Education (RISE) Scholars Network—a partnership among Texas A&M University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to train future faculty in special education. This program has provided me with access to numerous learning experiences, including the opportunity to collaborate with high-caliber doctoral students, work with leading researchers at multiple institutions, and take research method courses that would otherwise not be available to me. The funding and tuition coverage that I receive as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to focus on my studies and research without worrying about needing to take outside employment that may be unrelated to my training in education research.

I also work on an IES-funded meta-analysis project that looks at augmentative and alternative communication interventions for children with autism and/or intellectual disabilities. I love this project because I had worked as a teacher for children with autism. Currently, I code the data from the articles that are included in the analysis. This process has certainly been a learning experience, but it is so much fun because I read about interesting research that serves as inspiration for my own future work.

My work on the IES project and my experience as an OSEP Scholar inform one another. I began my doctoral program as a research assistant on the IES-funded project, and in my second year I became an OSEP Scholar. During my first year, I gained valuable research experience while working on the meta-analysis. This experience was crucial in my second year when, as an OSEP Scholar, I took a class on systematic review with intervention studies. My training as an OSEP Scholar has, in turn, given me the tools to lead a sub-project on the IES-funded meta-analysis.

Although I am still considering my future career goals, ideally, I would like to conduct research on interventions that can be used to support advocacy for play-based learning opportunities for children with disabilities. The research experience I receive as an OSEP Scholar and through IES-funded research will help build my knowledge base. The ongoing collaboration with other OSEP Scholars provides a natural forum for me to develop and refine research ideas as well as build a professional network for future collaborations even before I graduate.

Taydi Ray, Vanderbilt University

Headshot of Taydi Ray

I’m a first-year doctoral student, supported by an OSEP-funded training grant—Preparing Leaders to Unify Social, Behavioral, and Communication Interventions for Toddlers (Project PLUS-BC)—a cross-site collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the University of Washington to prepare scholars for leadership roles in early childhood special education with a focus on toddler language and social-emotional development. My short time as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to visit our partner site, attend national conferences, and participate in a cross-site prenatal-to-three seminar. The training grant has also covered school-related expenses, such as tuition and a stipend I used to purchase a new computer. The project provides mentorship, training, and research opportunities with faculty from both universities. 

EMT en Español, an IES grant, introduced me to academia before I became an OSEP Scholar. This efficacy trial strives to improve language and school readiness skills for Spanish-speaking toddlers. I joined the research team in May 2022, primarily serving as an interventionist to deliver a naturalistic language intervention, Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT), and train caregivers to use the strategies, too. This project was an excellent introduction to special education research.

Although I continue to work on this project, as a current OSEP Scholar, my primary research efforts and training occur through another IES-funded project—Toddler Talk. Toddler Talk aims to improve language development in toddlers at high risk for persistent developmental language disorders and poor social and academic outcomes. I currently serve as a data collector for this project, which entails learning, administering, and scoring classroom-based assessments with teachers and toddlers. I have enjoyed this unique opportunity to engage in classroom research.

Before pursuing a doctoral degree, I worked as a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP) in schools. I would love to combine my background in speech pathology with my budding knowledge of special education research by serving as a faculty member in a communication disorders program. Ultimately, I hope to prepare future SLPs to confidently work with culturally and linguistically diverse children with disabilities and their families. I believe that my work on Project PLUS-BC, Toddler Talk, and EMT en Español will prepare me to be a well-rounded leader in special education.

Both OSEP and NCSER provide student scholars access to a variety of experiences that include training in research methodology and opportunities to apply this knowledge and build skills within current research projects. These opportunities can comprehensively prepare doctoral students to be future leaders who will contribute to meaningful research and teach the next generation of teachers, interventionists, and providers to use evidence-based practices to serve and support children with disabilities in their communities. Thank you to Matt and Taydi for sharing their experiences as OSEP Scholars working with research supported by NCSER. NCSER looks forward to seeing the future impact you will have in your field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Shanna is also an OSEP Scholar through RISE. Sarah Allen manages OSEP’s Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program.

It All Adds Up: Why and How to Measure the Cost of Career & Technical Education

Cost analysis is a critical part of education research because it communicates what resources are needed for a particular program or intervention. Just telling education leaders how promising a program or practice can be does not tell the whole story; they need to know how much it will cost so that they can prioritize limited resources. Since 2015, cost analysis has been required for IES-funded Efficacy/Impact studies (and for Development Innovation studies as of 2019) and is included in the IES Standards for Excellence in Education Research.

In this guest blog for CTE Month, two members of the CTE Research Network’s cost analysis working group, David Stern, an advisor to the network, and Eric Brunner, a co-PI of one of the research teams, discuss how costs associated with CTE programs may differ from those of standard education and how to measure those costs.

Photo of David SternWhy is cost analysis different in Career & Technical Education (CTE) research?

Due to additional, non-standard components needed in some types of career training, CTE can cost much more than the education resources needed in regular classrooms. For instance, CTE classes often use specialized equipment—for example, hydraulic lifts in automotive mechanics, stoves and refrigerators in culinary arts, or medical equipment in health sciences—which costs significantly more than equipment in the standard classroom. Having specialized equipment for student use can also constrain class size to be smaller, resulting in higher cost-per-pupil.  High schools and community colleges may also build labs within existing buildings or construct separate buildings to house CTE programs with specialized equipment. These required facility expenses will need to be recognized in cost calculations.

CTE programs can also provide co-curricular experiences for students alongside classes in career-related subjects, such as work-based learning, career exploration activities, or integrated academic coursework. Schools are usually required to provide transportation for students to workplaces, college campuses for field trips, or regional career centers, which is another expense. Finally, the budget lines for recruiting and retaining teachers from some higher paying career areas and industries (such as nursing or business) may exceed those for average teacher salaries. All of these costs add up. To provide useful guidance for the field, CTE researchers should measure and report the cost of these features separately.

Photo of Eric BrunnerHow is resource cost different from reported spending? 

There are also some hidden costs to account for in research on CTE. For example, suppose a school does not have a work-based learning (WBL) coordinator, so a CTE teacher is allowed one of their 5 periods each day to organize and oversee WBL, which may include field trips to companies, job shadowing experiences, internships, or a school-based enterprise. The expenditure report would show 20% of the teacher’s salary has been allocated for that purpose. In reality, however, a teacher may devote much more than 20% of their time to this. They may in fact be donating to the program by spending unpaid time or resources (such as transportation in their own vehicle to visit employer sites to coordinate learning plans) outside the workday. It is also possible that the teacher would spend less than 20% of their time on this. To obtain an accurate estimate of the amount of this resource cost at a particular school, a researcher would have to measure how much time the teacher actually spends on WBL.  This could be done as part of an interview or questionnaire.

Similarly, high school CTE programs are increasingly being developed as pathways that allow students to move smoothly to postsecondary education, such as via dual enrollment programs or directly to the labor market. Building and sustaining these pathways takes active collaboration between secondary and postsecondary educators and employers. However, the costs of these collaborations in terms of time and resources are unlikely to be found in a school expenditure report. Thus, an incremental cost analysis for CTE pathway programs must go beyond budgets and expenditure reports to interview or survey program administrators and staff about the resources or “ingredients” that programs require to operate. A recent example of a cost study of a CTE program can be found here.

Are there any resources for calculating CTE Costs?

In this blog, we have presented some examples of how the costs associated with CTE programs may differ from those of a standard education. To help CTE researchers conduct cost analysis, the CTE Research Network has developed a guide to measuring Incremental Costs in Career and Technical Education, which explains how to account for the particular kinds of resources used in CTE. The guide was developed by the working group on cost analysis supported by the CTE Research Network.


The Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network has supported several cross-network working groups comprised of members of network research teams and advisors working on issues of broad interest to CTE research. Another CTE Network working group developed an equity framework for CTE researchers, which was described in a blog for CTE month in February, 2023.

This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld, NCER program officer for the CTE research topic and the CTE Research Network. Contact: Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov.

Research and Development Partnerships Using AI to Support Students with Disabilities

A speach therapist uses a laptop to work with a student

It is undeniable that artificial intelligence (AI) is, sooner rather than later, going to impact the work of teaching and learning in special education. Given formal adoption of AI technologies by schools and districts and informal uses of ChatGPT and similar platforms by educators and students, the field of special education research needs to take seriously how advancements in AI can complement and potentially improve our work. But there are also ways that these advancements can go astray. With these technologies advancing so quickly, and with AI models being trained on populations that may not include individuals with disabilities, there is a real risk that AI will fail to improve—or worse, harm—learning experiences for students with disabilities. Therefore, there is a pressing need to ensure that voices from within the special education community are included in the development of these new technologies.

At NCSER, we are committed to investing in research on AI technologies in a way that privileges the expertise of the special education community, including researchers, educators, and students with disabilities and their families. Below, we highlight two NCSER-funded projects that demonstrate this commitment.

Using AI to support speech-language pathologists

In 2023, NCSER partnered with the National Science foundation to fund AI4ExceptionalEd, a new AI Institute that focuses on transforming education for children with speech and language disorders. Currently, there is a drastic shortage of speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to identify and instruct students with speech and language needs. AI4ExceptionalEd brings together researchers from multiple disciplines including special education, communication disorders, learning sciences, linguistics, computer science, and AI from nine different universities across the United States to tackle pressing educational issues around the identification of students and the creation of specially designed, individualized instruction for students with speech and language disorders.

By bringing together AI researchers and education researchers, this interdisciplinary research partnership is setting the foundation for cutting-edge AI technologies to be created that solve real-world problems in our schools. A recent example of this is in the creation of flash cards for targeted intervention. It is common practice for an SLP to use flash cards that depict a noun or a verb in their interventions, but finding or creating the exact set of flash cards to target a specific learning objective for each child is very time consuming. Here is where AI comes into play. The Institute’s team of researchers is leveraging the power of AI to help SLPs identify optimal sets of flash cards to target the learning objectives of each learner while also creating the flash cards in real time. To do this effectively, the AI researchers are working hand-in-hand with speech and language researchers and SLPs in the iterative development process, ensuring that the final product is aligned with sound educational practices. This one AI solution can help SLPs optimize their practice and reduce time wasted in creating materials.

Adapting a popular math curriculum to support students with reading disabilities

Another example of how partnerships can strengthen cutting-edge research using AI to improve outcomes for students with disabilities is a 2021 grant to CAST to partner with Carnegie Learning to improve their widely used digital math curriculum, MATHia. The goal of this project is to develop and evaluate reading supports that can be embedded into the adaptive program to improve the math performance, particularly with word problems, of students with reading disabilities. CAST is known for its research and development in the area of universal design for learning (UDL) and technology supports for students with disabilities. Carnegie Learning is well known for their suite of curriculum products that apply cognitive science to instruction and learning. The researchers in this partnership also rely on a diverse team of special education researchers who have expertise in math and reading disabilities and an educator advisory council of teachers, special educators, and math/reading specialists.

It has taken this kind of partnership—and the inclusion of relevant stakeholders and experts—to conduct complex research applying generative AI (ChatGPT) and humans to revise word problems within MATHia to decrease reading challenges and support students in understanding the semantic and conceptual structure of a word problem. Rapid randomized control trials are being used to test these revised versions with over 116,000 students participating in the study. In 2022-2023 the research team demonstrated that humans can successfully revise word problems in ways that lead to improvements in student performance, including students with disabilities. The challenge is in trying to train generative AI to reproduce the kinds of revisions humans make. While generative AI has so far been unevenly successful in making revisions that similarly lead to improvements in student outcomes, the researchers are not ruling out the use of generative AI in revising word problems in MATHia.

The research team is now working with their expert consultants on a systematic reading and problem-solving approach as an alternative to revising word problems. Instead of text simplification, they will be testing the effect of adding instructional support within MATHia for some word problems.

The promise of AI

AI technologies may provide an opportunity to optimize education for all learners. With educators spending large amounts of their day planning and doing paperwork, AI technologies can be leveraged to drastically decrease the amount of time teachers need to spend on this administrative work, allowing more time for them to do what only they can—teach children. Developers and data scientists are invariably going to continue developing AI technologies, many with a specific focus on solutions to support students with disabilities. We would like to encourage special education researchers to exert their expertise in this development work, to partner with developers and interdisciplinary teams to apply AI to create innovative and novel solutions to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. For AI to lead to lasting advances in education spaces, it will be imperative that this development is inclusive of the special education field.

This blog was written by NCSER Commissioner, Nate Jones (Nathan.Jones@ed.gov) and NCSER program officers Britta Bresina (Britta.Bresina@ed.gov) and Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov).