Commentary: Rethinking Career and Technical Education in the African American Community

Career and technical education is a great career avenue with an economic upside that looks very bright in comparison to other options for African Americans and all.  (Getty Images)
By Goldy Brown III Associate Professor,</p><p> Whitworth University</p><p>Black Lens News

“The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race.” -Booker T. Washington

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Old Parkland Conference in Dallas, Texas, to honor the great Tomas Sowell, an American economist, social philosopher, and political commentator. The conference was a reconvening of sorts around a similar vision Sowell had orchestrated in San Francisco in 1980 at the Fairmont Conference. The conference theme addressed the upward mobility of low-socioeconomic groups, including African Americans.

As a Black Conservative, I am more cautious than most about jumping to race as a singular problem or reason for societal gaps – especially when African Americans have made significant economic progress over the last 7 to 8 years. In 2018-19, historic economic benchmarks in the African American community were reached as we constituted 12% of the middle class while being 13% of the population. Some point to the fact that African Americans are still disproportionately represented within the roughly 37 million Americans living in poverty, and identify wealth gaps as a sign that the fight for income equality among races in America is not over.

One highlighted theme from the Old Parkland Conference was that a different view of (CTE) could improve this disproportionality. Today, southern rural White males, a specific demographic that comprises a portion of people living in poverty, are more likely to be in CTE programs than any other group. The economic upside is that CTE-related jobs are comparable to many 4-year degrees outside science technology engineering and math (STEM) majors. Also, depending on the degree one pursues, the upside of CTE may even bode much greater economic benefit. The skills acquired in CTE are more likely to be used to start a business related to plumbing, electrical, and welding work, to name a few, that could lead to greater earnings over time. So, why wouldn’t more African Americans, particularly those whose 4-year college prospects appear bleak, consider CTE more thoroughly as a viable career option in this economic climate?

Two barriers appear to be contributing to the smaller number of African Americans participating in CTE programs compared to White and Hispanic students: (1) The perception of CTE produced by the “tracking” of African American students into vocational programs in the 1970s and 1980s and (2) Low literacy rates among African American students.

In the 1970s and 1980s, CTE, then known as “vocational education,” was used by some schools to segregate or “track” students based on race into vocational courses and thereby exclude them from college preparatory high-school classes. This period saw a stark difference in pay between the four-year, college-educated and the non-college educated, which some would argue contributed to economic inequality. Due to these past practices, “tracking” is now a taboo term in educational spaces and has led to policy and laws ensuring that tracking in any capacity by race, economics and even learning disabilities, are policy “no-no’s,” in the American school system. A 2020 report from the National Education Policy Center entitled, Tracking and the Future of Career and Technical Education: How Efforts to Connect School and Work Can Avoid the Past Mistakes of Vocational Education addressed how state and district educational leaders can protect their institutions from making the “tracking” mistakes it made in the past.

One recommendation from the study was to simply monitor the enrollment of school programs by subgroups, which is a common practice for most school districts today. Since the 1970s and 1980s, educational systems have developed safeguards through audits and state demographic reporting to ensure that no student group is over-represented in programs outside of traditional mainstream education. Even with these improvements, however, some argue that the negative connotation persists within the African American community. An award-earning dissertation in 2022 by Dr. Nzinga Williams, entitled History Doesn’t Decided for Us: A Case Study of Black Parents and their Perception of Career and Technical Education with an In-depth Look at the Philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, found barriers to communicating CTE to Black parents. Williams maintained that CTE could be better communicated to the Black community if it more readily addressed their experiences, addressing the negative perception generated by past practices. This could include how “tracking” practices have been mitigated. The effort to communicate and break down these barriers for Black families should include more African American leaders and recruiters within CTE programs. Such programs should also highlight African Americans who have built successful CTE careers.

The economic upsides today – versus 40 or 50 years ago – should be communicated vigorously to the Black community by those who have established trust. This economic upside could lead to continued upward mobility for many African Americans, and could see the greatest impact by targeting Black men, a demographic that some could argue is the most economically disenfranchised.

The lack of literacy is a second barrier that too many African American students must overcome. CTE programs require students to enter with a higher level of skills than vocational education did in the past. To be successful in a CTE program, many estimate that a student should be able to read at least at a 10th-grade level. If African Americans in a low-socioeconomic bracket have a chance at upward mobility in the current economy–and the one we are heading into–it is imperative that we increase skill attainment at a higher rate than we currently are.

Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Results ( that biannually assesses and presents the National Academic Achievement of American Students, only 17% of black students were proficient on the 12th-grade assessment in 2019. Notable, these dismal results preceded the COVID-19 learning loss. There must be a policy-driven return to accountability and incentive for states to expand charter schools. The federal government needs to oversee state accountability systems that ensure every group of students is making literacy gains. Texas started the accountability movement and, according to the NAEP, African American students in Texas perform higher in reading then their counterparts in any other state. Also, evidence from the recent CREDO report of 2023 showed that children who attended charter schools – including African American students – outperformed their counterparts in public schools on the NAEP assessment. Even within the dismal results of the NAEP reading assessment, policy based on accountability and choice have showed potential to improve results.

Adult literacy programs also must be taken more seriously from a funding and research standpoint. The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act showed positive steps, providing grants to organizations with a focus on adult literacy. However, based on dismal literacy rates from K-12 schools, the importance of literacy to upward mobility, and the labor shortage caused by the American skill shortage, we need more evidence on best practices regarding Adult Literacy Education. Fortunately, a bipartisan proposal to increase research funding to study effective adult education programs is being discussed by Congress.

Career and technical education is a great career avenue with an economic upside that looks very bright in comparison to other options. African Americans should reconsider CTE as an opportunity, and advocate for programs and policies that increase literacy rates among African American children that will help produce continued increases in economic upward mobility among African Americans in the United States of America.