Cross-sections: The Truth About CTE Equity

by Dr. Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher / Feb 26, 2021

February marks the celebration of Black History Month, a time when the origins, adversities triumphed, and accomplishments of African Americans—descendants of Africans brought to the U.S. and enslaved—are noted.

February is also the month that the achievements in career and technical education (CTE) are celebrated as a means of publicly raising awareness of the value of CTE in the U.S. Therefore, in thinking about these two very different commemorative events, I couldn’t help but reflect on the intersectionality of each and how the paradoxes of equity agendas are color-evasive entities.

As of late, it does not cease to amaze me that there is persistent confusion of many P-20 educators and the general public regarding educational equity and equality. Many assume that the latter is synonymous or “equates” to the former. While droves of individuals consider themselves to be “equity-minded,” in reality they are advocating for educational equality.

To further explain, educational equality is essentially an “all lives matter” or “Even Stevens” approach that renders equivalent amounts of support and the same resources to all learners, whereas educational equity understands the structural and systemic barriers and disparate access, experiences, and outcomes within and between groups and, consequently, offers support and resources based on individual needs. Furthermore, racial equity is often siloed from an equity imperative.

One thing that has always been curious to me is how CTE occupies both equity and equality frameworks, thereby rendering it not just complex but conflicted. On July 31, 2018, as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (AKA - Perkins V) was signed into law, I had great hope that the new legislation would present an opportunity to explicitly seek improving CTE programs for Black collegians and other minoritized racial groups. Given that over half of community college students nationwide are members of racially minoritized communities, why is it that special populations, as identified by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, identify nearly every student characteristic/demographic group other than race and ethnicity? In fact, Black college students earn 2.9 credits of CTE courses whereas white students earned more (3.2 credits). The irony is that while there is a recent push for CTE equity, Perkins has yet to catch up with the equity implications of its racially neutral defining of special populations. The specification of CTE special populations includes:

  • Individuals with disabilities
  • Individuals from economically disadvantaged families, including low-income youth and adults
  • Individuals preparing for nontraditional fields
  • Single parents, including single pregnant women
  • Out-of-workforce individuals
  • English learners
  • Homeless individuals
  • Youth who are in, or have aged out of, the foster care system
  • Youth with a parent who is a member of the armed forces and is on active duty

Although racially minoritized collegians fall into many of the aforementioned special populations, iteration after iteration of the Perkins legislation has not evolved to reflect the racial realities of adult learners. Race exacerbates disparities for Black students and other racialized minorities in the above identity groups. Hence, if there is an authentic effort to create gateways to CTE equity, that would include not turning a blind eye to facing race. Otherwise, how do you in earnest combat program-level pitfalls, institutional barriers, and structural racism in postsecondary schooling that has long inhibited access, retention, completion, and success for Black students?

The truth of the matter is that opportunity gaps in access and completion are replete with racial disparities in CTE programs. Even as Perkins V prides itself on addressing the specific needs of students, schools, and employers, it has yet to intentionally redress racial inequities in CTE.

As we acknowledge both Black History Month and CTE Awareness Month, let’s be truthful about the continuing challenges and need to raise awareness regarding who we say should have and is able to attain greater entry and matriculation to further education, as well as on-ramps to fast-growing, high-demand, high-tech, and high-paying CTE careers and conditions for a strong future.

For more food for thought on this topic and timeframe, read Dr. Zamani-Gallaher’s piece, “Black History and Career Technical Education,” published on February 8, 2017.