Shaun Dougherty

Global Researcher: Professor Shaun Dougherty Presents Vocational Education Research Abroad

Shaun Dougherty Headshot
Educational Leadership's Professor Shaun Dougherty

On September 15, 2017, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, Shaun Dougherty, presented research on technical education at the University College Dublin School of Economics in Dublin, Ireland. Four days prior to his visit to UCD, Dr. Dougherty presented at The Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) Conference at the London School of Economics in London, England. Following his trip, we were able to talk with Dr. Dougherty concerning the importance of technical and vocational education and his experience abroad:

1. How does postsecondary education in the United States compare to the education systems in Europe?

In the US we have a highly self-directed system of tertiary education whereby students can self-select into two- or four-year colleges, technical training, or no tertiary education as well. In the UK and Ireland, the systems are more similar to the US than in much of the rest of mainland Europe. That said, even the UK system is more differentiated than our own, with clearer vocational pathways for tertiary education, and less clearly defined in programs that would look like our community colleges.

2. Why is the idea of vocational education more popular abroad and what barriers have limited technical schools as a widely accepted route in the United States?

The United States has generally favored a focus on individual choice in educational pursuits and have thus chosen to focus on development of more general skills, rather than encouraging differentiation of educational pathways based on prior test score of academic performance. In the UK and Ireland there is less differentiation early in the educational process. In contrast, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark differentiate across educational pathways that are college bound, or not, much earlier (e.g. lower secondary, or transition to upper secondary).

3. How has the value of a high school diploma changed in the United States? Additionally, how has the value of a bachelor’s degree changed in the United States?

Over the last three decades there has been a clear decline in the value of a high school diploma. Some of this decline has been driven by the fact that high school graduation rates have risen steadily over this period, which has reduced the ability of the diploma to be used as a way to distinguish students with lower and middle skills. In contrast, the value of a bachelor’s degree has increased over this period, though there is some speculation now whether we may see a plateau in the returns to a college degree as rates of degree acquisition increase.

4. What is the future for technical education schools and vocational training in the United States?

In the present political moment, interest in Career and Technical Education (CTE) as part of “college and career readiness” is at its highest in 30 years. As there is increased evidence of lower than desired college completion rates (among those who ever enroll), there is an acknowledgement that differentiation in career pathways is important, and that college for all policies may not have done as well as they might in creating awareness of the myriad of educational and workforce options that may be available to people. I anticipate that technical education will continue to garner some substantial attention in the near term. However, unless states and districts do a good job of defining educational options and articulating how they can transfer into higher education and employment, there may be under utilization of these educational pathways.

5. What are the advantages of vocational training and how can it improve employment outcomes?

Poster Board from the Centre for Vocational Education Research Conference in London, England

One of the benefits of technical education is that it makes schooling relevant and clearly applies it to a form of learning that reflects a use in employment. A second potential benefit is that it can impart skills that may be in demand in the workforce, and that could lead to higher wages, especially early in an individual's working career. That said, there is some evidence that the long-term trajectories of those who focus on CTE in high school may not be as favorable as those who get more general skills and pursue other forms of higher education. The key is not to position the choices as binary, either/or, decisions. Students who participate in CTE in high school may get benefits that include enhanced bridges to postsecondary education. Furthermore, for students for whom college is not palatable, CTE may improve their outcomes over what they would have been in the absence of technical education.

6.What did you learn from other researchers at the Centre for Vocational Educational Research (CVER) Conference and/or at the University College Dublin (UCD) that you think could improve upon the traditional education path in the United States?

The CVER conference was a nice way to reinforce for me the myriad of ways that our neighbors in the EU are thinking about and innovating in education. One of the best reminders I received was that, while CTE doesn’t always carry a negative stigma, the social value of different forms of education is highly variable. What this means to me is that educational policy in the US has to be realistic about how it uses and promotes policies to improve educational and workforce outcomes in the US. It also reminded me that there are more variants on the models we use in the US for technical education, and that there are continued opportunities to learn from those who have been doing this longer than we have.

Dr. Dougherty's research has recently been featured in The Conversation, UConn Today, Brookings Institute and in former Vice President Joe Biden's podcast, Biden's Briefing.


IES Awards Neag School Researchers More Than $10M in Grants

The Neag School of Education highlights seven faculty members across the school who have recently been awarded funding — totaling more than $10 million — by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) for a range of education research projects. EDLR’s Shaun Dougherty works with the Career and Technical Education Program Impact in NYC.

Shaun Dougherty on Trump’s Education Cuts

The White House released details of how it plans to pay for it all in its full budget request for fiscal year 2018: by slashing spending on pretty much everything else, but also by boosting economic growth enough to generate more than U.S. $2 trillion in new revenue over a decade.

What the President’s team is failing to consider is that many of its spending cuts, such as reduced investment in welfare and education, will actually impede the administration’s ability to achieve its target growth rate of 3 percent, up from about 2 percent today.

My own research focuses on how career and technical education (CTE) has implications for growth by promoting educational attainment, training, and productivity. Trump’s proposed cuts to CTE offer an illustrative example of the economic consequences of reducing social spending.

Taking an Ax to Education
The administration’s budget seeks to slash spending on the Education Department by $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent, which is the biggest proposed cut since President Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully tried to gut the agency in the 1980s.

Given the administration’s preference for funding programs that promote economic growth, the cut to career and technical education – which disproportionately benefits Trump’s base of largely white working-class voters – is bewildering.

In K-12 education, the administration would like to eliminate at least four distinct programs – including Title II grants for teacher and principal training, and programs designed to help lower-income students transition to college – and make significant reductions to many others. On the other hand, there’s a big investment in a few programs to support school choice and vouchers, an articulated

Betsy DeVos
Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump want to put more money toward ‘school choice,’ but less in CTE and other areas that evidence shows bolster the economy. (Reuters/Mike Segar, via The Conversation) The Trump administration has some ambitious goals that include trillions in tax cuts, a significant military buildup, and a fresh investment in infrastructure.

priority of Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The higher education budget faces severe cuts as well. Trump wants to eliminate subsidized student loans as well as a loan forgiveness program, and slash federal work study spending in half. These changes would substantially undermine efforts to help lower-income Americans attain a college degree, which would be a further drag on economic and productivity growth.

Of particular concern to me, however, is the $168 million, or 15 percent, reduction in block grants to states, called Perkins funding, that are used to support career and technical education in high schools and community college. Given the administration’s preference for funding programs that promote economic growth, the cut to CTE – which disproportionately benefits Trump’s base of largely white working-class voters – is bewildering.

CTE, also known as vocational education, exposes youth to practical, hands-on skills as a complement to academic coursework. Historically, CTE has included programs like auto mechanics and cosmetology, but increasingly also includes high-growth industries such as information technology and health services.

By supporting these kinds of career paths, CTE tends to train students for positions that could support small business growth, and that fill demand in the high growth fields of health services, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

How CTE Helps the Economy
Though CTE is on Trump’s list of cuts, it is the area of education spending that my research suggests has the most potential to boost economic growth. These benefits would be realized through better-paying jobs and fewer dropouts, which also help achieve other positive economic and social outcomes.

Career Academies, which began about 35 years ago, are one such approach to providing CTE in high school by integrating career pathways into the school curriculum. They boast some of the best evidence on the effectiveness of CTE. A 2008 report on the program suggests it can help students earn 11 percent more in wages compared with their peers.

My own recent work using data from Arkansas shows that students who took more CTE courses in high school were more likely to be employed and earn more money – about 3 percent to 5 percent – than their peers who took fewer. Furthermore, I also found these students were more likely to finish high school and go on to college, both of which improve job prospects.

Evidence from Massachusetts shows similar educational benefits of CTE. Specifically, I found that students enrolled in vocational programs were significantly more likely to graduate from high school and attain industry-recognized certificates in specialized fields like IT.

Increasing high school graduation is critical; there is ample evidence that higher levels of educational attainment result in higher wages and better long-term employment prospects.

Studies show that a high school graduate will earn 50 percent to 100 percent more in lifetime earnings than high school dropouts and will be less likely to draw on welfare or get tangled up in the criminal justice system. The graduate’s higher earnings also mean she’ll pay more in taxes.

Beyond improving individual outcomes, investment in education and training fuels broader economic growth by bolstering productivity. The decreased demand for social services and welfare also frees up more state and federal resources to be invested in other areas of the economy.

Ideology Over Sound Policy
The Trump administration has claimed the high price tag of its tax cuts will pay for themselves through higher economic growth. A budget that aims to gut important social programs – which not only improve individual lives directly but also boost the economy – would make that a lot less achievable.

In the end, the Trump budget, it seems, is motivated more by ideology than sound, evidence-based policy. In education, the administration is clearly prioritizing school choice at the expense of bedrock areas like CTE that are known to promote achievement and a variety of economic benefits.

As a result, education development will suffer, as will the administration’s rosy economic growth projections.

Originally published in The Conversation.