Career and technical education (CTE) used to be called vocational education but was successfully rebranded with the reauthorization of the Perkins Act in 2006. The push to rebrand at the time had to do with the twin issues of declining enrollment in these programs as well as a social stigma associated with a correct perception that some students were being dumped into these programs.

Nat Malkus’s “The Evolution of Career and Technical Education” has the potential to reframe the national conversation about the purpose and role of CTE in the secondary schooling system. Based on a deep dive into the data on CTE outcomes from 1982-2013, Malkus suggests a provocative new framework for understanding which students are participating in CTE and their diverging outcomes. He divides them into New Era course-takers and the Traditional Vocational course-takers.

Modern CTE consists of 17 career clusters, but Malkus focused on the 12 career categories that have remained consistent over the years to allow for longitudinal analysis. Malkus classifies manufacturing, transportation, construction, agriculture, human services and public services as Traditional Vocational CTE.  The “New Era CTE” subjects in Malkus’s analysis are computer science, communications, health care, hospitality and engineering. Traditional Vocational CTE declined by over one-third from 1982 to 2013 (as measured by credits), even as New Era CTE course credits increased over the same time period by 238 percent.

One factor that many education researchers fail to take into account, or take seriously, is student preferences. Malkus does not make this mistake. In examining the outcomes and characteristics of the various concentrations, he notes that students who are “academically disinclined,” as measured by student surveys, are overrepresented in manufacturing, transportation, construction and agriculture. “Academically disinclined” was determined with questions that sought to gauge whether students felt a sense of belonging at school and whether they thought that “work is more important than attending college.”

In addition, Malkus noted that there are stark differences in the math scores of the various occupational clusters, with the average Traditional Vocational concentrator scoring in the 38thpercentile on math assessments, while New Era CTE students “were indistinguishable from all other high school students, remaining within one point of the 50thpercentile from 2000 forward.”

The fact is that as the definition of CTE has grown and successfully left behind its former stigma, the new programs are succeeding because New Era occupations attract a variety of students. This positive change could have a downside; it could mask the challenges of the Traditional Vocational concentrators, whose math scores and academic engagement are not improving on average.

High schools cannot equalize outcomes, but they can give equal opportunities, which may look very different depending on what a student is interested in pursuing. It would be absurd to say that a CTE program for future data scientists would need to be exactly the same as one designed to help students become plumbers (a job whose median wage is $53,910, according to the BLS).

The fear that CTE programs will again lead to inequity is a real one. Tracking, when it is decided fora student rather than by a student, is a danger that policy-makers and the public should carefully guard against. But the remedy for this is first to inform and then to allow students to explore their preferences. Learning about and trying out options earlier in the educational continuum has the benefit of helping students rule out professions that might have been a bad fit, preventing more costly mistakes later.

On the whole, expanding CTE has been beneficial; students interested in a wide range of postsecondary careers are gaining the opportunity to specialize a little earlier than before. Nat Malkus’s research provides policy-makers with an important reminder that there are students who don’t love school who are nevertheless required to be there.

It may be that bias is at the root of some of the challenges here; researchers, who by definition are academically inclined, might assume that a good outcome is when students fall in love with academics because of the “right” interventions.

Bundled into this bias is the idea that curiosity and knowledge are always best pursued via a traditional academic path. But this simply isn’t the case. Learning on the job used to be the norm for most professions, including ones that we consider white collar, such as law.

And better addressing the needs, interests, and unique circumstances of the academically disinclined has the potential to increase their long-term engagement with our communities and at the same time improve the overall quality of the workforce.

How might policy-makers allow schools to serve these students better? Malkus doesn’t directly address this question, but it stands to reason that deemphasizing seat-time and instead focusing on work-based learning might be a good start.

Bringing local employers into the mix by supporting paid apprenticeships, for example, can give students at risk of dropping out a real incentive to stay in school and graduate. Traditional vocational programs that are oriented towards providing industry-based certifications during high school can provide true value to these students, even if they do not choose to pursue post-secondary education immediately after graduation.

The new-found visibility and broad support for CTE is a promising indication that the public and law-makers now realize the limitations of the college-for-all cultural narrative. The key error then was the idea that all kids will benefit equally from college, regardless of their individual preferences or goals.

Policy-makers should instead seek to ensure that all students have access to educational pathways that allow them to develop their individual gifts.