Alphina Kamara wonders what might have happened if she’d been introduced to science and engineering careers at her high school in Wilmington, Delaware.
Kamara, who is Black, was enrolled in an “audio engineering” course that taught her how to make music tracks and videos instead of a regular engineering course that she recalls was mostly filled with white students.
When she asked an administrator at Mount Pleasant High School about this apparent disparity, she said she was told that the audio engineering course was created for “regular students.”
“They thought we would be more interested in audio engineering than engineering,” said Kamara, now a junior at Wesleyan University studying English and sociology. “That was a hard pill to swallow.”
Historically, career and technical education (CTE) was seen as a dumping ground for students who weren’t considered college material. A two-tier educational system tracked predominantly low-income students and students of color into career and technical classes, then known as vocational education. But in recent years, schools have revamped these courses to prepare students for higher education and lucrative work in fields such as technology, health care and engineering.
A Hechinger Report/Associated Press analysis of CTE enrollment data from 40 states reveals deep racial disparities in who takes these career-oriented courses. Black and Latino students were often less likely than their white peers to enroll in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and information technology classes, according to the analysis, which was based primarily on 2017-18 data. Meanwhile, they were more likely to enroll in courses in hospitality and, in the case of Black students in particular, human services.
The analysis offers a comprehensive look at data that states will be required to report to the federal government at the end of this year under the Carl D. Perkins Act. The $1.2 billion law that oversees career and technical education at the federal level was reauthorized in 2018 with an increased focus on equity. Previously, such data was only required to be reported by gender, where large disparities are also seen.
In some states, the differences in CTE participation are striking. In South Carolina, for instance, Black and Latino students made up 43% of the overall student body, yet just over one-quarter of those enrolled in multiple STEM classes and less than one-third of students enrolled in information technology. Black and Latino students accounted for nearly 60% of students specializing in hospitality and human services, which include classes such as “parenting education” and “family life education” that have no clear link to the job market.
In an email, South Carolina’s CTE director, Angel Malone, wrote that the state recognizes the need to increase equity in STEM and has begun a number of initiatives to do so.
The reasons for these racial inequities are multiple, ranging from the courses that students of color are steered to enroll in to the availability of the STEM and IT courses at their school. Young people may also select courses in fields such as culinary arts because those professions are familiar and employ people who look like them.
The CTE classes students take in high school don’t necessarily shape which careers they choose. Still, Prudence Carter, dean of University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, said the findings fit into a larger pattern of Black and Latino students being denied equal opportunities in school, which has implications for their social mobility and economic equality.
“This is how wealth gaps become reproduced,” she said.
The median annual salary for cooks is $27,500, while chefs and head cooks earn $56,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The typical engineer makes $100,000. For computer programmers, annual earnings are $92,000.
Since Kamara's experience at Mount Pleasant, the school has made strides in diversifying its CTE programs, according to the school principal, Curi Calderon-Lacy. This year, enrollment in its engineering courses was 44% Black and 44% white, compared with 31% Black and 63% white in 2016.
Calderon-Lacy said all students have always had the option of taking the engineering course or any CTE class through the school’s open enrollment policy. Still, she acknowledged that enrollment in the engineering courses has not always reflected the composition of the student body. She added that the school received a grant from a nonprofit in 2018 to work on the issue.
“We’ve made a very strong effort to address inclusion and address equity,” she said. “And it’s still a work in progress.”
Kamara said she didn't remember requesting the audio engineering class. At the same time, she was never encouraged by counselors or teachers to explore options such as the engineering course, which might have opened up new possibilities for her. “I feel like the reason I’m not attracted to things like STEM and math is because of this deterrence,” Kamara said.
Michael Dawson, who runs Innovators for Purpose, an afterschool STEM program based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said schools don’t do enough to expose students to different careers or nurture those with a passion in STEM. One of his former students, who loved math and science, was placed in carpentry classes, Dawson said. “I’m not sure if there’s a lot of people that are really guiding these students into the types of classes that they really need to get to,” Dawson said. “The counselors are busy.”
Nationwide, counselors serve an average of 430 students each. Yet encouragement from teachers and other school personnel can make a difference.
Eva Oleita, a senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, was interested in a medical career from a young age. Her middle school science teacher recognized her talents and provided a recommendation for the screened admission, STEM-oriented high school.
Oleita, who is Black, said had she attended a different high school, “my life would be completely different.” She said the exposure she’s receiving in high school has helped prepare her for earning a STEM degree.
Even so, she still struggles with the lack of science role models she can relate to. “It’s hard to see yourself doing something where you do not see anybody who looks like you,” she said.
In some school districts, disparities in CTE enrollment come down to the classes high schools offer. In Mississippi, public school enrollment was 49% Black and 44% white. But Black students made up only 43% of students enrolled in schools that offer STEM classes, compared with 49% of white students. For IT, it was 40% and 52%, respectively.
Although some districts have career tech centers that enroll students from across the school district, educators say scheduling and transportation challenges can discourage many students from signing up.
Joe Greenberg sees the gaps firsthand in rural Mississippi. He teaches a technology class at J.W. Stampley 9th Grade Academy in the Clarksdale school district, which serves 2,300 students, 97% of whom are Black.
“I think they’re feeling some sort of sense of pride to be able to learn about coding and learning about what’s inside of a computer," he said.
The other electives available to freshmen at Greenberg’s school are family and consumer science courses, which cover topics such as adolescent development and family responsibilities. The district also offers culinary arts, sports medicine, health science, teaching and simulation and animation classes.
Shirlaurence Fair, CTE director for Clarksdale school district, said it’s hard not to envy other districts that offer a dozen or more career-technical programs. “We would like to be able to offer welding or engineering and manufacturing next year,” Fair said. “It’s just a struggle to get the teacher.”
Starting teacher salaries are low in Mississippi, especially compared with what people can make in the private sector, and it can be a challenge to get teachers certified.
In contrast, the Madison County district, in the most affluent area of the state, has the money to hire experienced faculty with a background in technical fields. “We can find teachers who are highly trained and highly skilled to teach all of the subjects that we offer,” said Blaise King, director of career and technical education for the 13,000-student district in suburban Jackson, Mississippi.
Each of the high schools in the district, which is about 50% white and 40% Black, offers courses in at least 10 career pathways. Two have a four-year engineering program and the district’s career-technical center has a two-year program in engineering. The center also offers courses in health care, automotive technology, construction, teaching, digital media, and simulation and design.
Ricardo Romanillos, director of professional learning for the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, has advocated for greater transparency around access to career and technical education. “A lot of what we’re confronting in education is an unspoken idea that the system treats all students equally,” he said. “We know that it doesn’t.”
Kamara, the Delaware student, learned this lesson in high school. She didn’t dislike the audio engineering class, but eventually dropped it to make room in her schedule for Advanced Placement classes.
“It wasn’t anything that was particularly challenging,” she said. “I wanted to take higher level classes.”