Career and technical education offers pathways for students with disabilities in Michigan

May 13, 2021

Career and Technical Education (CTE) could offer one way of bolstering educational attainment among and providing valuable job skills to students with disabilities (SWD). A new release by the Youth Policy Lab at the Ford School looks at CTE participation among SWD in Michigan, and shows a number of tangible benefits.

SWD who enroll in CTE graduate high school at higher rates compared to observably similar students who do not, and can find jobs more easily.

The brief, authored by Brian Jacob and Jeremy Guardiola notes that students with disabilities (SWD) participate in Career and Technical Education (CTE) at roughly the same rate as other students. Both boys and girls with disabilities are more likely to participate in agriculture and skilled trades programs and less likely to enroll in business and communications programs. 

That may not be a bad result, as the skilled trades offer promising labor market prospects in Michigan. SWD who complete a CTE program are 48% more likely to graduate high school relative to observably similar SWD who never enroll in a CTE program. This trend holds across sexes and most disability types. These benefits appear greater for SWD than students without disabilities.

Yet, the study shows that SWD are less likely to complete CTE programs compared to students without disabilities. Approximately half of this gap can be explained by other characteristics like socioeconomic status and prior academic achievement. Girls with disabilities are less likely to participate compared to observably similar girls without disabilities. 

Guardiola says, “This study emphasizes that supporting students with disabilities throughout their educational pathways is a critical policy imperative. While 85% of all students nationwide graduate high school, just 69% of SWD do so. Similarly, SWD are less likely to enroll in college.” 

Individuals with disabilities face challenges in the labor market as well. Seventy-three percent of working-age adults with disabilities are either not in the labor force – meaning they do not have a job and are not looking for work – or are unemployed. The same is true for just 23% of individuals without disabilities. 

“We see that employment levels rise with educational attainment among individuals with disabilities. The data suggest that increased educational attainment may provide a buffer against economic insecurity for this population. Considering poverty rates among individuals with disabilities are more than double the rates for individuals without disabilities, this is an important policy objective,” Jacob notes in the brief.

The analysis is based on datasets from the Michigan Education Data Center housed at the University of Michigan’s Education Policy Initiative research center in the Ford School. The underlying data come from the Michigan Department of Education’s Michigan Student Data System, the Graduation and Dropout Application, the National Student Clearinghouse, the state Office of Career and Technical Education, and the Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

More research will be done to dig deeper into the reasons behind SWD being less likely to complete CTE programs once enrolled. “Given that people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty compared to those without disabilities, this is an area where policymakers and practitioners should seek to develop support systems,” the brief states. It offers two practices that could improve the student retainment: 

  • The first is making sure CTE instructors participate in Individualized Education Program team meetings. These are important conversations where school personnel identify the specialized instruction and support services SWD need to achieve their annual goals. 
  • Another more resource intensive strategy would be to provide CTE instructors with additional training for teaching SWD. Researchers studying this topic have found that many CTE instructors report having received no special needs in-service training at all or had not received any within the previous two years. These same researchers suggest providing ongoing professional development at the local level and working with regional postsecondary institutions to offer special education coursework opportunities.

The entire brief can be seen here.