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Abstract

The organizing ideal of educational equity in U.S. public schools, premised on ensuring that all students have equal opportunities to attain the highest levels of achievement, has most recently manifested as efforts by policymakers and practitioners to promote “college and career readiness.” These efforts reflect the goal of maintaining students’ access to bachelor’s and advanced degrees, while simultaneously ensuring that those who do not achieve these degrees have access to other forms of quality career training (e.g. community college, apprenticeships, on-the-job training). Career and technical education (CTE), a model of vocational education that integrates high-quality academic learning, has become central to these efforts due to its emphasis on sub-baccalaureate career pathways. The popularity and decentralized spread of CTE nationally has led to variation in how educators understand its goals, with unknown implications for program design and student outcomes. Some scholars of education and sociology have expressed concern that CTE’s success at preparing students for sub-baccalaureate careers may come at the expense of rigorous preparation for four-year college, inadvertently reproducing tracking between academic and CTE coursework. Drawing on sensemaking and vocational development frameworks, this dissertation reveals how ideals of equity are manifest by educational stakeholders as they make sense of and implement CTE, and it analyzes implications for students. Findings are derived from a case study in a manufacturing region of Pennsylvania that I call “Oaksburg.” I conducted semi-structured interviews with 52 school leaders and other education stakeholders across the community, and I spent 114 hours observing stakeholder meetings and student college and career readiness events. I also administered a survey on aspirations and vocational development to 1,200 students at “Oaksburg High School,” analyzing the differences between CTE concentrators in manufacturing and construction (“trades concentrators”), students who spent a great deal of time preparing for four-year college (“college concentrators”), and students with little engagement in postsecondary preparation (“non-concentrators”). Educational stakeholders purposefully framed CTE as separate from academic learning, contradicting CTE policy goals and challenging notions of equity based on expanding bachelor’s degree attainment. They aimed to portray vocational learning as equal in status to traditional academic coursework, worthy of pursuit in its own right. I argue that this understanding of CTE’s goals reflects school leaders’ shifting ideals of educational equity in response to changes in the local opportunity structure. However, in well-intentioned efforts to elevate CTE’s status, education stakeholders often painted an unrealistically optimistic picture of how much students could expect to earn with sub-baccalaureate degrees relative to bachelor’s degrees. Survey data reveal that, although trades concentrators had lower educational aspirations than their demographically similar peers, they had strong vocational identity and career maturity. At the same time, they overestimated how much they could expect to earn in sub-baccalaureate careers. Non-concentrators, who were disproportionately low-income and racial/ethnic minority students, had the lowest levels of vocational development. These findings point to the need for expanded efforts to communicate accurate information about careers and provide opportunities to explore them, which would enhance support for students to achieve the goals they set for themselves.

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