Why Technical High Schools Help Boys More Than Girls
And how to spot a high-quality program
Say your beloved high-schooler is less than spectacular at academics. “I think we all feel comfortable saying that four-year college may not be the perfect fit for every kid,” says Eric Brunner, a professor of economics and policy at the University of Connecticut. These days trade schools teach everything from the trades to graphics to sound production to pre-nursing. Would this gambit pay off for your kid?
Brunner wanted to know too. His interest is personal: He married into a long line of trade workers. “Every single person on my wife’s side of the family chose technical school over regular school.” He holidays with relatives who answer his pressing HVAC and electrical questions.
But academics like data, so he studied Connecticut’s expansive Technical Education and Career System, which runs popular technical high schools across the state. Demand overwhelms seats, so students must apply. The fact the system rejects students makes it ripe for research: Scholars typically struggle to determine whether various schools pay off for enrollees, because the students who attend certain schools tend to have different abilities and interests from those who opt into other schools. So researchers tracked students who just barely got accepted, and compared them with students who just missed getting in and instead circulated at public high schools.
“It’s really nice from a research perspective,” says co-author Shaun Dougherty, associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, and a former high school teacher himself in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “The last person into the school is nearly identical to the first person out, and so we can make reasonable comparisons and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of that school. And we know that everyone who applied is actually interested in going to that school.”
Their verdict: There’s no downside to Connecticut’s technical schools, and some students do really well. “Getting into the technical high schools has a really large positive effect on both academic outcomes and workforce outcomes, all the way to age 24,” Dougherty says. This last bit is interesting: Students in the technical schools do better academically than similar students in normal schools, with higher attendance rates and test scores, and an ensuing graduation rate around 10 percentage points higher. This disproves the commonly held notion that tech students miss out on skills like communication and quantitative reasoning.
Except … this is all only true for boys. “The girls look exactly like their counterparts who did not go to technical high school,” Brunner says. Girls are not harmed by tech school, but they also do not reap the same benefits as their male peers, for two reasons: One is that the girls who are rejected from tech school tend to do just fine in mainstream public schools, unlike their male counterparts, who struggle.
The second is because girls tend to gravitate toward lower-paying fields like tourism, hospitality, cosmetology, early childhood ed, eldercare and food service. This means that when following wage earnings after graduation, their incomes are dwarfed by those of the many boys who went into the trades and the mechanical, construction and tech fields.
“The contrast between getting into these schools and not getting in is quite large for boys, because they go into these fields that are really well compensated,” Dougherty says.
The question you’re obviously wondering is whether these Connecticut findings are applicable to, say, the technical school near you. Most states don’t have programs like Connecticut’s, which are stand-alone schools where cohorts of students study for years with the same group of teachers.
“The vast majority of technical education [is made up of] courses within a high school, often a school within a school,” Brunner says. A handful of states, including Massachusetts and New York (New York City), do have them, and they tend to offer students perks such as a tighter community, access to many adults in the field, and motivated peers who really want to be there.
Researchers can’t parse which details are the most important, but overall, the impact is very positive. “I don’t know that that’s replicated outside of these systems,” says Dougherty, though his research suggests what to look for in your tech school:
First-year exploration opportunities. “One big asset of [Connecticut’s system] is a year in 9th grade where students really get to test drive a few of these programs of study,” Dougherty says. Students eventually match with a track based on performance and interests. That’s very different from typical high school, where a 9th grader might take an elective in AutoCAD, but if the class isn’t going well in October, they might be stuck through January or June. “There’s no other way for any of us to figure out what we might like than trying out different options,” he says.
Feeder programs into local jobs and colleges. You want to see partnerships with local employers and colleges, and available jobs in those fields. Bonus points for opportunities to “shadow” or intern locally, and seamless enrollment into local community colleges. This is not the life moment to reinvent the wheel.
Programs where students score similarly to public school students on standardized tests. “There doesn’t need to be a tradeoff between focusing on technical education and general learning skills,” Dougherty says. This indicates that the school teaches reasoning, math and reading comprehension skills.
Academia learned in applied settings. The same kid who hates math might enjoy geometry learned via carpentry. “If students can see a purpose to learning math or writing, and do it in an applied setting, it makes it a lot easier for them to take it seriously or see why these are going to be usable skills,” Dougherty says.
High-quality, high-paying fields, especially for girls. A 2020 paper on California technical schools noted that schools offering in-demand health training, like pre-nursing, pay off for girls. Ideally participation would be less gendered, but as long as that’s the case, girls need to see teacher role models and fellow female students in fields with opportunities.
Next up, the researchers are extending their follow-up by five years. “The big question is whether or not these kids see big wage gains early on because they get into the labor market earlier and have more work experience,” Brunner says. He doesn’t think that is the case, but he still likes data. Stay tuned.