Communicating CTE: Strategies and Message Tailoring to Reach Historically Marginalized Learners and Families

Recruiting learners into CTE programs should not be limited to class registration season; repeated exposure to messages about the value and benefit of Career Technical Education (CTE) help each learner feel welcome and seen. This is especially true for programs that have historically marginalized some populations from full access and participation. The start of the school year is an ideal touch point to raise awareness about CTE as learners begin new academic experiences and explore paths to career and college success. 

Advance CTE released updated national research in April 2021 on messages and messengers about the value of CTE that resonate with middle and high school families both participating in and considering CTE. This update intentionally focused on exploring equity in tested messages, with an oversample of Black and Latinx families and families experiencing low income. 

Several key findings resonated across gender, race/ethnicity, income and participation, including confirmation of the value of real-world skills as the top prevailing message for families about CTE; a strong interest in career exploration and skillbuilding as priorities for families’ education experience; and significant higher levels of satisfaction by those participating in CTE with their overall education experience. 

While the findings provide evergreen, consistent messages that can reach all families, it is important to remember that these messages and dissemination methods should be tailored to address the needs, aspirations and potential access barriers of each family, particularly historically marginalized populations. 

Several equity considerations emerged from this research for Black and Latinx families and families experiencing low income, including: 

  • Families Value Accessible and Digestible Online Sources of Information about CTE: Black prospective families and current learners across race and income ranked Google searches in their top two sources for information about CTE. Prospective families experiencing low income and prospective Black parents/guardians ranked school websites in their top two information sources.   CTE leaders should develop processes to ensure that online sources of information about CTE are up-to-date, utilize digestible terms and are available on platforms and in languages that are accessible to each family.
  • Learners are more prepared for and likely to complete postsecondary education through CTE: Historically marginalized families not participating in CTE were much more likely to indicate their learner would only complete “some college” compared to those currently in CTE.   Among families with low income currently participating in CTE, 55 percent planned for  their learner to complete a postsecondary degree compared to 42 percent of prospective families. Among current Latinx families, the increase was even more robust, with more than 60 percent of families planning for their learner to complete a postsecondary degree compared to 36 percent of prospective families. CTE leaders should communicate CTE as an avenue that offers more options for career and college success and be specific about opportunities to prepare for and jumpstart postsecondary education.
  • Learners in CTE Value Opportunities to Make Connections: Black and Latinx learners and learners experiencing low income, particularly those currently in CTE, had stronger preferences than White learners for messages about CTE that emphasize opportunities to make connections and build relationships with like-minded individuals.  CTE leaders should consider utilizing CTE’s value in making connections with like-minded peers, instructors, mentors and employers as a secondary message to ‘Preparing for the Real World’ and be specific on how opportunities to make connections are accessible to each learner.

These findings have important implications for how CTE can close equity gaps, as well as what aspects of CTE should be elevated when conducting outreach to historically marginalized populations. Communications should be specific about the equitable opportunities provided through CTE to prepare for and jumpstart postsecondary education, as well as to gain visibility and networks through connections and hands-on experiences with like-minded educators, peers and employers . 

Historically marginalized families will be empowered to make informed decisions that lead to college and career success when they encounter communications that include specific programmatic offerings, are easily accessible to supplement in-person sources with language, and include visuals that reflect the intended audiences. Additionally, careful consideration should be given to confirming messages shared with families match the quality and outcomes of CTE programs provided in the region or locality. 

Advance CTE provides ready-made resources for local and state CTE leaders to evaluate and refresh their messages and recruitment materials. Visit the Engaging Families and Learners for a variety of resources that break down the research and support implementation, including a Core Messages resource that provides customized message themes with an equity lens and Dos and Donts to put the research into action. 

Back to school month is a great opportunity to utilize fast digital graphics in presentations and on social media with persuasive and impactful statistics on how CTE delivers for families. It is also an ideal checkpoint to utilize Advance CTE’s parent engagement tool to start or maintain engagement strategies with historically marginalized families, including developing processes to receive feedback from learners and parents/guardians on recruitment practices and CTE programs, utilizing CTE alumni in recruitment materials, and equipping trusted sources with tested messages to share in spaces beyond the classroom. 

Visit the Learning that Works Resource Center for additional communications resources, including reports on implementing Advance CTE’s communications research in 11 states since 2017. 

Stacy Whitehouse, Senior Associate Communications and State Engagement 

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