Assessing the State of Rural Career & Technical Education Programs

Engaging rural schools across the state to understand their needs and experiences is the bedrock foundation of the Rural IL CTE Project. To accomplish this, the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools (AIRSS) issued a first-take Rural IL CTE Survey. AIRSS believes strongly that the best way to advocate for rural and small schools is to allow their individual voices to be heard, and so this survey was an opportunity for schools to earnestly share their triumphs and trials in offering high-quality, innovative career and technical education (CTE) programs. 

Figure 1: Rural CTE Survey Responders by District Type and Region
Figure 1: Rural CTE Survey Responders by District Type (above) and Region (below)

The survey was completed in February, and we are thrilled to share with you a number of key insights from the data. Of the 240 that were selected, 128 Illinois public school districts responded.  These schools are considered the “most rural” with the “highest need” per the National Center for Education Statistics Locale Codes and the US Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) eligibility. Additionally, the survey was successful in engaging districts in each of the six educational service regions delineated by the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents. There is strong confidence that given the diversity of regions and district types (unit, high school, and elementary) surveyed (Figure 1), that the data is representative of rural Illinois school experiences.

Figure 2: Types of CTE Programs offered at Rural Schools
Figure 2: Types of CTE Programs offered at Rural Schools

While the survey sought to understand a number of key CTE metrics, such as student perceptions of CTE and alignment of programming to labor demands, two metrics in particular were significant to the execution of the Project: course offerings and program challenges. For course offerings (Figure 2), we asked districts to select which of the 16 career clusters, as defined by Advance CTE, they offer to their students. Indicative of the deep farming roots that define many of Illinois’ hometowns, 82% of respondents indicated that their district offers courses in “Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources.” Similarly, CTE has traditionally been associated with industry and the skilled trades. About 53% of districts surveyed shared that they offer courses in “Manufacturing, Engineering, Technology, and Trades.” More surprisingly, “General Career/Vocational Exploration” was offered in only 40% of responding districts. This is noteworthy as career exploration is a cornerstone of both the new Postsecondary and Career Exploration framework and Work-based Learning requirements for public districts. Moreover, career exploration is the entry point for students to begin the process of understanding what professional opportunities are available to them. Also noteworthy was the relatively low percentage of districts that offer “Information Technology” and “Human and Public Services” coursework (23% and 15% respectively). These two pathways represent the core of our current and future economy (artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, customer service, and education to name a few).

In “Challenges in Offering CTE,” (Figure 3) we asked districts to select which difficulties they face in supporting and growing CTE programs from a list of issues that frequently plague rural and small schools. As a sign of how seriously this challenge hinders the progress of rural schools, and equitable provision of CTE opportunities to students, 61% of respondents indicated that they struggle with educator shortages. The lack of qualified and quality teachers is a systemic issue in rural districts, and this problem is exacerbated for career and technical education as often those with the most credentials to teach CTE coursework are the least likely to enter the education profession. Moreover, the overall share of new teaching candidates with a declared focus on CTE is substantially smaller than other fields. Simply put, while insufficient resources (47%) and equipment and facilities (43%) were also major areas of concern for rural schools, there can be no CTE classes without passionate individuals empowering students to make their first steps into the professional world. On a more positive note, it is surprising that fewer districts reported issues with distances to CTE opportunities (23%) and a lack of community partners (16%). These two challenges have often been cited as major barriers to program growth in conversation with rural districts around the state.

Figure 3: Common Challenges to Rural CTE Programming
Figure 3: Common Challenges to Rural CTE Programming

This first Rural IL CTE Survey has provided a wealth of baseline data about the needs and equity gaps in rural programming, but it is only the first step on a much longer journey of discovery and understanding. Further surveys and conversations will help illuminate insights from this early data and point out areas for further investigation. Already, the Rural IL CTE Advisory Council along with the Illinois State Board of Education’s Department of CTE have reviewed these findings and elevated key aspects. Equipped with data and a drive to advocate for the needs of all rural and small schools, AIRSS is looking forward to the next steps ahead for the Rural IL CTE Project.

We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to the 128 districts that responded to the survey, and to all who have collaborated with us thus far. Our work is noticed and our voice is heard, and we are laying the groundwork for a truly exciting effort to shape the futures of our students and communities.

If you would like to share your perspectives on the data shared here or rural CTE programming, please reach out to Program Director John Glasgow:

The Rural IL CTE Survey was designed and administered in collaboration with Goshen Consulting. Thank you to Goshen for your partnership on this work.

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