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Corporate influence in career and technical education through data extraction

This paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Learning, Media and Technology addresses families’ perceptions of corporate influence in career and technical education (CTE) through market-driven policies that enable data extraction for student profiling and seek to align K-12 education with business-driven needs.

Aligning education with business needs can offer early employment, however, accelerating technological developments risk subjecting hyper-specialised individuals to highly unpredictable labour markets and ultimately job insecurity. Using grounded theory, we conducted in-depth interviews with families across the United States, to obtain their views on the hyper-specialisation in CTE.

The emerging discourse is that powerful corporations offer makeshift hyper-specialisation curricula that fit their business needs and do not necessarily reflect, or indeed, consider children’s best interests. This research contributes to scholarship by elucidating the views of families affected by the corporate influence in CTE. The collected stakeholder accounts suggest the need for more in-depth research on individuals who rely on CTE for future employment.

CTE has historically attracted contentious views regarding the short- and long-term cost-and- benefit trade-offs for individuals and society. Some scholars question whether CTE has a future. Others contend that with the technological acceleration, hyper-specialised CTE training risks being offset by less adaptability and therefore diminished future employment opportunities. Additionally, CTE has carried the stigmatic burden since students attending such programs are generally from more disadvantaged backgrounds and lag academically. The social-class legacy lingers on as student tracking based on low achievement has perpetuated a social stratification throughout a child’s educational path. As big data are now used to profile populations for predicting and modifying behaviour for economic gains, student tracking, with big technology companies (Big Tech) involved in the curriculum design, increases the risks of perpetuating inequalities beyond the classroom, once children enter the workforce. As Big Tech continue to expand their presence in education, with the Covid-19 pandemic increasing the sector’s reliance on digital services, concerns grow regarding their unregulated impact on education. The pressure for accountability has turned educational institutions more data-driven. The digitalisation of educational processes has infused the education landscape with products that blur the lines between school and the marketplace.

Here we focus on CTE in the United States (US). However, corporate influence on public education through data extraction with the risk to ‘disempower and disenfranchise vulnerable groups and subjugating public education to the profit-led machinations of the burgeoning “data economy”’ are growing global concerns. The European Union (EU), too, has agendas for CTE by harvesting skills intelligence through the development of a ‘permanent online tool for real-time information’ for ‘all interested stakeholders’ to tailor careers and inform education policy based on industry demands. Close to half (48.4%) of upper secondary school students follow vocational programs. In the US, 98% of public school districts offer CTE programs. CTE is an opportunity for many underserved and underemployed individuals – students and adult workers – who rely on and seek postsecondary training (Bragg, Kim, and Barnett 2006). In the US, CTE programs target the most disadvantaged individuals who fall within the federally funded, ‘Title I’ program, non-English immigrants and their children. To this end, CTE is an important subject within the wider debates and research on education, digital technologies and young people’s future job security and wellbeing.

To our knowledge, there is a lack of empirical evidence on the effectiveness of CTE reform attempted through the decades1. Some researchers conclude that CTE has not kept abreast with policy developments; linking education and the labour market remains a work in progress. Some studies contend that the effects of CTE reforms and the efforts to fuse CTE with secondary school reforms are understudied.

In this study, we use grounded theory to conduct in-depth interviews with families to gain their experiences with and perspectives on the corporate-led tech-talent and data pipelines development in the US. We reflect on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Reproduction in Education to examine the symbolic violence that is engendered by dominant corporations through their offering of makeshift hyper-specialisation curricula that fit their business needs; not necessarily children’s own. By reviewing relevant literature, we demonstrate how, while CTE can enable early employment, worker adaptability to technological changes is gravely diminished. We shed light on the likely negative impact corporate influence in CTE can have on children’s future job securities.

The full paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal Learning, Media and Technology.

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