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Reauthorizing the Perkins Act: Setting States Up to Succeed

In my last two blogs, I laid out a framework for thinking about career and technical education (CTE) in the United States.  In this blog, I will use that framework to describe a structure for the reauthorization of the Perkins Act, the federal government's education law for CTE.

I start from the premise that there should be two parts of the new Perkins Act.  Part A would provide some funds to all the states on a formula basis for CTE with only general restrictions on the ways in which that money could be used. This, based on the argument that all states, having contributed to the federal government budget and, with an obligation to provide career and technical education, should get some assistance.  But Part B would be based on a very different premise, namely that there is an urgent need to greatly improve our CTE system. Much is known about what highly effective CTE systems look like and the federal government has a strong obligation to spend its money on programs that will be effective. 

I might point out that the first part of this legislation would act as a reasonable check on the second part.  That is, states that did not agree with the premises of the second part or could not mount a proposal that could win in that competition would still be able to pursue their plan and prove that they could produce better results with their strategy than any of the states taking Part B funds could with the government's strategy.  An evaluator would be obligated to judge not just the Part B projects in relation to each other, but also in comparison to the Part A projects.

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In the rest of this blog, I describe what the second part of this legislative package—the one intended to greatly improve career and technical education—might look like.  Funding under this section of the law would be competitive, based on proposals from the states.  Awards would be multi-year and continuation of the awards would be based on a showing that a good-faith effort was being made to carry out the funded proposal.  The federal government would also fund a research program designed to assess the effects of the work underway as described above.

To receive funds under Part B, a state plan would have to do the following:

  1. Present a plausible plan for enabling not less than 90 percent of the cohort of the student body entering school at the first grade to read with comprehension and on grade level by the time they reach the tenth grade, write well and be proficient in algebra, probability and statistics by the end of their sophomore year in high school (the plan might take years to execute, but it would have to be plausible and the state would have to continue to make a good faith effort to implement it to continue to receive the funds).
  2. Award a performance-based diploma or certificate to students who reach those standards.
  3. After a few years have elapsed following passage of the legislation, limit the use of Perkins funds to students who have earned such a diploma or certificate. Which is to say, limit the use of Perkins funds to students who have acquired the level of proficiency in the basic skills needed to obtain a modern career and technical education.
  4. Develop a system of career guidance beginning in middle school designed to offer students extensive information and advice regarding the kinds of careers that are available, the kind of compensation and other rewards associated with those careers and the academic and other requirements for successfully pursuing those careers.
  5. Offer a variety of career and technical education pathways in the last two years of high school to students who possess the performance-based diploma or certificate described above.  Those pathways:
    • Must be designed to culminate in the possibility of earning a qualification recognized by employers as signifying that the person who holds that certificate has the specific skills that employers agree are needed at the entry level to embark on a rewarding career in that field;
    • Can consist of courses offered by the high school, by the local community college or both and the Perkins funds can be used for either or both;
    • Can take as many years to complete as is necessary, presumably fewer years for occupations involving less demanding study and fewer skills and more time for occupations requiring more demanding study and greater and more diverse skills;
    • Must link to further education, so that whichever pathway is pursued, the qualification received at the end of that pathway is also a qualification to pursue studies at a higher level; there are no dead ends in the system;
    • Must include an opportunity for the student to acquire all of the academic learning required to pursue the indicated career;
    • Must also include opportunities to acquire all the practical skills needed to pursue that career using state-of-the-art equipment and state-of-the-art industrial techniques under the close tutelage of a person who is highly qualified to provide that instruction by virtue of being intimately familiar with the current state of the art in that career line and industry, having recent industry experience and having met requirements set by the state for assuring that the individual providing the practical training has the pedagogical training and skills needed to perform at high levels;
    • Must provide the full range of skills that have been described by employers as necessary or take advantage of services provided by third party employer groups to provide those skills if the school or the employer providing the site-based training cannot do so; and
    • Must culminate in the award of an industry-recognized qualification or certificate earned on the basis of having passed an examination set by the industry and in which industry representatives serve as examiners.
  6. Show how a student pursuing such career and technical education programs could transfer if they wished to academic pathways offered by the high school if they meet specified academic requirements and also how students pursing academic pathways could transfer into these career and technical education pathways if they wanted to acquire both an academic credential and a career and technical education credential.
  7. Show how the state plans to engage the employer community in the state to:
    • Consider what occupations are likely to be in the greatest demand and set the standards for the award of certificates signaling that the student has met their criteria for the entry-level positions in the careers being trained for,
    • Decide on the content of the training programs employers would have to offer to be certified by the state as providers of employer-based training to students at training wages,
    • Set training wages at predetermined levels below the prevailing minimum wage, and
    • Set up third party, employer-led organizations to offer the training in the content that students require but that individual employers may not be able to offer.
  8. Make the investments in infrastructure for career and technical education and training needed to signal to students and their parents that CTE is not an educational backwater and dead end.

This new Perkins program should be designed so that the states have strong incentives not to create small pilot programs that never expand, but to develop new statewide systems that are designed to scale. 

It should include funds to support the planning process in the states, enabling the states to use Perkins Part B planning money to send delegations of key state officials to the countries with the best career and technical education systems to see how they work and to understand the strategies and techniques they use to get their results. 

That's my dream.  Go for the gold.  Use Perkins not just to get a little better but to help the states prepared to make the effort to match the quality of the best career and technical education systems in the world.  If we settle for anything less, bear in mind that it means that we are at the same time deciding to settle for a second-best economy and then consider the consequences of that decision.

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