Current Perkins Bills: NOT GOOD ENOUGH
As Congress considers reauthorizing federal assistance for vocational and technical education, Members need to place the interests of students front and center. Unfortunately, bills currently moving through the House and Senate essentially reauthorize the status quo - extending a system that works well for some, but stifling the opportunities of far too many participants with skills in reading and math that are inadequate for 21st Century jobs. A bad reauthorization is worse than no reauthorization at all — if Members do not have the time (or the will) to seriously reform Perkins, then they should defer to the next session.
As it reauthorizes Perkins for the next five years, Congress should be unequivocal: federally supported programs need to complement vocational and technical skills with rigorous academic preparation.
Right now, the federal program (known as “Perkins”) is at best ambiguous and ambivalent about the need to ensure that vocational education programs integrate strong academics along with more narrow technical and vocational skills. A major, independent analysis commissioned by Congress recently concluded that Perkins’ “approach of encouraging ‘integration’ as a way to move secondary vocational education toward supporting academics has been slow to produce significant reforms.” In addition, this National Assessment of Vocational Education concluded that ”secondary vocational education itself is not likely to be a widely effective strategy for improving academic achievement or college attendance without substantial modifications to policy, curriculum, and teacher training.” (National Assessment of Vocational Education, 2004).
All high school graduates - regardless of whether they plan to enter college or go directly into the workforce - need strong reading, writing, and math skills. These bedrock skills of lifelong learning are an absolute necessity for our future citizens, soldiers, and workforce. Federal policy needs to be clear that vocational training cannot substitute for strong academic preparation. Moreover, despite conventional wisdom, research is clear that students learn more and fail less often when they are in the most challenging academic courses (this is true even for those students who had not done well in the past - and even true for vocational students in particular).
Congress should make at least the following five modifications to ensure that vocational and technical education adapts to the 21st Century:
- Define academic rigor and high skill, high wage jobs.
The proposals currently working their way through Congress rely heavily on these two phrases. But these catch-phrases fail to convey any substance or provide any meaningful direction to federally supported programs.
The proposals currently before the House and Senate not only fail to define “academic rigor” or ”high skill, high wage jobs,” they do not even ask the states to define these terms. Indeed, lobbyists for the vocational education community have insisted behind closed doors that defining these terms would be inappropriate because some existing programs dont meet these standards. This begs the question: Why would Congress want to support vocational programs that do not prepare students for ”high skill high wage jobs” or that do not incorporate academic rigor?
Congress must define these terms to offer more guidance regarding the opportunities they expect students to have after participating in federally supported programs.
- Differentiate state-reported data for student outcomes that are clearly different.
Right now, state reporting on outcomes for vocational students is virtually meaningless. Why? Because states report the percent of vocational students who enter the military, go to college, or go directly into the workforce as one, undifferentiated outcome — even though they collect the data separately for each of these outcomes. Data on graduation rates is similarly confused (e.g., a GED is treated the same as a regular high school diploma).
The problem is that these results represent very different outcomes for the students themselves and for society. Graduating from high school with a regular diploma is not the same as getting a GED, and going directly into the workforce is not the same as entering higher education. Aggregating the data on outcomes prevents Congress - or anyone else - from gauging the value of federally supported vocational programs.
- Focus on valid and reliable data.
The data on which vocational education is to be evaluated is not reliable. For example, most states measure outcomes for vocational students using a direct-mail survey. Only those students who respond to the survey are counted in the denominator, making outcomes look rosier than reality. And many states use 10th grade assessments to measure whether vocational education students are getting the academics they need, even though most vocational courses are taken after 10th grade.
Meaningful accountability is not possible without meaningful data. The reauthorization of Perkins must require states to use better data, especially in their measures of academic skill attainment.
- Account for the knowledge base of vocational teachers.
In 2000, almost 9% of vocational high school teachers did not hold even a baccalaureate degree. More striking is that prospective vocational teachers have lower scores in reading and writing (on the PRAXIS exam) than those planning to teach at the elementary school level, the least skilled of all teachers. The proposals in Congress give lip-service to the need for vocational teachers to integrate rigorous academics, but these proposals fail to acknowledge the depth and scale of the challenge.
If Congress is serious about integrating rigorous academics into federally supported vocational programs, we need a serious investment in professional development, and states need to set standards for acceptable levels of knowledge for these teachers.
- Do not prioritize vocational spending over mainstream academic spending.
Under the current Congressional proposals, states will be penalized with a reduction in federal funding if they spend even one dollar less on vocational education programs than they did in the previous fiscal year. In contrast, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (i.e., NCLB), states can cut their spending on mainstream academic programs by 10% and still receive full federal funding. This system offers a perverse incentive to a state faced with a budget crunch and forced to cut educational spending. The state can reduce spending on primary and secondary education by 10% and suffer no decline in federal support, but if the state reduces spending on vocational education by a penny it will jeopardize its federal dollars.
Federal legislation should not contain any incentive for states to cut their primary and secondary education programs before they cut their vocational education programs. Indeed, the original House bill recognized this incongruence and proposed to bring Perkins in sync with NCLB, but it was later changed to once again prioritize spending on vocational programs.
High school graduates face increasing demands in the 21st Century, but in some ways federal vocational education policy is better aligned with the 19th Century demands for which it was originally designed.
The workplace demands more than it used to. Congress should demand more, too.