States Link Funding to Vocational Programs' Job Placement
When Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania recently proposed using job-placement rates for vocational-education graduates as a means of evaluating the state's vocational programs, he was following the lead of legislators in Florida and South Carolina, where similar placement-rate standards are already law.
But though officials in all three states praise such criteria as a way of making vocational programs more accountable, professionals in the vocational field are questioning the wisdom of using quantitative measures to determine quality and purpose.
They contend that the number of recent graduates who find jobs related to their secondary-school training is an inadequate measure of a vocational program's effectiveness. And they say that tracking graduates will be a costly, complicated diversion from more important tasks.
Dean Griffin, acting executive director of the American Vocational Association, called the approach "restrictive and undesirable."
"Placement of people in the first job is not the total purpose of vocational education," he said. "We are just as concerned about the fourth or fifth job down the road, and the person's employability at age 35 or 40. The transfer of knowledge is terrifically important."
A similar position was taken a year ago by the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education, a panel charged by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell with assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the nation's school-based programs.
"Current program standards and accountability measures are useful but not central to issues of teaching and learning," said the group in its report, "The Unfinished Agenda: The Role of Vocational Education in the High School."
The group's lone recommendation in this area was that "the effectiveness of vocational instruction should be judged by before after changes in student knowledge, skills, and attitudes." (See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1984.)
But the political and business leaders who are supporting the job-placement mandates counter that they are necessary elements in state efforts to strengthen vocational-education programs, which receive substantial amounts of targeted state aid and enroll a large proportion of all high-school students.
In South Carolina, according to Terry K. Peterson, executive assistant for education to Gov. Richard W. Riley, legislators determined that "if we're going to put large amounts of money into vocational education, we want to know how it's doing."
One Florida official noted that "accountability" includes not only fiscal responsibility but "making the commitment to meet the expectations of students."
"If we've got students in programs and they can't get jobs through these programs because the jobs don't exist or the programs are not training them well, then we haven't done our job," said Pamela M. Zimpfer, a governmental analyst in the office of Gov. Robert Graham of Florida.
For those reasons, some educators acknowledge, state accountability efforts are likely to spread.
"There will be others," said Joseph Mills, director of the division of vocational, adult, and community education in the Florida education department. "It's sort of like the flu. I can't tell you who they will be. But you can bet your bottom dollar others will be looking at this."
Moreover, suggested one South Carolina educator, the strong link between efforts to regulate vocational programs and overall school-improvement initiatives has made it awkward for vocational officials to voice objections.
"Philosophically, they're opposed to it," he said of South Carolina's accountability law, "but they have not opposed it, because of the way it was handled. This law came out with the Education Improvement Act. If it had been one law, there might have been more resistance."
Florida legislators passed the placement-rate law in their 1984 session, amending it slightly in 1985. The law requires individual vocational programs in secondary and postsecondary schools to show that, within a year of graduation, at least 70 percent of their students have gone on to further education, the military, or a job where they "use knowledge and skills learned" in their vocational training.
If a program's placement rate drops below 70 percent for three consecutive years, the state will cease to fund the program.
Data collection began with 1984-85 graduates, said Leon A. Sims, the education department's assistant director of vocational, adult, and community education. The 1988-89 school year will be the first in which state funding may be withheld.
The Florida legislation had originally specified that placement criteria be tied only to job-placement rates; compromise measures broadened it to include higher education and the military, said Linda Z. Harris, a legislative analyst with the Florida Senate's education committee.
"It is an indication that Florida sees the broad focus of vocational education," said Mr. Sims. Expanding the placement law to include all three areas, he said, "made the standard quite acceptable."
One criticism leveled at the job-placement standard is the difficulty of implementing it. Keeping track of graduates can be a formidable task, especially in "such a mobile society," noted Patricia Schwallie-Giddis, the education department's coordinator for career development.
In the 1983-84 school year, vocational students represented just under 50 percent of the state's more than 700,000 pupils in grades 7-12. To determine graduates' employment status, the state mails them questionnaires after graduation. "We have some data now, but not to the extent that we need it," she said.
A 70 percent job-placement rate is not unreasonable, she said, provided all of the graduates complete and return the questionnaire. "But usually we get a 40 percent return." Ms. Schwallie-Giddis said she is worried that the amount of time and energy spent trying to find graduates will detract from her office's career-development program.
The South Carolina placement-rate law was passed in 1984 as part of the state's Education Improvement Act, which includes a three-year, $19-million appropriation to4expand and upgrade vocational-education equipment. Vocational students represent about 65 percent of all high-school pupils in the state.
The placement-rate law specifies that, to receive state funding, secondary-vocational programs must have, over a three-year period, an average of at least 50 percent of "available" graduates employed in an area related to their training, according to Moody M. Oswald, the state's director of vocational education. The law goes into effect in 1987-88, based on data collection beginning with the current school year.
One of the law's limitations is in its definition of "available for placement," according to Mr. Oswald. Students are considered "available" to be counted only if they are not in either the military or a higher-education program, or for some other reason have decided not to work, he said.
In addition, said Ronald D. Jordan, supervisor of research and management information in the education department's office of vocational education, because individual school districts determine who is available for placement, state officials have some concern that "different people may be interpreting the word 'placement' in different ways."
The Local Economy
A statewide survey of 1984 vocational-education graduates showed that 72 percent of South Carolina's vocational programs met the 50 percent placement requirement, according to Mr. Oswald. The survey "points out the need for local school districts and states to look at the other 28 percent," and address changes in program content, he said. "They also may find that some of those programs may just be outdated."
Steward Baylor, a member of the legislative committee of the South Carolina Vocational Association and director of the R.D. Anderson Vocational Center in Moore, suggested, however, that the placement-rate standards ignore a more fundamental problem: In some areas of a state, the ability of students to find jobs depends not on the success of their vocational training, but on the strength of the local economy.
"In areas of the state that are rural and have no jobs, it's going to be hard for those schools to place students," he said.
In Pennsylvania, the proposed vocational-education reforms arose out of statewide academic reforms put into place two years ago.
Shortly after Governor Thornburgh announced his "Turning the Tide" education-reform agenda in 1983, he commissioned a special interagency task force on vocational education. According to Donald Bowie, a spokesman for the education department, state officials "felt they had to address overall education issues first," before turning to vocational education.
The task force's efforts became even more of an imperative following the publication of several national reports on the condition of vocational education, Mr. Bowie said. These included "The Unfinished Agenda" and a recent report from the Committee for Economic Development, which said vocational-education courses nationwide "can be credited with preparing but a small fraction of students for future work." (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1985.)
In addition, a recent survey by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry showed that in 1983, of 57,000 vocational-education graduates, only 29 percent found employment in their field of study.
'A Patchwork Quilt'
The state's proposed placement-rate criteria, announced by the Governor on Oct. 16, stipulate that "financial incentives" would be offered to those secondary vocational courses in which "a majority" of graduates were either employed in the field of study or enrolled in a "related" postsecondary vocational-technical program.
Courses with higher placement rates would be rewarded with additional state funds, but courses with placement rates below the minimum would have funding restricted or in some cases cut off. Placement rates would be tied to local economic conditions, and the department would review courses on a "case-by-case" basis, according to Mr. Bowie.
But "what we really need is a comprehensive human-resources plan for this state, not picking apart or putting together a patchwork-quilt type of thing," charged Carl E. Herr, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Council on Vocational Education and president of the Pennsylvania Vocational Association. "Secondary-vocational education is only a part of human-resources development."
Mr. Herr's criticisms point to what some education analysts say is a basic failing of placement-rate criteria: They are standards designed to measure the success of a state's vocational-education curricula, before state officials have clearly defined what the goals of those curricula should be.
"It is very, very important for states to think what the fundamental purpose of vocational education is," said David S. Spence, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board. Before states attempt to "tie the whole evaluation of vocational education, or even a large part of it, to placement rates," he said, "you have to have a pretty large statewide understanding of what the purposes of vocational education are."
But the development of statewide goals for vocational education may be all but impossible for lawmakers and educators without the impetus of a placement-rate law, suggested Florida's Ms. Harris. In that state, she noted, the placement-rate law grew out of years of unsuccessful legislative attempts to establish "goals and standards" in vocational-education.
Imposition of a performance standard, she suggested, "may be a back-door way to force recognition of the fact that we need to rethink what those program goals should be."
Mr. Baylor, of the South Carolina Vocational Association, said vocational educators in his state also lack a "clear statewide mission." But adoption of the placement-rate criteria, he suggested, may have superceded development of statewide goals.
"These are criteria that people can get their teeth into," he said. "You see that you've either made it or you didn't. I believe that unless something else comes along, or we are given a different mission, we will be judged on that."