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Skepticism, Concern Greet Fast-Track Plan For Skills Standards

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WASHINGTON--Plans to move quickly on the creation of a national board that would endorse skills standards and certificates in a variety of industries ran into skepticism and concern last week on Capitol Hill and among members of the education and business communities.

The Clinton Administration has described the creation of a national skills-standards board as a cornerstone of its efforts to upgrade the American workforce.

Such standards--and related systems of assessments and certificates--could be used to undergird school-to-work programs, reform high schools, and provide young people not bound for college with a means of verifying their competencies to employers.

But the Administration's hopes to get such a board off to a fast start, by including it as title IV of its proposed education-reform act, met with a series of go-slow signals last week.

"A number of questions have been raised about title IV on both sides of the aisle,'' Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, said during a mark-up of the bill before the panel late in the week.

Mr. Kildee succeeded in temporarily holding off any amendments to the plan until the bill is marked up before the full Education and Labor Committee on May 19. But he said that unless the concerns about the skills board can be addressed by then, the mark-up would be postponed. He also said he would be willing to hold a separate hearing on the proposed board to "further explore the issues raised.''

The concerns voiced by lawmakers and others include:

  • Whether the government is taking too active a role in developing voluntary national skills standards;
  • Whether industry would be adequately represented on the board;
  • Precisely how the standards would be developed and what they would be used for; and
  • Whether they would raise barriers to the hiring of women and minorities.

The plan "is poorly drafted and badly thought out and needs to go back to the drawing board,'' said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, in one of the harshest criticisms of the proposal.

Even those who support the concept agreed that the vague wording of the legislation left a number of questions unanswered. And they urged the Administration to slow down the process to allow for greater clarification, public comment, and "buying in'' to the plan by key constituencies.

"We really ought to move ahead developing skill standards,'' said William H. Kolberg, the president of the National Alliance of Business. But, he added, "I'd rather see it on a slower track.''

"Nobody even saw the language of this bill until it was introduced,'' he said.

Although drafts of other portions of the President's "goals 2000: educate America act'' were circulating among education groups for weeks before its introduction in Congress, the section on the skills board was not.

Occupational 'Clusters'

The proposal would create a 28-member board representing business, labor, education, community-based groups, and state government. (See box, this page.)

By the end of 1995, the board would be required to identify broad "occupational clusters'' representing a substantial portion of the workforce and insure the development of an initial set of standards for those clusters.

Although it is unclear how the process would work, the board's primary role would be to "encourage, promote, and assist'' consortia of labor, business, and education representatives to voluntarily develop systems of standards, assessments, and certificates, which it would then endorse according to a common set of criteria.

In testimony before Mr. Kildee's panel last week, Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich described the standards-setting process as a powerful "signaling'' device that could be used to help redirect the entire education and training system from high school throughout adult life.

But Republicans on the subcommittee and members of the business community said they were worried that the board, as proposed, would provide too strong a role for the federal government in the standards-setting process and undermine its voluntary nature, which many view as pivotal to its acceptance.

Phyllis Eisen, the director of education and workforce readiness for the National Alliance of Manufacturers, which strongly supports the idea of voluntary national standards, said in an interview: "We are concerned about the composition of the board. We think that it should be industry-led, not just one-third industry.''

Issue of Semantics?

"Unless the business community is leading this,'' agreed Madeleine Hemmings, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education, "it probably won't catch on with the business community, in which case, the whole thing probably shouldn't be done at all.''

During the hearing, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., suggested changing the name of the board to an "advisory commission'' to clarify that the government's role should be to facilitate and assist in developing the standards, not to mandate them.

Others raised questions about what the Administration meant by a "broad cluster of major occupations'' and how those would be defined. While most experts agree that the United States does not want to create separate skills standards for narrow job categories--such as auto mechanic--it is unclear how many jobs or industries a single set of standards could cover and still be useful.

Mr. Reich said that "if semantics get in the way,'' he would be happy to change the name of the board.

Civil-Rights Concerns

The Administration also heard in force last week from civil-rights groups, which are concerned that any standards, assessments, or certificates developed with the board's imprimatur comply with federal civil-rights laws and other protections for minorities and women, who have historically been underrepresented in many high-wage, high-skills jobs.

After a series of meetings between Administration officials, Congressional representatives, and civil-rights-group officials, most participants said the dispute had been settled. But the precise language was not expected to be introduced until the mark-up of the bill before the full Education and Labor Committee.

"I think our concerns are going to be resolved,'' said Richard Seymour, the director of the employment-discrimination project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Democrats' Questions

Questions about the plan on Capitol Hill have not been confined to Republicans.

House Democrats last week also voiced skepticism about how the board would go about developing standards and exactly what they would be used for.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said he was unclear about whether the standards were intended for those already in the workforce or for students just preparing to enter it. And he wondered whether the standards would apply to federal vocational-education and job-training programs.

"I think there are some serious questions about this approach,'' he commented.

Others wondered whether the proposal would be better attached to the Administration's broader workforce initiatives than to a bill primarily focused on school reform.

But for those who see a strong connection between skills standards and how students are educated, the problem is that the connections between the skills board and the other parts of President Clinton's education bill are not explicit enough.

The bill would require that the board coordinate its work with that of the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council, and the council's chairman would be a member of the skills board.

But the American Vocational Association would like Congress to also require that states reflect the skills standards in their education-improvement plans under the bill and insure that the bill's state systemic-reform grants are available for vocational and technical education.

Paul Weckstein, the co-director of the Center for Law and Education, also questioned whether assessments and certificates--as well as standards--should be developed at the national level, or whether high-quality education and training programs that meet the standards should be assessed and certified locally.

Despite such criticisms, most lawmakers and those interviewed agreed that voluntary national skills standards are needed.

"We'll work through this,'' pledged the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., "and we'll get it done.''

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