Obama Moves to Nominate New Voc-Ed Secretary

By Sean Cavanagh — June 26, 2009 3 min read
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President Obama has announced that he intends to nominate Brenda Dann-Messier, the leader of a Rhode Island nonprofit who has a background in adult education, workforce, and literacy issues, to serve as his assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

Dann-Messier is currently the president of Dorcas Place, an adult literacy and learning center located in Providence, which advocates for creating education opportunities for low-income parents and adults. As assistant secretary for vocational education, she would oversee the U.S. Department of Education’s career-and-technical education program, which has a budget of more than $1 billion annually and funds vocational and job-training classes in areas ranging from automotive repair and construction to health care in high schools across the country.

Dann-Messier’s background is something of a departure from those who served in the vocational post under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. The assistant voc-ed secretary when Bush left office was Troy Justesen, who moved to the post after serving as the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Prior to Justesen, the position was held by Susan K. Sclafani, who had an extensive background in K-12 schools. She had been a former adviser in the Houston school system to Rod Paige, who later became secretary of education under President Bush.

Bush repeatedly tried to eliminate funding for the federal vocational program, arguing that it has not been successful in raising academic achievement and setting high expectations for students. Career-oriented programs have proved popular in Congress, however, and federal lawmakers rebuffed Bush’s attempts. Supporters of career-and-technical education say they play a vital role in keeping some students interested in school and preventing dropouts, and that the best programs help supply industries with talented workers in specific trades.

As president of Dorcas Place, Dann-Messier has overseen a wide range of efforts— some of which received federal funding—to improve the skills of adults, according to the organization’s Web site. Her organization worked on family literacy through the federal Even Start program—a $66.5 million literacy venture that Obama has proposed eliminating. It also received a Full Service Community Schools grant, federal money that supports cooperative efforts between schools and family and heath services. In addition, Dorcas Place established a program to help immigrants who were professionals secure jobs in their fields, according to the Web site.

Before joining Dorcas Place, Dann-Messier worked as a special projects manager at a regional education laboratory at Brown University, also located in Providence. From 1993 to 1996, she served as regional representative for New England for the U.S. Department of Education, according to biographical information from Dorcas Place.

UPDATE: Kim Green, who works on career-and-tech issues for a state voc-ed directors’ organization, told me today that the selection seems consistent with the Obama administration’s emphasis on “adult career pathways,” and the connection between K-12, college and the workforce.

Green noted that Dann-Messier does not have an extensive career-and-tech background, though she also said that wasn’t unusual, in terms of people who’ve filled the post in the past. She said she hoped that the Rhode Island official can help improve cooperation between K-12 and adult voc-ed programs, which has been lacking in the past.

Green, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career and Technical Education Consortium, in Silver Spring, Md., said she hoped Dann-Messier would strengthen “programs of study” with the existing federal vocational law. Programs of study are education plans that grant recipients are required to create under the law, that map out academic plans for students interested in specific careers. Green believes those programs need to be strengthened and expanded to include clearer expectations for academics and job skills.

“There’s a lot of interest in CTE right now,” she said, referring to career-and-tech ed. “We have an opportunity to break a lot of the stereotypes out there.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.