Perkins Bill Is Approved by Congress

Career, tech programs face more accountability.

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Career and technical education programs will face new pressure to show that they are academically rigorous and guiding high school students through a lineup of courses that prepares them for college or the workplace, under a bill approved by Congress.

The reauthorization of the federal law known as the Perkins Act—dealing with what traditionally has been called vocational education—will not subject state and local programs to the stricter demands and penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act, however. Critics in some quarters, including the White House, have said that such programs should be held to much tougher standards than they currently face. Nevertheless, President Bush is expected to sign the legislation.

The measure requires that career-oriented programs receiving federal funds report test scores and graduation rates more consistently, under the rules of the 4½-year-old No Child Left Behind law. And it requires that states take a more active role in spelling out specific sequences of core academic and technical classes that students should follow from grade to grade.

From ‘Vocational’ to ‘Career and Technical’

The reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, which awaits President Bush’s signature, includes several changes for states and school districts that administer the federal program:

References to “vocational” education— a term regarded as out of date by some educators—have been changed to “career and technical” education.

State and local career and technical programs will be required to report state test results and graduation rates for their students as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Local programs will have to meet specific academic targets; those that fail to meet those goals will have to submit improvement plans, and eventually could have their funding cut by their states.

States and local programs together will have to establish “programs of study,” or plans for integrating academic- and career-oriented courses leading to a college degree or industry certification.

States will be able to use the same portion of their federal Perkins funding— 5 percent—for administrative costs as under the current law, despite calls by some in Congress to reduce that to 2 percent.

“An awful lot of kids wander through high school without a plan,” said James R. Stone III, the director of the National Centers for Career and Technical Education, in Minneapolis. “If we want to help kids make it to postsecondary education and good-paying jobs, we need to lay out a road map for them.”

The legislation reauthorizes the federal vocational education law, now retitled the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education and Improvement Act of 2006, through 2012. At a time of especially fractious relations between congressional Republicans and Democrats, the measure won broad bipartisan support. The Senate approved it by unanimous consent on July 26, and the House passed it three days later by a vote of 399-1.

The Perkins Act, last reauthorized in 1998, governs the flow of about $1.3 billion annually in federal money to state and local work-related classes, programs, and training. Despite the Bush administration’s efforts to eliminate funding for the program, a White House spokeswoman told the Associated Press late last month that the president would sign the measure.

“Improving and strengthening the academic focus of the Perkins Act is part of a much larger effort to ensure that today’s students will be ready for tomorrow’s reality, whether it is in college or the workforce,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chief sponsor of the legislation, said on the floor of the Senate on July 26. Rep. Enzi is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Scheduling Courses

Some of the legislation’s changes to the current law are semantic: The reauthorization replaces references to “vocational” education—a term some say is outdated and derogatory—to “career and technical” education.

Other revisions are more substantive. The measure, for example, requires states and districts to report career and technical students’ scores on state high school assessments, as well as their graduation rates, under state plans approved under the No Child Left Behind law. Right now, states accept a hodge-podge of measures of local programs’ academic merit—from students’ state test scores, to grade point averages, to data on students’ completion of career-oriented courses. That variety makes genuine evaluations of the programs difficult, some experts say.

“It will be more consistent across the board,” Katharine Oliver, the Maryland Department of Education’s assistant superintendent for career, technology, and adult learning, said of the new legislation.

But Ms. Oliver and others also noted that some statewide high school assessments are given in 10th grade or earlier; by contrast, students often do not decide to concentrate in career-oriented classes until 11th or 12th grade.

As a result, said Mr. Stone, states could be judging vocational programs’ academic strength “before [their students] have had the career and technical experience.” Mr. Stone’s career-and-technical research center receives federal funding.

Another core feature of the new Perkins legislation requires states to create “programs of study,” or sequences of high school and college courses, that students who take heavy concentrations of career-oriented courses should follow.

Some states already have such programs of study in place. Over the past few years, Nebraska has been moving toward having school districts require “personal learning plans” for students with large numbers of career-oriented electives, said Richard Katt, the state’s director of career and technical education.

The goal is to encourage students “not to focus on a job, but on … all the possible careers within an area”—and take the core academic classes in math and other subjects needed for that field, Mr. Katt said.

Federal Support

Mr. Stone suggested that programs of study could lead to effective student academic planning, an area in which an existing piece of the Perkins program, known as Tech Prep, has a mixed record at best.

Funded at $100 million a year, Tech Prep supports partnerships in workforce training between high schools and colleges. Critics, however, have questioned the program’s effectiveness. House lawmakers originally proposed that Tech Prep be folded within a larger Perkins program of general state grants. The new legislation retains Tech Prep, but sets new academic demands on it and gives states the freedom to combine its funding with money from the Perkins state grants.

The Bush administration has proposed zeroing out funding for the Perkins legislation in its two most recent budget proposals, arguing that federal vocational money would be better spent on the administration’s proposals to extend the No Child Left Behind law’s provisions to high schools.

In addition, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last year sent letters to Senate and House lawmakers voicing her objections to earlier versions of the Perkins Act reauthorization bills, saying they were not academically demanding enough—only to see both chambers approve those measures by overwhelming margins.

Many federal lawmakers believe vocational programs in their home districts are successful, particularly in keeping students who are at risk of dropping out engaged in school.

In a statement issued after Congress’ final passage of the reauthorization, Secretary Spellings appeared to voice support for the law, saying Congress “deserves credit for making some needed reforms” to the existing Perkins Act.

“For the first time, career and technical education programs will be held accountable for continuous improvement in performance, measured by the academic proficiency of [vocational] students,” Ms. Spellings said. “These changes will help ensure that students graduate with the academic skills valued by employers and colleges alike.”

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Pages 1, 27

Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Perkins Bill Is Approved By Congress
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