K-12 schools can play a vital role in developing a well-trained, successful, and inclusive workforce through apprenticeship and work-based learning programs, first lady Jill Biden told said in a speech Monday.
“We can only realize the full power of our workforce when we tap into its full potential, and that means all students, all Americans,” Biden said during the event, which was hosted by the Chicago Apprentice Network, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding business apprenticeship programs.
Biden’s speech followed the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement of its new “Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success” initiative Monday. The initiative aims to increase and expand access to high-quality workforce training programs by partnering with the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Labor and developing new guidance and best practices for schools.
The initiative includes an additional $5.6 million through the federal Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides around $1.2 billion annually in career and technical education. The Perkins funding, along with funds from the $120 billion allocated to K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan, will be used to expand and support work-based learning opportunities.
“Our schools must evolve quicker to meet the demands of the workforce today,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona during the event. “Doing what we’ve done in the past won’t keep up with the pace of our country to create high-skilled jobs and compete internationally … We’re tearing down those silos between our K-12 systems and our college, career, and industry preparation programs.”
New guidance on how schools can spend federal funds to support work-based learning
Alongside the initiative, the Education Department released new guidance on how schools should prioritize COVID-19 relief funds to develop, support, and expand work-based learning opportunities. In a “dear colleague” letter, the department described how schools can use federal funding to expand access to dual-enrollment opportunities, provide strong career and college advisement and navigation, expand opportunities for high-quality work-based learning, and give all students an opportunity to earn industry credentials.
For example, the letter suggested that districts use American Rescue Plan funds to do a thorough assessment of dual-enrollment participation and outcomes to understand disparities related to race, ethnicity, sex, income, and other student characteristics, and develop strategies to address those disparities.
Districts can also use the funds to pay for the costs of exam fees for work that requires credentials, provide transportation to work and testing sites, and identify accommodations for students with disabilities so they can also participate in credentialing exams. The letter also recommended that districts hire work-based learning coordinators to act as liaisons between students, families, and employers and support all those groups.
The department also plans to host regional summits with students, educators, employers, and other stakeholders to talk about best practices for career education.
The initiative and the funding that comes with it is an opportunity for schools to reimagine how they prepare students for the workforce, Cardona said.
“Sadly, in many places, it’s a four-year college or bust mentality, and we’ve designed our schools with very little expertise and career and workforce pathways or course design,” he said. “For too long we’ve normalized the question that so many of our high school students ask us and we don’t have a strong answer to, ‘why am I learning this?’”
K-12 schools’ role in the pathway to a strong workforce
Throughout her speech, which was given to a crowd of business leaders, Biden emphasized that work-based programs in K-12 schools can not only benefit students but also employers.
“Mentor students, not because it will change lives, though it can; not because it will help your community, though it will; but because when students have the training that they need to succeed, your businesses will benefit,” she said.
The initiative is in addition to commitments made in President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal, which included $200 million for career-connected high schools and grant programs to support partnerships between school districts, higher education institutions including community colleges, and employers to encourage dual-enrollment classes that offer college credits and career and technical courses. The president also included $1.4 billion for CTE programs, involving an over $20 million increase for CTE state grants, in his 2023 budget proposal.
The initiative and Biden’s budget proposals are meant to help students “find their passion and their purpose in life,” Cardona said.
“Education is a bridge for people to create the lives they want,” he said. “We are helping our young people reach their endless potential.”