As Congress begins a push to renew the largest federal program aimed at high schools, there appears to be a broad consensus that the next iteration of the law should focus on helping states and districts beef up program quality.
But just what that looks like in practice—and how the law involving career and technical education should connect to the national drive to get all students ready for college and the workplace—is an open question.
“Quality varies significantly from program to program,” said Dane Linn, the vice president of education and workforce at the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of business leaders. “You can go into some places where the career-tech center has a strong connection to the regional economy, to postsecondary education, to filling jobs in the region.”
But in other places, he said, career and technical education, or CTE, is “viewed as the place students go if they’re not interested in going to a four-year [college].”
Advocates for career and technical educators also see bolstering program quality as a central goal—even as they are wary of potential new strings that could infringe on local flexibility, which they see as a big strength of the current program. A major question in the reauthorization will be: “How can we make sure more students have access to programs [without] dramatically increasing the burden on locals or the administrative function?” said Alisha Hyslop, the director of government relations for the Association for Career and Technical Education.
The law, which was last renewed in 2006, is formally known as the. It has long been overshadowed by the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, both of which tend to be subject to partisan fights. Advocates believe that its under-the-radar nature might work in the CTE law’s favor—making it easier to garner cross-aisle support.
But it’s still unclear how lawmakers view the Obama administration’s year-old prescription for revamping the law: making the more than $1 billion in CTE aid—which now goes out strictly through a formula—competitive within states. There was virtually no discussion at the House education committee’s first hearing on CTE reauthorization last month of the proposal, which was included in the administration’s 2012for revising the law.
Instead, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the House education subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy, outlined three broad goals for renewal: ensuring that CTE programs don’t have to deal with “duplicative” program requirements, that CTE teachers are effective, and that the programs actually prepare students for the workforce and postsecondary education.
For its part, the career and technical education group has major qualms about the administration’s push to inject competition into the program at the state level. It worries that programs without sophisticated grant-proposal writers could lose out.
And some lawmakers have also raised objections to the competitiveness piece of the proposal, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a prominent voice in the Senate on education issues. Sen. Murray, whose home state has a national reputation for its strong CTE programs, could become the chairwoman of the Senate education committee when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retires after the 2014 elections.
Stepping Up Scrutiny
Meanwhile, as states begin to move toward assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards, CTE advocates are wondering how—and whether—the new iteration of the Perkins law should hold career and technical education programs more accountable for preparing students for the workforce.
Mr. Linn of the Business Roundtable suggested that the tests being developed by two consortia to align with the common-core standards in English/language arts and math could play a role. “We need some type of assessment on measuring career readiness for these students,” Mr. Linn said. “I would argue that the assessments currently being developed by the consortia are one way to do that.”
The two consortia, however, have struggled to reach common definitions of career readiness, and more than a few in the career-tech field are skeptical that the tests will be a meaningful measure of career readiness. And there’s an ongoing debate about whether career readiness and college readiness are really the same thing. It’s unclear at this point if and how that discussion could bleed into the CTE reauthorization.
Meanwhile, some in the business community want Congress to ensure stronger connection between federally funded CTE programs and the demands of the local economy.
“The [CTE] programs that are being offered are not connected to where the jobs are. That’s a ticket to disaster,” said Stanley Litow, the vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs for IBM.
In renewing the CTE law, Congress needs to consider “specific accountability measures about business involvement in core elements of the program,” including internships and curriculum, he said.
“We must have meaningful business alignment, we must align curriculum in high schools to postsecondary education, and funds should be linked directly to those elements,” said Mr. Litow, who is a former deputy chancellor of the New York City public schools.
To help strengthen the connections between schools, postsecondary education, and the workforce, the Obama administration wants to change the way the CTE grants are structured.
Right now, districts and postsecondary institutions get separate funding. The administration instead would finance consortia of districts, postsecondary institutions, and their partners. Partners could include employers, labor organizations, and industry associations, among others. That idea could gain traction on Capitol Hill, advocates say.
But Ms. Hyslop of the Association for Career and Technical Education is worried about the potential impact of that proposal.
“The consortia model creates all kinds of administrative problems,” she said. Programs preparing students for different types of careers could wind up being lumped together.
To help improve program quality, Ms. Hyslop’s organization supports creating an “innovation” funding stream within the Perkins law to test new program models. The fund would be modeled on the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation grant program, and would be paid for through new money, not from existing funds. In its blueprint, the administration proposed setting aside 10 percent of federal CTE funds to spur innovation at the local level.
The House education committee is hoping to release a bill reauthorizing the CTE law in the coming months, advocates say. And the reauthorization is also a top priority for Sen. Harkin.
But Ms. Hyslop, for one, is not discounting the role that congressional dysfunction could play in slowing down the process.
“We’ve seen ESEA and other pieces of legislation get stalled because of the political climate,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Career-Technical Education Rises on Congressional Agenda