KEEPING THINGS IN CHECK.
Career and technical education is one of the most evolving sectors of the American education system today. As we move into this new millennium, the United States is facing a labor shortage, soon to be a severe labor shortage if few measures are taken, which places an even greater emphasis on the practical, career-oriented education our children are receiving from elementary school on through postsecondary schools. The days of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic are about as outdated as typewriters, which is why new emphasis, on both the federal and state level, is being placed on the career and technical programs currently being offered.
With the passage of the new Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Amendments of 1998 (Perkins), vocational education is being placed under an even stronger microscope to bring uniformity to assessment and accountability procedures and to better report to Congress just exactly where and how Perkins funding is being used. While this has placed more pressure on state and federal agencies, it has proven, in many cases, to be a big boon to career and technical education.
According to Kim Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium, only about five to seven percent of the national education budget comes from the federal government with only about $1 billion earmarked for vocational education. The rest of the funding for vocational education, about $12 billion, comes from the states. Since the overwhelming majority of the funding is generated by the states, the result has been a lack of national data on vocational education. In fact, every state even has a different definition of who a vocational education student is.
The 1998 Perkins legislation is the first piece of legislation to have accountability language in it. This new legislation aims to bring all of the states together using a uniform accountability and assessment system, in the hopes of making each and every state compatible with each other and the federal government. This will no doubt prove invaluable, as states will be able to share data and strategies since they will all be on the same playing field.
The Office of Vocational and Adult Education, to assist states in making a transition to the new Perkins, collaborated with states, the Department of Labor and stakeholder organizations to create an accountability framework. The framework "identifies the purposes and construction of each core measure, arrays possible measurement approaches for collecting data, and presents quality criteria and scoring rubrics to assist states in improving the quality of their proposed accountability systems." Simply put, this framework helps states comply with the new legislation in the ultimate goal of achieving across-the-board consistent data for vocational education in the United States.
While all of this is being worked on at the federal level, many states are taking their own, often creative, approaches to improving career and technical education within their state borders while still focusing on the mandates of Perkins. They are creating their own internal accountability measures and taking a hard look at themselves in an attempt to raise their state's vocational education programs to a new level. Call it a sort of friendly competition among the states, but the result has been a heightened awareness of vocational education and even more validity to this type of teaching.
The state of Virginia has created what they call the Linkage System by which core academic teachers have crosswalked the content standards they are teaching with those being taught by career and technical education instructors, and vice versa. The state of Virginia has created the Linkage System in partnership with V-TECs and SkillsNet to "provide a significant base of materials for contextual instruction." Neils Brooks of the Virginia Department of Education notes that this helps teachers collaborate their lesson plans, bringing real-life meaning to textbook concepts and applying textbook concepts to real life.
The system will be a Web portal that all Virginia teachers will soon have access to. The system uses taxonomy based on the Snyder Codes. Academic teachers select the appropriate taxonomy code to connect Career and Technical Course Competencies with the Virginia Standards of Learning and career and technical teachers select the appropriate taxonomy code to link the Virginia Standards of Learning with Career and Technical Course Competencies. This provides the instructors with a crosswalk of occupational-related skills and state academic content standards.
For example, a math teacher may wish to crosswalk his/her lesson plan with a technical course in electricity and cabling. The Linkages System would illustrate that these two courses are connected by the ability to interpret charts, tables and graphs. Likewise, a science lesson plan crosswalked with a dental careers course would share the common bond of learning about soluble and insoluble solutions or biochemistry fermentation.
This system will work with the state's accountability system in that it raises the level of learning for all career and technical education students. It provides extra assurance to employers that career and technical education students are receiving required academic content. It also provides teachers with a "context" for academic instruction for almost every student, not just career and technical education students.
Virginia has also taken their career and technical education to a new level by offering career and technical education classes as an option to fulfill a diploma requirement. As of September 1, 2000, students will be able to earn a certification in one of many different industries to serve as their verified credit of choice toward graduation as an option to another academic credit. This unique approach to including career and technical education into academic secondary education is in addition to the state's two new diploma seals being offered to high school students completing either a career and technical education sequence or an advanced mathematics and technology sequence. The board of education has approved 80 industry-based certifications for the career and technical seal and 28 for the advanced math and technology seal.
Virginia has been quite aggressive in its approach toward industry certifications. As of the end of August, 2000, 136 grant awards have been given to local school divisions or regional vocational education centers, more than $220,000 in funding has been awarded, 637 state career and technical education teachers are working on industry-based certification, and more than 42,000 students are enrolled in programs geared toward industry-based certifications.
In North Carolina, vocational education can be found in all of the comprehensive high schools as well as the state's 11 vo-tech schools, or career centers as they are commonly referred to. The state's accountability and assessment system is a three-part system. First, the state created VOCATS, Vocational Competency Achievement Tracking System, a tracking system to provide assessment items to teachers to administer to their students. Teachers receive CD-ROMs, and each course is now assessed at its completion. VOCATS measures technical attainment as mandated by the Perkins legislation and is reported on a school, district and state level.
June Atkinson of North Carolina's Department of Education says that over the last five years, the state has seen an increase in student achievement based on the VOCATS tracking of student scores. She notes that the VOCATS system has brought greater attention to students' scores and is being used as an indicator for where improvements can be made.
The second part of the state's assessment system is the North Carolina Community College Placement Tests, which are similar to other states' competency tests. These tests are used to determine placement when students apply to community colleges.
Finally, the state assesses itself based on positive placement of vocational education students after high school. North Carolina considers a positive placement as either enrollment in a postsecondary school, enlistment in the military, or employment. In 1999, the state had 94.8 percent positive placement for all of its career and technical education students and for the school year 2000-2001, the state hopes to maintain that same level.
Atkinson points out that an added bonus has resulted from North Carolina's strict assessment system. The state's community college system has agreed that if a student scores a certain level on their VOCATS and maintains at least a B average in a course, community colleges will allow that student to bypass a prerequisite course in that subject as a college student. Some colleges are even offering college credit for that high school course.
New York is another state that is taking a hard look at what needs to be done to assess their schools and students. Karl Wittman of New York State's Office of Workforce Preparation and Continuing Education, says that the state is working hard to perfect their assessment and accountability system. He feels that the state needs to track students through their entire school career as opposed to the current tracking of very general information. He adds that information should go beyond whether they passed their Regents exams, the state's high school graduation exams, but should also include how well they did in their career and technical education classes, whether they got a job, and if they were prepared through their programs to continue on to a postsecondary school or the military, for example.
While the state is currently working toward this goal as a compliance with Perkins, there are many hurdles that need to be tackled first. Among those, Wittman points out, is the privacy problem with using Social Security numbers. Each school would need to assign tracking numbers to students, and after graduation these numbers would have to be linked with the Department of Labor in order to obtain postgraduation information. This, he says, will enable states to compare with each other, but it is something that will not happen quickly.
In regard to New York State standards, the commissioner of education changed the state's approach about five years ago. Rather than providing a strict curriculum that career and technical programs must follow throughout the state, the commissioner established a set of standards that the programs must adhere to, so that each school could have the freedom to offer what they see fit to meet those standards. The career and technical standards as set forth by the commissioner are completely separate standards from those set forth for comprehensive high school programs.
In light of the separate vocational education standards, New York State is currently reviewing a proposal made to the Board of Regents to create a certification and a designation for career and technical education students. Wittman feels that if this proposal is passed, the certification and designation will serve to further prove that vocational education is viable and valuable to employers.
No matter the approach being taken to comply with Perkins, most everyone agrees that this new legislation will only stand to improve our nation's career and technical education programs. By upgrading assessment programs and making improvements based on program results, it will be nothing short of a winning situation for America's career and technical education students, courses and instructors. And, while it will take quite some time before a uniform standard of measure can be put into place across state lines, states and school systems are clearly taking an important initial step by taking a critical look at themselves first.
Jennifer L. Shure is a senior editor with Print Management, Inc. in Vienna, Virginia.