An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos on Creating A World-Class Career and Technical Education System

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Cross-posted at Education Week.

You are clearly intrigued with the vocational education and training systems in Switzerland, the Netherlands and England and would like our country to look at them as models for what we here in the United States might do to strengthen our woefully weak career and technical education system. We here at NCEE are big fans of learning from top-performing countries, so it will not surprise you to discover that we applaud you for your interest in what these countries are doing.

Your interest in these issues is timely, in view of the fact that the Congress is in the midst of reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act that has long provided federal funding for CTE to the schools.  It is thus a good time to ask ourselves what we can learn from the top-performing countries in this arena that might influence the way we make policy.  We have been studying vocational education in these countries for years and wish to make the following observations.

Work-based learning    All of the world’s best career and technical education systems are built on a foundation of work-based learning, that is, learning-by-doing in an environment that either is an actual workplace or looks for all the world like an actual workplace. This means two to four days a week of learning-by-doing, complemented by one to three days of time in classes learning the theory behind the work.  Learning-by-doing is not an “internship” in which the students run the copier or get coffee for the work team or perform some dreary routine task that no one else wants to do.  When it works, it means getting an opportunity to gain a specific set of skills needed to reach a specific standard of mastery required to do an entry level technical job to an industry standard. Every country, without exception, that has developed a system of work-based learning offered by employers has a tradition of offering such apprenticeships going back to medieval guilds.  The alternative to having employers provide work-based learning is for the schools to build within their walls what amount to replicas of workplaces inside the education institutions, often selling their products and services at market rates.  Singapore has the best known such system.  It is very, very expensive to do this if your aim is to train your students on state-of-the-art equipment, using state-of-the-art work organization, employing highly qualified industry technicians as teachers.  Singapore has been willing to do this because it sees having a world-class mid-level technical workforce as vital to its economic development goals.  If the federal government really wants to have a first-class career and technical education system, it is going to have to figure out how to develop a robust system of work-based learning either in our schools or in our workplaces.  I see no signs yet that the federal government is prepared to do this at the scale that would be required.

The perception of CTE as the education of last resort    The reality in the United States is that high school career and technical education is widely viewed by students, parents and teachers as where a student goes if that student is struggling academically. So, it is not surprising that CTE programs enroll fewer than 20 percent of our students.  That is not what we see in the top-performing countries.  The Swiss CTE programs enroll around 70 percent of the cohort.  Some of Switzerland’s most able students choose CTE rather than the university route. Some 65 percent of Singapore’s students are in their CTE system, and those students perform, on average, above the average for all 15-year-old students in the United States on PISA’s survey of reading and mathematics skills.  What was once a destination of last resort for Singapore students is no longer.

The U.S. cannot build a first-class career and technical education system on the assumption that it will be the home of students who are no good at academics.  We will fail.  You have to first figure out how to get all of our students to a world-class standard of basic literacy and then build out a modern CTE system from that plateau.  If you accomplish that, CTE will no longer be perceived as the place where only struggling students go and you will see a steady increase in CTE enrollment.  The federal government needs to think about how it can encourage the states to put a high floor of academic accomplishment under the students who elect career and technical education pathways.

Distinguishing career exploration from career development and training    The most often-used measure of participation in CTE in the United States is the completion of a sequence of three CTE courses over a student’s four years of education.   The second most frequent measure is the attainment of an “industry-recognized certificate.”  In most of the rest of the world, these measures, as defined in the U.S., are regarded as jokes.  The point of vocational education and training in these countries is to enable the student to get a “qualification.”  In the high school pathways to university, a qualification entitles the holder of the qualification to apply for university admission.  In the vocational pathways, it signals that the holder of the qualifications has been judged by industry representatives to have attained mastery of a set of very specific skills and has the detailed knowledge needed to begin a career at the journeyman level.  That is how the systems in Switzerland, the Netherlands and England work.  There are no qualifications in those countries that can be earned in three courses or even, as in many of our community college certificate programs, in a few months.  It usually takes years of study in a combination of coursework taken in classrooms and highly structured on-the-job training provided by the employers (or in Singapore’s case in their Institute of Technical Education) to a standard set by the industry and approved by the government.

Saying that our CTE students are working to an industry-approved standard sounds nice, but it often means less than you would guess.  More often than not, it means a standard for a part of a job, not a whole job.  The student might be in a law-enforcement program, but, on examination, that student is not in a program that will qualify the student to be a law enforcement officer.  The only certificate the student will get is a CPR certificate.  Yes, law enforcement officers are expected to get CPR certificates, but far more than that is needed to become a law enforcement officer.  Sometimes meeting an industry-approved standard means meeting a standard set for programs intended to introduce students to a whole cluster of occupations so they can explore them in an organized way.  That is certainly a good thing to do, but that certificate is worthless in the marketplace.  It will not get a student a better job right out of school than the student would get without the certificate.  Career exploration may be a precursor to career development, but it should never be mistaken for serious career development.

The real test of the credentials students get in both high school and community college programs is whether the credential has economic value to the student – whether the student who has the credential can get a better job than the student who does not have it.  By that standard, most high school and community college students are not really enrolled in CTE programs at all, at least as those terms are understood in the rest of the world.

Far too many of our high school CTE programs are not even intended to provide marketable skills to their students.  They are there to keep students who might otherwise drop out in school by engaging them in something that catches their attention.  We need those programs—at least until we do what much of the rest of the industrialized world does and bring them up to a much higher academic standard before they get to high school—but we should not call it career and technical education.  It is a dropout prevention program.  We should reserve the term career and technical education for pathways that result in credentials with real economic value.  That should be a key principle of our federal programs in this arena.

A system of standards-based career progressions     One of the key features of CTE systems that are working well is well-developed career progressions that fit the economy, meet the needs of employers and tell students, workers and training providers what a student has to do to progress up a ladder of increasing expertise and responsibility in a particular career line.  Not everyone will want to go from the bottom to the top of such ladders.  Some will be content to go only so far.  Others will want to switch careers.  And others will want to go all the way to the top.  What these career progressions do is lay out the possibilities and specify key points along the way where credentials are available to those who seek them.  If these career progressions and credentials are developed by employers and their labor partners, those same employers are very likely to pay more to people who have those credentials than to those who don’t. If they are doing that, the credentials will be sought by students and adult workers.  If the students and adult workers are seeking those credentials, they will want training from education and training institutions that have programs designed to enable students to earn those credentials.  Institutions that don’t build their programs around the credentials will have no customers.  So, creating a system in which employers and their labor partners develop standards-based career progressions that drive the entire CTE system ought to be a high priority of the federal government.

Building unified education and training systems matched to the skill progressions      The European countries whose vocational education and training systems you are looking at, Madam Secretary, have organized the education part of their CTE systems very differently from ours.

In the Danish system, for example, students leave the 10th grade and, if they elect the CTE system, go either to a commercial college or a technical college.  They are in that college from the age of 16 until they get their journeyman’s license in the occupation they are training for.  It could take two years for a mason but five years for an aircraft tower controller.  After that, they either go to work or go on to a polytechnic or university.  In American terms, these “colleges” incorporate both the last two years of high school and all of community college and the curriculum the students get goes forward in one smooth progression.  The occupational standards in the Danish system are set by employers and labor under the supervision of the government, but the local employers and labor can work through the college to get waivers to those standards to cope with changes in technology and work organization demanded by the market.  By law, the boards of these colleges are chaired by the local mayor and made up of local business and labor leaders.  So, these institutions can provide education and training that meets national standards and local needs in a very responsive way and provide a tightly organized and sequenced curriculum that is finely tuned to the needs of the Danish economy.

Despite Congress’ efforts thus far, our high school CTE programs and our community college vocational certificate programs are very poorly coordinated.  They are almost never organized in one smooth progression.  Many community college certificate programs could and should be routinely offered in our high schools and the community colleges should be offering more advanced programs in the same fields that require the less advanced certificate programs as prerequisites.  Dual enrollment options are no substitute for rationally developed career progressions designed to start in the junior year of high school and continue step-by-step in community college to an advanced level of mastery.  The reality is that most community college vocational certificate programs are offered at the high school level in the top-performing countries and the programs offered in the third, fourth and fifth years of their technical colleges are not offered in most of our community colleges at all.  But they will have to be, if our workforce is going to be competitive in the years ahead.  For Congress to get a handle on this, it will have to consider whether there might be some way to merge the Perkins legislation with the higher education legislation, or, if that is not possible, write both pieces of legislation to build one continuous system of career and technical education.

Employers, workforce development and economic development at the center, not the periphery     System governance is a big issue in this domain.  The Swiss system works because employers and labor own it, period.  They set the standards for the credentials, define the progressions, set the standards that must be met by employers wishing to offer apprenticeships slots and set the standards that must be met by classroom instructors and workplace-based instructors, too.  They even examine the candidates seeking credentials.  In Singapore, CTE is viewed as a key component of economic development policy and workforce development policy and has the close attention of the very top of government.  In the United States, CTE policy is largely driven by educators.  They often seek the advice of employers, unions offering apprenticeship programs and government workforce officials, but those people rarely feel that they are owners of the system.  It will be impossible to build out a system of the kind I have described unless that changes.  The Congress could change that.

Just a few things for you to think about, Madam Secretary, as you consider how to put what you are learning to work.

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