CTE bill for career readiness could get lost between state flexibility and proven results

Shaun Dougherty and Michael Gottfried

The discourse around college and career readiness has focused primarily on implementation of the Common Core. Notably absent is much consideration of how those programs might serve the needs of students with less direction or discernment about what career paths may be most productive or in demand. But with the Perkins block grants (with its focus on career and technical education or “CTE”) being among the few programs with hope of being reauthorized by the feds, it’s time to starting paying attention to CTE and the students it could serve. In fact, reauthorization could prove to be critical, as approximately 20 percent of both students with disabilities and students receiving free and reduced-price lunches enroll in three or more CTE courses in high school.

The bill put forth by Senators Portman of Ohio and Kaine and Warner from Virginia seeks to increase the flexibility states have in using funds allocated through block grants to improve CTE programs. This increased autonomy can certainly be a good thing: it allows states to use funds to establish career academies and allows them to expand traditional CTE models to fit specific needs, rather than having to rely on a federally mandated set of guidelines.

While state flexibility is important, so is implementation based on evidence of what works. States will benefit from being able to expand their pool of potential CTE-related investments, but fidelity of implementation remains a key factor. A randomized experiment, for example, has shown that implementation of career academies can be effective in raising medium-term wages for students and that much of this effect is related to having work experience via career academies. But if states only establish career academy “light,” failing to follow the implementation plans of the proven model of success, these programs are no more likely to improve educational or workforce outcomes than any other badly deployed reform.

Providing states with flexibility (to align incentives to improve coordination between schools and employer or between secondary and postsecondary educational institutions) is a good idea on its face but may be an instance where opening up too many options could dilute the quality of the programs that get implemented.

What is the primary goal of these expanded options under Perkins? Do we want all states to optimize according to their own conditions? Or do we want to induce states to allocate funds to proven models of career academies, to dual-enrollment programs, or to improve coordination between educational programs and local employers? If the latter, policymakers would be wise to consider that states will do three—but perhaps badly.

To continue forward with successful reauthorization of Perkins, we need to understand the role and expectation of the federal government and of the states. Doing so will help to maximize successful implementation of CTE programs and partnerships and help to build successful pathways for students who may otherwise be poorly served by traditional pathways.

Shaun Dougherty is an assistant professor at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Michael Gottfried is an assistant professor at the Gervitz School of Education at UC Santa Barbara. Both are members of the 2013–14 Emerging Education Policy Scholars (EEPS) program.