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|This commentary represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Center for Education Statistics.|
Never have high-quality data been more important to developing sound policies. A new era of accountability has been ushered in that may well affect how education programs are conceived, funded, implemented, and refined or eliminated. In states and districts, for example, academic assessments, rates of postsecondary transitions, and the availability of Advanced Placement courses are increasingly becoming important indicators of program and school success, with rewards, targeted technical assistance, or even reconstitution as possible consequences. Federal agencies are also subject to performance accountability, under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), enacted in 1993. Federal programs must collect data and report to Congress annually on progress toward and achievement of clearly defined goals and objectives. In theory, programs that fail to make sufficient progress could lose their authorization or appropriations.
Vocational education, in particular, is now being held to a new standard of accountability for results. Recent federal legislation supporting vocational education—the 1998 reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (Perkins III)—eliminated the previous law’s set-aside funding streams for special populations in favor of greater flexibility to state and local programs. In return, however, Congress raised the requirements for state reporting of student outcome data and the potential rewards and penalties for states that can and cannot do so.
While only time will tell whether efforts to judge programs by their performance will lead to improvements in educational quality, there is little question that information collections like the Career/Technical Education Statistics (CTES) system could play an increasingly critical role. It is therefore important that the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) carefully plan out how it can meet both research and policy needs regarding vocational education in the future.
Current Policy Issues in Vocational Education
Vocational education is a field in transition, prompted by sweeping changes in state and local education priorities. School reform and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) loom as forces shaping vocational education. New goals, program offerings, and terminology increasingly characterize the field. Federal legislation has encouraged several major changes at the secondary level—from a historic emphasis on entry-level job preparation in semiskilled occupations to a broader focus on preparation for careers that offer high wages and require higher level skills; from preparing students to enter the workforce directly after high school to providing students with the choice of pursuing employment or attending college (or as is increasingly the case, doing both simultaneously); and from expecting vocational students to do less well in school than other students to holding such students to the same academic standards as others.
Several key issues frame what policymakers and practitioners need to know about vocational education.
Who participates in vocational education? How do these experiences contribute to improved academic and occupational skills, postsecondary educational attainment, and earnings?
Perhaps the most important concern for vocational education is who participates at the secondary level and how well they fare in school and beyond. Evidence from the early 1990s suggested that enrollments in vocational education were declining, vocational programs had come to be stigmatized as a "track" for less successful students, and participation appeared to contribute little "valued added" to outcomes for most students (Boesel and McFarland 1994). Over the last 5 years, however, there have been efforts to target new initiatives to students other than those traditionally served and to strengthen vocational courses and programs (Hershey et al. 1998). Whether any of these efforts have successfully broadened the appeal and improved the impact of career programs needs careful examination.
In contrast to vocational education at the secondary level, occupational program enrollments at the postsecondary level appear to be growing. However, available evidence clearly establishes a shift toward enrollment of older students with diverse education and training objectives (Levesque et al. 2000). These enrollment trends, and their impact on the value of an associate’s degree or certificate, may signal a changing role for occupational education at the postsecondary level.
To what extent are the improvement strategies promoted in federal legislation reflected in school practice and proven effective in raising student outcomes?
For nearly a decade, federal policy has attempted to improve the quality of secondary vocational programs by strengthening the connection between vocational education and mainstream educational objectives at the high school level. These vocational improvements are intended to keep pace with and complement other reform efforts in high schools. Several strategies have been emphasized: integrating academic and vocational education, linking secondary and postsecondary vocational programs, and broadening vocational curriculum beyond its traditional emphasis on entry-level job preparation. Some of these strategies are embedded in particular, recognized programs such as tech-prep, career academies, and High Schools That Work. Now that these reforms have been promoted for some time, it is important to examine whether they have found their way into school offerings and teaching approaches, and if there is evidence on how well these programs and practices work.
What is the impact of school reform efforts on voca-tional education at the secondary level and the WIA at the postsecondary level? How well aligned are these various initiatives?
States and local districts have been raising the academic coursework and skills required for graduation, making high academic achievement the paramount marker of a school’s success. While other measures of school performance are also important (e.g., placement into higher education or career-oriented employment, reductions in dropout rates, technical competency), efforts to increase academic attainment are likely to continue as a focus for school improvement. A major policy issue facing vocational education, then, is how it can support this central mission for high schools.
A key concern at the postsecondary level is coordinating occupational programs with the workforce development system. When Congress enacted Perkins III and the WIA, it was believed that a plethora of job training programs created excessive administrative burden upon states and discouraged access to services. Policymakers are interested in whether the relationship between Perkins and the WIA has streamlined, or whether it is likely to streamline, the system.
Is the policy shift from set-asides and legislative prescription to flexibility and accountability likely to improve vocational program quality and student outcomes? How do special populations fare?
For the past 2 decades, federal policy has focused on serving those most at risk, commonly termed "special populations." Perkins III represents a major shift in direction, eliminating special funding streams and other requirements and replacing them with a mandate that states report on the progress of special population groups. Key concerns include whether (1) increased flexibility has resulted in changes in education priorities or practices, (2) at-risk populations have been helped or hurt as a result, and (3) accountability requirements are improving the quality of vocational education for all students.
CTES’s Contributions to Policy Analysis
In what ways does CTES help inform policies and programs? Not all of the information needed for policymakers and practitioners is well suited to the types of data collection and analysis that NCES does best. CTES’s strength as a policy resource lies mainly in two areas.
First, CTES provides critical information on national trends in enrollment and coursetaking. A series of recent NCES reports has shown declining participation in vocational education, at least in part a response to increased enrollment in academic courses. This has triggered important policy discussion around the future role of vocational education in the era of academic education reforms. These reports have also highlighted the problem of less rigorous academic coursetaking among vocational students, which contributed to policymakers’ decision to include a measure of academic attainment in the Perkins accountability provisions.
Second, CTES draws upon longitudinal data collections that allow rigorous analysis of impacts. NCES surveys such as High School and Beyond (HS&B), the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS:1988), and the future Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) offer the most representative and comprehensive databases on high school experiences and their outcomes. No other large-scale data collections, for instance, include academic assessments in the 12th grade, which enable researchers to test whether vocational education contributes to academic achievement—a key policy question. Because these surveys track students into college (including postsecondary occupational programs) and the labor market, we can evaluate the value added of vocational education to postsecondary transitions and, eventually, to earnings. In a time when federally and state-funded programs are increasingly required to prove their effectiveness, these data and analyses are crucial. At the federal level, they will serve as an important check on the validity of Perkins accountability reporting by the states.
Enhancing CTES’s Capacity
As CTES continues to evolve, however, its contribution to research and policy analysis could be enhanced in several ways. Most importantly, it must keep up with the ways in which vocational education is changing, as noted also by Lisa Hudson in the featured article for this issue of the Quarterly. CTES need not resolve policymakers’ lack of consensus over vocational education’s objectives or preferred delivery approaches, but it should adjust its data collection to allow measurement of the array of alternatives.
For example, participation is no longer defined solely by a predetermined number of related occupational courses, but also by the manner in which these courses are linked to academics through strategies such as tech-prep or career academies. Since the nature of these linkages is often impossible to identify through transcript studies, NCES is going to have to find careful ways to ask about programs and practices that are now firmly embedded in the lexicon of vocational education reform. Are these strategies prevalent? Which kinds of schools offer these programs and which students are exposed to them? Are the strategies effective and worth promoting? It is reasonable to dedicate some effort to collecting the basic information that will allow researchers to address these questions, given that 16 percent of high school credits, on average, are earned in vocational education.
NCES may also want to consider broadening the populations included in particular surveys to address a wider range of vocational and general education policy issues. For example, ELS:2002, the major new high school study that NCES is about to undertake, begins with a representative sample of students chosen in the spring of their 10th-grade year. Yet many of the fundamental policy questions—for example, what kinds of instructional approaches or programs (including vocational education) help lay the foundation for success—require data on students’ skills and experiences early in high school. At the postsecondary level, the data sources on which CTES relies most—the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) and the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS)—fail to adequately capture a rapidly expanding segment of the college market: individuals who take occupational courses with the intention of pursuing industry certification, but not necessarily a formal college credential (e.g., in information technology fields). Those surveys also ignore the alternative delivery systems in many states that account for a large share of postsecondary occupational enrollments.
The CTES has established itself as an important source of policy information on vocational education. However, its future direction will need to accommodate changes in the field if CTES is to stay useful and relevant. This will mean, above all, urging NCES to include in its surveys questions about programs and practices that lie at the heart of vocational education reforms. These surveys should have samples of schools, students, and teachers that are large enough to allow conclusions to be drawn about the impacts of those reforms.
Boesel, D., and McFarland, L. (1994). National Assessment of Vocational Education, Final Report to Congress (vol. 1). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Hershey, A., Silverberg, M., Haimson, J., Hudis, P., and Jackson, R. (1998). Expanding Options for Students: Report to Congress on the National Evaluation of School-to-Work Implementation. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.
Levesque, K., Lauen, D., Teitelbaum, P., Alt, M., and Librera, S. (2000). Vocational Education in the United States: Toward the Year 2000 (NCES 2000–029). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.