Executive Summary: Efforts to Improve the Quality of Vocational Education in Secondary Schools: Impact of Federal and State Policies (2004)
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The National Assessment of Vocational Education—a congressionally-mandated study—is charged with evaluating the impact of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, known as Perkins III, and preparing a report to Congress by July 2002. As part of that effort, the National Assessment of Vocational Education commissioned RAND to conduct a study to assess the quality of vocational education in the United States. The purpose of the study is twofold. It will provide evidence on the extent to which actual practice is consistent with legislative and other views of what constitutes "quality" practice in secondary vocational education. It also will provide evidence regarding how policies made at different levels of the education system enhance or impede implementation of quality practice. RAND's findings as described in this report provide some of the information NAVE needs to evaluate the impact of the Perkins Act and prepare its report to Congress. They also yield lessons for the larger vocational education community by identifying strategies that can be adopted by schools, communities and states to improve the quality of vocational education programs.

Vocational and technical education is defined in Public Law 105-332 as organized educational activities that individuals need to prepare for further education and for careers requiring less than a baccalaureate degree. The educational activities are to offer a sequence of courses that provide individuals the necessary academic and technical knowledge and skills and to include competency-based applied learning. Federal funding for vocational education commenced with the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, and since that time federal legislation has sought to shape vocational education in specific ways. Vocational education, like all education in the United States, has traditionally been the domain of states and local communities. The federal government plays an important role in education through its leadership and funding, but the vocational education "system" has no national standards or curriculum.

Over time, federal legislation has attempted to expand influence over state vocational education programs. Perkins III offered specific guidance on the kinds of improvements that a program should incorporate to enhance its quality. These improvements included

· integrating academics into vocational and technical studies; · adopting challenging academic, vocational and technical standards; · promoting understanding of "all aspects" of an industry; · encouraging parent and employer involvement; · building linkages to postsecondary education; · expanding use of technology; and · providing for professional development of teachers, counselors and administrators.

Importantly, Perkins III incorporated stronger accountability measures than previous legislation did. States now must develop and track four core performance indicators and meet specific performance targets. Federal funds can be withheld from states that fail to meet their targets.

Perkins III was signed into law on Oct. 31, 1998 and took effect in program year 2000, from July 1, 1999 through Sept. 30, 2000. Thus, it was in effect for less than one year when this study began. States in this study opted to use the last state plan submitted under Perkins II as a transition plan with only minimal changes. New state plans were submitted during the course of the study, but most were not implemented until the second program year, July 1, 2000-Sept. 30, 2001, after Perkins III was enacted.

The study noted three limitations at the outset: little time has passed to allow for full implementation of Perkins III or for its accountability measures to take effect; the reform emphasis in secondary schools is on higher academic standards and performance; and the federal resources are relatively small compared with state funding. Thus, the incentives to implement Perkins-related reforms are weak relative to reforms associated with other state or local policies.

Within this context, the study aimed to understand the extent to which the quality improvements identified in Perkins were being implemented and whether the new provisions in Perkins III were encouraging stronger implementation of the federal vision for vocational education.

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Last Modified: 09/23/2004