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 State Context for Efforts to Improve Vocational Education

Perkins III is implemented in the context of existing state and local education systems. This study examined three aspects of state context that can shape efforts to reform vocational education: education philosophy or vision, the structure and delivery system for vocational education, and the current and ongoing state education reforms, including those that affect vocational education.

States and localities embraced the broader vision of vocational education but faced significant challenges to achieving this vision.

Since the 1990s, the Perkins legislation advanced a broader and more flexible vision of vocational education that expanded the content to include academic and industry standards to a level that would prepare students for postsecondary education or for high-skill, high-wage careers. It also expanded the audience for vocational education to include students who might otherwise only follow a general or college-prep program of study. The study found that while many states and localities have adopted the spirit of this philosophy—and some have enacted specific policies to advance it—many barriers to reaching this vision were evident.

Reported barriers include a negative perception of vocational education as the alternative for students who will not succeed in a more academically rigorous program; a perception by parents that it will not lead to college; a perception by employers that it will not lead to technically oriented jobs; the status of vocational education as an elective course of study in all states; and the continued separation of academic and vocational programs in high schools, where concerns over academic achievement take priority.

The structure of state education systems varied. More centralized systems were more likely to be implementing significant reforms directed at vocational education.

Unsurprisingly, states have different structures for the delivery of general and vocational education that might greatly influence their implementation strategies. In this study, we characterized states' governance structures using two simple dimensions: the number and authority of agencies involved in decisionmaking and delivery of educational services and the extent to which decisionmaking and policy is decentralized. The relative uniformity or fragmentation of policy implementation can vary with a state's structural makeup.

State structures that are characterized by having fewer agencies to authorize and deliver services and a more centralized or uniform decision-making system tended to mandate policy changes that resulted in more coherent and uniform vocational programs. Clients tended to understand the system and to move easily within it.

State structures with decentralized authority and overlapping delivery systems promoted vocational improvement through voluntary means. The result was often more variety in program offerings but less coherence.

States emphasized reforms directed toward academic standards, assessment and accountability. Similar attention to vocational education was rare.

The study examined academic and vocational reforms in three general areas: standards, increased graduation requirements and assessment. It also paid particular attention to specific state reforms directed at vocational education.

All states had academic standards for general education. These were mandatory in five states. Only three states had mandatory vocational content standards.

Four states had increased high school graduation requirements, but these requirements primarily concerned academic subjects.

All but one of the states had adopted an accountability system with high-stakes academic tests that students must pass to graduate, although not all were in effect at the time of the study. Vocational assessments were in use in three states, but these were independent of the states' accountability systems.

By and large, local respondents' reactions to academic testing regimes were somewhat negative, even in states where testing was voluntary. Respondents acknowledged that the tests had helped raise academic standards in vocational and technical programs but often at the cost of vocational learning.

State and Local Efforts to Improve the Quality of Vocational Education

Perkins III provided guidance to states to improve the quality of vocational education by outlining several program improvements—as listed above—to enhance vocational educational quality, requiring states to address these elements in their state plans, and permitting use of Perkins funds to develop them.

Overall, the study found that states, districts and schools have made progress in implementing improvements defined by Perkins III but differ in the consistency and depth of their efforts. Because state and local policies might encourage similar improvements, it is difficult to gauge the precise influence of Perkins III.

States made progress in implementing some structural changes to support vocational and academic integration, but these did not always influence local practice. Local sites had few examples of high-quality integrated curriculum.

States and local districts and schools have made some improvements in implementing some of the structural features that support integration—for example, in adopting coherent sequences of courses in vertically aligned pathways or clusters. In some cases these changes represented true reform at the local level, while in others they are labels that have been adopted without much alteration to the status quo.

Many state-level activities to support integration, such as curriculum development, professional development or adoption of whole-school reform models—for example, High Schools that Work—had not significantly or consistently influenced local practice in the sample of sites visited.

The case studies provide little evidence of widespread adoption of integrated curriculum, although each local site could point to one or two programs that appeared to contain elements indicative of integration. Survey data indicated that vocational teachers' classes incorporated more elements associated with integration than academic teachers' classes.

Vocational and academic teachers had few supports to accomplish integration. Few teachers engaged in team teaching or had common planning time to meet with other teachers—activities associated with more successful implementation of an integrated curriculum.

The emphasis on academic reforms had helped raise academic standards in vocational education—a core performance indicator in Perkins III—but often at the expense of vocational content.

State academic standards and assessments reportedly had widespread influence over vocational courses and programs at the local level. In particular, teachers reported reduced vocational enrollments stemming from pressure to meet higher academic standards and increased course requirements; reduced time on vocational tasks arising from increased time on academic requirements and test preparation; and possible reduced quality of instruction, given the emphasis of some tests on simplistic understanding and answers.

The case studies revealed several examples of state and local efforts to enhance the academic content of vocational courses so that these can receive academic credit. A fairly high proportion of vocational teachers—41 percent—reported on the survey that at least one of their vocational classes received academic credit.

All states and most local sites reported using national or industry certification programs or state licensure requirements as they develop vocational courses and programs, but these were not available in all areas. More than half of the local sites had courses that earned industry certification.

Survey data indicated that academic teachers were more likely to report that state and district standards were relevant to their classes, while vocational teachers were more cognizant of industry standards. Most teachers reported that standards influenced their teaching.

On a survey-derived measure of overall quality of academic and vocational teachers' classes, academic teachers had the edge over vocational teachers.

Perkins III did not appear to stimulate "All Aspects of the Industry" or parental involvement to any great extent.

Perkins III had stimulated employer involvement. Vocational teachers had more involvement with employers than academic teachers did.

All states, districts and schools were adopting strategies to involve employers in vocational programs in various ways, although some local sites were clearly more successful than others.

Survey findings indicated that vocational teachers were significantly more likely to have contact with employers than were academic teachers, even those who taught career-oriented classes.

States promoted connections to postsecondary institutions in many ways, and some were apparent in the schools. Vocational teachers had more connections with postsecondary institutions than academic teachers did.

State mechanisms to promote connections between secondary and postsecondary institutions included statewide articulation or dual-enrollment agreements, computer-based counseling programs available to all schools, adoption of reform models that emphasize such connections, policies to support career planning, or scholarships. Of these, articulation agreements, career-planning policies and scholarships appeared to have most influence locally.

Career planning was fairly common in the case-study states and localities, but according to survey reports, infrequent nationwide.

Vocational teachers reportedly had more varied and frequent connections to postsecondary faculty and institutions than academic teachers did.

Perkins was important for funding technology-related improvements at the local level. Vocational teachers had more technology support and resources than academic teachers.

Several states and schools promoted technology skill development or computer literacy for all students, including vocational students.

About half of the local sites featured more high-tech programs to reflect new demands in the workplace, although few of these were cutting-edge. Instructional activities involving distance learning were rare.

Academic teachers were more likely than vocational teachers to report problems with technology availability and quality and reported being less prepared to teach technology-related skills.

All states supported professional development for teachers but had not provided the same level of support for counselors or administrators.

All states in the study promoted teacher professional development, but local support varied considerably.

Survey data indicated that academic teachers received more professional development on topics related to assessment, while vocational teachers received more on integration-related or vocational themes. About three-fourths of all teachers surveyed received professional development on academic standards, subject-matter content and technology.

Some states had lateral entry policies to promote vocational teacher certification. Most states and some local sites were also concerned about vocational teacher shortages, but few had data to support their concerns.

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Last Modified: 09/23/2004