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Update On New Legislation (Perkins III)

by Phyllis Hudecki

The new, long awaited federal legislation--the Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical Education Act of 1998 (Perkins III)--has finally become a reality. Federal officials have been working long hours, holding the necessary discussions to develop the interpretations and procedures to provide states with guidance for developing plans under Perkins III. State administrators worked fast and furiously to respond to the requirements for submitting either a new plan, a plan unified with the Workforce Investment Act, or filing for a one year transition to provide more planning time by April 12th.

Outside the immediate circle of those busily involved in the state planning process, this flurry of activity may seem puzzling. A cursory reading of the new law will give the impression that it is a mere modification of the previous 1990 legislation. The new law, in fact, does continue to emphasize several basic reform strategies and themes found in Perkins II. These include the integration of academic and vocational education, strengthening secondary and postsecondary linkages, the broadening of vocational curriculum to reflect "all aspects of the industry,' including preparation beyond entry level jobs, tech prep, and a system of accountability based upon measures of performance.

A closer reading, however, shows clear differences between the accountability requirements in the previous law and the new one.[1] The difference primarily concerns consequences associated with outcomes. Outcomes are expressions of the impact of vocational education on students and the consequences. Under Perkins III, each state is required to establish a set of "indicators of performance" or performance measures prescribed in the law, then negotiate the standards of performance with the U.S. Secretary of Education. The performance indicators prescribed in the law are:

(1) student attainment of challenging state established academic, and vocational and technical skill proficiencies
(2) student attainment of a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent or a proficiency credential in conjunction with a secondary school diploma or a postsecondary degree or credential
(3) placement in, retention in, and completion of postsecondary education or advanced training, placement in military service, or placement or retention in employment
(4) student participation in and completion of vocational and technical education programs that lead to nontraditional training and employment.

The state must make continuous improvement in the performance of students. If the state eventually fails to meet its performance levels and does not establish a plan to improve, the consequence can be a loss of federal vocational education funding. If the state meets or exceeds performance outcomes in Perkins III, WIA and Adult Education, the state may be eligible for incentive grants. Tying incentives and consequences to the systems increases the stakes related to outcomes.

In recent decades, a gradual shift from "inputs" to "outcomes" has occurred and this law carries that transition even further. Perkins II did not require that incentives and consequences be included with performance measures and standards, although eventually some states began including incentives and consequences in their accountability systems. Perkins III has less to say than Perkins II about how to implement priorities and programs, but requires more accountability for achieving important results, including possible penalty for failure or rewards for success.

The methods used to attain student proficiency and continuously improve student achievement are the responsibility of the state and local levels. States will hold local schools and colleges responsible for performance results. Success will require some new thinking about strategies that improve student performance, and the deepening of work currently under way. It will also be dependent upon the state's establishment of measures and standards appropriate for determining progress and then ensuring implementation of the system at the local level.

Any new legislation brings with it a certain amount of "red tape." This is no less true for Perkins III. We must go well beyond the mechanics of filling in data cells, reporting and crunching numbers. The focus must be on implementation and strategies to improve quality. This is not to say that well thought out procedures for data collection and analysis is not important, but that is only the starting point. The difference in student outcomes will have to be made in the classroom, for improved student achievement results from good classroom practice. Vocational technical education will be measured on those results.

What can be done to improve student achievement?

First, rather than a crisis, Perkins III is an opportunity to show the value of vocational education. It is an opportunity for state and local leaders to work together in charting a course to build upon the strengths of vocational education and successful practice, while implementing changes for further program improvement.

Some work is already under way. For the past year, NCRVE has conducted a project designed to help states identify ways to improve student achievement in vocational education. Even though there are some complex issues to be resolved at the state level in the area of accountability system development, most states are already implementing standards driven education reform. Most states have state mandated educational reform policies in place. These reforms generally involve measurement of some aspects of student performance. The Center conducted a telephone survey of state directors in 1998 to learn more about the types of accountability systems in place for vocational education and their relationship to the state's accountability system for all of education. The results showed that the vocational education accountability system, in most states, was not connected to the accountability systems for the rest of K-12 education. Often, the state operated two separate accountability systems for vocational education and the rest of education. The new requirement for student attainment of "challenging state established academic, and vocational and technical skill proficiencies" creates an opportunity to make some connection between academic and vocational education systems that might have been totally separate before. NCRVE will continue the state support project through 1999 by providing technical assistance for the development of the new accountability systems (see NCRVE's Support to States Project on the Web, page 4, of this CenterWork).

Second, a renewal of discussions about what makes good teaching through standards-driven curriculum and assessment and professional development in schools and colleges must occur. The most important component to accountability is its relationship to the classroom. Teachers need guidance, resources, and materials on standards-driven curriculum and assessment. We are a long way off from having statewide standards-driven assessment and the capacity to include traditional and alternative forms of assessment in the classroom. A strong commitment from both the state and local level to create and implement effective professional development opportunities is a must. The standards for vocational teachers created by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards address in very concrete terms what "highly accomplished" vocational teachers should know and do. The standards emphasize the importance of on-going assessment of student learning and thus, teacher effectiveness, with adjustments in instruction being made as necessary.

There is another good resource available from NCRVE, Designing Classrooms that Work, to help teachers think about their own classroom including industry applications for what should be taught. This document helps to strengthen the integration of academic and vocational education and provide teachers with specific methods to design integrated curriculum and project.

Third, it will be crucial to change attitudes and increase knowledge about data collection and its use. The role of state leadership in the new law is another important factor. The state agencies will not only be responsible for compliance, but will need to develop close ties to the local level implementers. An increased need for knowledge about how to help improve local performance exists, and methods for providing technical assistance to the local level will need to be developed. Some states have opted for a plan that unifies Perkins vocational education funding with programs funded under the Workforce
Investment Act; this requires an increased need for skills in developing interagency cooperation and
understanding program connections.

Data now collected is generally sent to the next level, local to state, state to federal, where it is warehoused. The new Perkins III requirement will mean not only more analysis of the data, but it should be used to improve local programs. The Center has a new product, At Your Fingertips: A Guide for Using Data for Program Improvement, developed by the NCRVE site at MPR, Associates, which is designed to help state and local education personnel learn about new ways data can be useful. (For more information, call MPR Associates at (800) 677-6987 or visit the MPR web site at main.htm

Fourth, the continued building of relationships with business, industry, and secondary/postsecondary partnerships is critical. The placement of students after leaving vocational education is one of the performance indicators prescribed in the Perkins III as well as the Workforce Investment Act. This one indicator touches on a number of different subject areas, e.g. work-based learning, the role of community partnerships in school-to-work programs, and tech prep programs. NCRVE had done extensive research in all of these areas. (See, for example, Work-Based Learning for Students in High Schools and Community Colleges, CenterPoint Number 1, December 1998, and The Role of Community Partnerships in School-to-Work Programs, CenterFocus Number 20, August 1998. )

Fifth, the requirement to measure success in serving members of special populations finally moves program evaluation away from categorization of people and toward programs and services to provide the support they need to succeed in vocational education. For example, gone is the requirement for gender equity personnel in the state office, along with a prescription for spending funds but added is a requirement for an accounting of student participation in and completion of vocational technical programs leading to nontraditional training and employment.


In a recent CenterPoint, Mikala Rahn and Patricia Holmes have written that the push for vocational education to collaborate with many state and local delivery systems does create a tension in purpose. In most states, vocational education is trapped between two often-conflicting ends of the spectrum: work force development and school reform. On the one hand, vocational educators have become advocates for broad career knowledge and skills needed to improve students' mastery of academic standards and to prepare them all for both postsecondary education and careers.

On the other hand, vocational educators are also working with job-training and new welfare-to-work initiatives to help students obtain specific skills for entry-level work. This training is more specific in focus and often shorter in term. These tensions exist in vocational education at both the secondary and postsecondary level and often complicate measurement systems, especially when measuring academic and occupational attainment.

Perkins III provides the opportunity to bring clarity to the purpose of vocational education at the secondary and postsecondary level, develop a measurement system that provides useful information, and demonstrate the positive benefits of vocational education. We are well-underway to improve education for all learners.

Phyllis Hudecki is the associate director of NCRVE.

[1]Rahn and Holmes, in Accountability Systems: Performance Standards and Assessment (CenterPoint Number 4, March 1999) state: "The accountability movement of the 1970s was driven by the mandate of education inputs. For example, states mandated education improvement by establishing requirements for school facilities, the age of textbooks, and credit requirements for high school graduation.

In the 1980s, the emphasis shifted toward improving the preparation and training of teachers and principals. In the 1990s, accountability shifted again, this time to the school level. A critical element of standards-based accountability is state level policies that motivate students to reach higher standards, including incentives for students; incentives for teachers; incentives for schools."

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