Can ESSA Help Youth Apprenticeship Move Forward?

That's Up To States.

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If you ask most Americans to imagine a typical apprentice, they will likely describe a young person working and learning alongside a seasoned veteran. Picture a youthful Ben Franklin or Paul Revere in a shop with senior craftsmen. But if you look at Department of Labor statistics you will find that the average American apprentice is closer to thirty than twenty, and is likely to have held a number of jobs before becoming an apprentice. Many of them will have spent time in college.

American apprentices are older, on average, than their counterparts in other countries, due in large part to the fact that our national apprenticeship system has almost no presence in our high schools. But that might be starting to change. A growing number of states – Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, and Washington to name a few – are wrestling with how to build youth apprenticeship systems that start in high school and put young people firmly on a career path before they graduate. As these states work with schools to design programs that allow students to spend time off campus and to transition directly into Registered Apprenticeship programs, they'll have to figure out how to meet a variety of federal and state accountability requirements aimed at ensuring all students are college-ready. But thanks to some new provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, it may be getting easier.

Until quite recently, our K-12 education policies have provided little support for career-focused education, advising, or related activities. The most significant federal education program that shapes how schools operate is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA. Under the version of the law that reigned from 2001 to 2015, known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), schools had little incentive to provide students with career-focused curricula or work-based learning opportunities. The law did call on states to ensure that all students be “college and career ready”, but the “career” half of the readiness charge never really came to fruition. Few states ever developed any definitions of career readiness, much less indicators or performance measures.

But they did embrace “college readiness” with gusto. States used federal accountability measures to push schools to focus on ensuring student proficiency in reading, math, and (to a lesser extent) science – leaving little time for career and technical education courses or even career advising. Schools were rewarded or penalized based on how well students performed on academic tests.  

The focus on bolstering core academics skills was certainly appropriate and much-needed. Far too many students were being left behind. But NCLB missed an opportunity to push schools to think about more than just academic preparation. Making sure that students have some idea of what’s waiting for them beyond school is crucial to helping them make good decisions while they are in school, particularly when it comes to choosing where they want to go after high school and what they want to study. Today, nearly half of all college students drop out before they ever complete a bachelor’s degree. Many others will graduate, but with little sense of what to do next. In the meantime, they will likely have spent tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, in many cases taking on considerable debt. If they started college “readier” to think about their life and career after school, they might be less likely to drop out or struggle after they graduate.

In 2016, NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and, in the process, created some new opportunities to make college and career readiness live up to its name. Under the new law, states have the freedom to adopt more nuanced accountability systems that measure a range of desired outcomes for students using a system of indicators. In addition to choosing academic indicators, the law requires states to design an indicator of school quality and success. As the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Education Strategy Group (ESG) laid out in a recent report, Destination Known: Valuing College AND Career Readiness in State Accountability Systems, this indicator presents a significant opportunity for states to reward schools that help students access high-quality career and technical education, including apprenticeships. To be sure, ESSA does not direct schools to adopt career-focused indicators, but merely puts the choice in their hands.

States could design this indicator any number of ways, and the CCSSO and ESG report suggests some possible models. Indicators do not have to include just one measure, but can include a combination of many different data points. For instance, a state could, as the report suggests, design the indicator to measure and reward successful post-high school transitions, equally rewarding “enrollment in higher education without the need for remediation, engagement in high-quality registered apprenticeship certificate programs, military enlistment, or employment in state-defined in-demand fields.” A school could also potentially count industry-recognized certifications earned by students toward its measure of school success, creating more opportunities for students to be rewarded for learning specific technical skills that might be valuable not just to get into college, but also to succeed in the labor market.

A number of states submitted their ESSA plans to the Department of Education earlier this month, so there are several early examples to examine. Of the eleven states (plus the District of Columbia) who submitted plans, at least three have used the school quality and success indicator to push career readiness: Delaware, Nevada and Tennessee. All three states plan to include completion of industry-recognized credentials as part of their school quality and success indicator. Delaware will also reward schools for the number of students who complete a cooperative or other work-based learning opportunity, a close cousin to Registered Apprenticeship.

Rewarding schools for helping students engage in work-based learning and earn industry-recognized credentials is a strong start on the path to more career and college ready high school graduates. It also provides a unique incentive for states to expand apprenticeship participation in secondary education. Like all apprentices, youth apprentices earn a progressive wage as they learn on the job. All apprenticeships include technical instruction coursework, which in many apprenticeships is taken for post-secondary credit. Apprenticeships also often have the benefit of offering apprentices multiple credentials--professional certifications or licenses in addition to their industry-recognized certificate of apprenticeship completion. Young people in such an apprenticeship program would leave high school with work experience and industry-recognized credentials to help them break into the labor market, and college-level coursework and credit to prepare them for an academic route if they decide on it - accomplishing at once the dual goals of college and career readiness.

To be sure, there are additional technical and ethical considerations that states will have to contend with. Tennessee, for instance, acknowledges in its ESSA plan that the state is “working to improve [its] data quality” on the number of students who receive industry credentials. States must also guard against the legacy of uneven access to different college and career readiness opportunities. Students, regardless of any demographic characteristic, must have the same access to career-ready opportunities like apprenticeship and four-year college-ready opportunities like AP and IB courses. It’s one thing to assign equal weight weigh to college and career opportunities; it’s another to distribute access evenly. States should remain cognizant of this, and plan proactively to ensure equal access.

So, will ESSA move apprenticeship forward? Apprenticeship is still a final frontier, but ESSA has opened the door for schools to experiment with work-based learning programs, including apprenticeship. Largely, though, the onus is on states to use this opportunity. The majority haven’t submitted their ESSA plans yet, and still have time to consider approaches like those of Delaware, Nevada and Tennessee. For the thousands of students out there who would love an opportunity to combine work and learning, let’s hope they do.

Following our Apprenticeship Forward conference on May 4-5th, this is the seventh installment of our blog series exploring big issues in the world of American apprenticeship. We hope you'll join the discussion @NewAmericaEd.

Author:

Abigail Swisher is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work focuses primarily on college- and career-ready policies.