July 9, 2013
Today, the OECD released a comprehensive review of Vocational Education and Training (VET) in America, A Skills beyond School Review of the United States. While those immersed in the higher education landscape might find many of the recommendations familiar, echoing calls for reform advanced by a wide range of education stakeholders, the review provides a refreshing outside perspective on Career and Technical Education (CTE) and higher education more broadly.
The report is charitable in their praise of the ‘vibrant diversity’ brought forth by the United States’ decentralized postsecondary CTE system. The overarching recommendation put forth by the review is to balance this approach with a more strategic pursuit of quality, coherence, and transparency. In the context of what the review further refers to as ‘The US ‘system’ of CTE,” it becomes clear that the American system of postsecondary CTE is in urgent need of reform.
Authors Malgorzata Kuczera and Simon Field quickly address central issues facing postsecondary education in the United States, highlighting three broad recommendations – funding for quality, anchoring credentials in the needs of industry, and building transitions that work – which are bolstered by several more specific action items.
1. Substantially strengthen quality assurance in postsecondary education and its links to title IV student aid.
The review outlines six considerations that provide urgency for the strengthening of quality assurance. Many of these recommendations, especially in regard to federal financial aid reform, coincide with the recommendations put forward by the New America Foundation in the report, “Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid.”
While many of the considerations put forth by the authors point toward new reforms, it is worth pointing out that the third points to current requirements of quality assurance that are not being enforced. Citing the 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of several (vibrant) private for-profit institutions, they point out the finding that four institutions clearly promoted fraudulent practices, and all made ‘deceptive or otherwise questionable statements’ in materials for students. While pursuing further reform is necessary, reviewing the implementation of prior efforts is equally important.
2. Establish a quality standard for certifications and obtain better data on both certifications and certificates.
In a section aptly entitled “Confusing choices and quality challenges” the authors begin with the following data from the U.S. Department of Labor: “Tour guides can choose from among nine credentials; chemical technicians decide between 22, while computer network support specialists can choose out of no less than 179 different credentials.” And it is incredibly difficult to determine whether those nine tour-guiding credentials lead to either higher wages or career advancement. The report points out that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) estimates that less than a fourth of certifications currently offered would meet the standards that their organization has published. If the GAO conducted an investigation of American certification programs, they may find a great deal of ‘deceptive or otherwise questionable statements’ being made to students about the value of the credentials they are offering.
3. Building transitions in CTE into postsecondary programs, within postsecondary education, and to the labor market.
The final recommendation distinguishes between the differentiated needs at each transition point within postsecondary CTE – not only entering from secondary school and exiting to the workplace, but also the unique challenges faced by students who seek to move between institutions. While funding for quality and establishing standards for certifications would go a long way in addressing some of these transition challenges, especially in regard to information asymmetry, the authors also point toward strengthening CTE in high schools as a method for building stronger transitions. It harkens back to a discussion in the first chapter pointing out America’s partiality for generalized high school education – or aversion to anything that could be perceived as “tracking.” The authors’ perspectives on building high school CTE transitions are a noteworthy addition to the review.
The diversity of CTE in the United States has by and large created a “system” that is not optimally serving students. While decentralization can promote rapid response and innovation, in absence of discerning funding, quality assurance, reliable information, and clear pathways forward, decision-making is a quagmire for students. In one way, the CTE system is quite vibrant – it is alive, constantly changing and evolving. As reforms move forward, it will be important to implement flexible approaches that will grow with the ever-changing landscape of labor and careers throughout the country.