What Will Be the Impact of Programs of Study? A Preliminary Assessment Based on Similar Previous Initiatives, State Plans for Implementation, and Career Development Theory

Publication October 2008

In 2006, Congress reauthorized the federal role in career and technical education (CTE) by passing the fourth version of the legislation carrying the name of Carl D. Perkins. This legislation included the requirement that to be eligible to receive funds, recipients must offer at least one Program of Study (POS), which must include coherent and rigorous content aligned with challenging academic standards and relevant career and technical content. This content must be delivered in a coordinated, nonduplicative progression of courses that align secondary education with postsecondary education and lead to an industry-recognized credential or certificate at the postsecondary level or an associate or baccalaureate degree. In addition, the programs may include the opportunity for secondary education students to participate in dual or concurrent enrollment programs or other ways to acquire postsecondary education credits. In this paper, we provide a perspective on POS and the effect they are likely to have on the delivery and outcomes of CTE.

The components of POS cited in the previous paragraph come directly from the Perkins IV legislation. All states have developed these components to some degree through earlier initiatives that attempted to ease the transition from school to careers. In this paper, we examine four precursors of POS: Tech Prep, career clusters/pathways, youth apprenticeships, and dual/concurrent enrollment. However, the evidence on the effectiveness of these precursors is limited. Few studies compare students who participated in these precursor programs to similar students who did not. Most of the limited number of studies that made such comparisons, however, found some advantages for participants in such outcomes as increased likelihood of high school graduation and enrollment in postsecondary education. Participating students also had less need for remediation and higher grade point averages in postsecondary education. Statistically significant differences were not found for all studies, and in most cases, the significant differences between participants and nonparticipants were modest, typically about 4% to 5%.

In this paper, we also summarize how states propose to implement POS. We base this summary on a review of 53 state plans (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) for Perkins IV submitted to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education. The primary strategy to be followed by two-thirds of the states is to develop templates and criteria for local agencies to use as they develop their own POS. A little less than one-third (30.6%) plan to develop POS at the state level for adoption by local education agencies. All of the states will provide technical assistance and professional development to assist local agencies in developing and implementing their POS. Our review of the state plans implies that POS will represent modified, refocused versions of existing systems and methods rather than major changes in how the states deliver CTE.

This paper also reviews the implications of career development theory as it relates to students’ decisions about POS. All occupationally specific CTE requires students to make choices about their future career goals. Programs of study, with their secondary-postsecondary articulation, require a four-year commitment. When high school students are making these choices, however, virtually all are in the exploratory stage of their career development. This means students choose their POS to test the match of their interests and abilities to the requirements of the occupations that they study. The match may not be what many expected and some may decide to try a different career area. From a career development perspective, this is positive growth and should not be considered a failure on the part of either the programs or the students.

The paper concludes by posing three questions concerning the implementation of POS and offering our preliminary answers (in italics):

1. To what degree can secondary and postsecondary instruction be articulated?

POS should align secondary and postsecondary instruction, but college-level content is not appropriate for most CTE high school courses. Rather than teaching college courses in high school, we would prefer to see a greater emphasis placed on using students’ interest in the occupations they study to improve their academic skills through curriculum integration.

2. To what degree can rigorous and relevant technical content be aligned with challenging academic standards?

States should work to align rigorous and relevant technical content with challenging academic standards through local development of POS. CTE and academic teachers at the secondary and postsecondary level should be given the time and support needed to work together to develop POS. The cost and logistics of making such opportunities available are formidable but have a high potential to yield the kinds of POS that are needed. POS that are developed and disseminated without the involvement of those who must implement them will not produce the desired results.

3. What are appropriate measures of the effectiveness of POS?

The percentage of students obtaining postsecondary degrees or certificates should be one of the indicators used to assess the effectiveness of POS, but the core indicators required for all secondary CTE students (Perkins IV, Sec 113(b)(2)(A)) will provide more useful information. How do students who follow POS compare to similar non-POS students in terms of academic and technical skills; high school graduation; attainment of proficiency credentials; placement in postsecondary education, advanced training, military service, or employment; and participation and completion of programs that lead to nontraditional occupations? We would supplement these core measures with indicators of engagement with school and career development. Because of the exploratory nature of much secondary CTE, postsecondary certificate/degree attainment within the POS started in high school should not be the primary indicator of POS effectiveness.

Our overall conclusion is that POS can enhance the effectiveness of CTE, especially by aligning technical instruction with rigorous academic standards. Given, however, that most high school graduates are in the exploratory stage of career development, we do not expect high percentages to continue in the POS that they followed in high school. This does not mean that the POS have failed. POS that increase student engagement, improve academic skills, and deepen understanding of occupations have succeeded even if graduates decide not to continue their high school POS at the postsecondary level. POS can help to achieve that venerable but elusive goal of making education through occupations as explicit as education for occupations.

Lewis, M. V., & Kosine, N. R. (with Overman, L.). (2008, October). What will be the impact of programs of study? A preliminary assessment based on similar previous initiatives, state plans for implementation, and career development theory. Louisville, KY: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Louisville.

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