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Taking their tools away
No Child Left Behind is already complicating life for Maine’s vocational programs. Now another federal power-grab is coming, as the Perkins Act falls victim to Department of Education ideologues

Close your eyes and say to yourself — quietly, so not many other people will hear — "vocational education." What comes to mind?

Be honest. If you went to high school in the ’70s or ’80s, you’re thinking of the kid in the Aerosmith T-shirt with the long hair and the Marlboro-box rectangle worn into the right front pocket of his jeans. If you went to school in the ’90s, the hair was probably shorter, the T-shirt probably Nirvana, and the cigarettes probably Camels, but it’s the same kid. He worked on cars, played practical jokes in wood shop involving the bandsaw, and was widely assumed to be going right into the mill/factory/refinery after high school if he stayed out of jail long enough.

(If you were that kid, you have felt the sting of this perception.)

Now, in 2004, things are a little different for this kid. He is for one thing more likely to be a she, and for another is almost as likely to be learning about local area networks or DNA sequencing as reboring the cylinders in the assistant principal’s Monte Carlo.

The Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta now offers programs in biotechnology, computer repair, and digital video in addition to old standbys like auto collision and tool-and-die operation. The Skowhegan Regional Vocational Center has broadened its offerings to include digital graphic arts and Maine Guide training. At Sanford Regional Vocational Center, students from as far away as Kennebunk can go through network-certification programs. And in those districts which are still solvent enough to keep vocational offerings at their high schools, students can learn boatbuilding at Cape Elizabeth and join the robotics team at Falmouth.

And then there’s the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS), an impressive campus on Allen Avenue consisting of two main buildings, a large greenhouse, and more than 40 acres of grounds. Just about anything you can take at a voc center in Maine is available at PATHS, which draws its several hundred students from 23 towns in the area.

Much of this change can be attributed to the sweeping changes made in 1998 to the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act. These revisions eliminated a number of set-asides in the previous version of the Act — including one aimed at getting more girls into traditionally male occupations such as automotive technology and industrial programs — and built more flexibility into the state funding process. The traditional mandate to provide a pool of semi-skilled workers was also scrapped in favor of training in more skilled trades, but Congress kept the Perkins Act focused on providing skills training for students who are looking at post-secondary options other than four-year colleges.

This has happened during the ascendancy of one-size-fits-all testing regimes like Maine’s Learning Results. Look at the course descriptions on any vocational-school Web site in the state, and you’ll see claims that voc classes provide students with hands-on lessons in the material they’ll need to master to achieve Learning Results proficiency. Carpentry teaches math, environmental science teaches chemistry, CNA certification programs teach biology, and so on.

Now, however, vocational centers are spending even more time working with teachers at traditional schools to integrate hands-on learning with the academic lessons needed to keep districts from running afoul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With only so many classroom hours available, it’s an open question whether increased academic emphasis is actually harming technical education.

Alisha Hyslop, manager of federal affairs for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), says that "NCLB is definitely having an impact on schools around the country, on the way they’re having to allocate resources and time."

Lynwood Turcotte started up the Skowhegan center in 1966, and since retiring in 1994 has taught courses in Philosophy of Vocational Education for the University of Maine system. He considers working with the new testing regimes "fairly important," but also has reservations about how much time educators have to spend bringing curricula that were already successful in line with federally mandated assessments. "We’re doing quite a lot of that," he says, but "vocational seems to be a bad word nowadays."

Because it can’t be tested in Learning Results, vocational ed is losing supporters among educational authorities.

PATHS’ Diane Bauby is more diplomatic. "Sometimes superintendents and principals are not quite aware of things we’re doing," she says. "Our school has been at the forefront of coordinating with Learning Results. Very often students learn in very concrete ways. When they get on to high school, they’re taught in concepts that are a little bit more abstract. We find here at vocational schools that we can take students and use concrete methods to teach them the skills they need to pass the Learning Results and state testing as opposed to teaching them in abstract ways."

Bauby cites examples including teaching the Pythagorean Theorem by cutting stair stringers and teaching fractions by measuring and cutting pipes. She proudly claims an 80 percent rate of postsecondary education and training among students who attend PATHS, which is impressive even though it includes military enlistment. In any case, PATHS students appear to be finding their way into educational and training opportunities beyond high school.

So why is it necessary for the federal government to step in and add another layer of centralized planning?

The most basic problem facing state education authorities is that vocational education is more expensive than the three Rs. Estimates of the cost differential vary, but a "national survey of state funding practices" done in 2001 by Berkeley, California-based MPR Associates for the Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) concluded that "the relative cost of vocational education may be from 20 percent to 40 percent greater than that of academic instruction, and that this cost varies by program area and content level."

This makes vocational programs a popular target for budget cuts in the age of state shortfalls and No Child Left Behind. Maine’s school-funding formula creates particular vulnerabilities because, as the MPR study notes, Maine is one of the states that "fully reimburse districts for all vocational costs that exceed the state foundation formula . . . One drawback with this approach is that, since district expenditures are premised on full state reimbursement, fiscal shortfalls can reduce state capacity to reimburse districts, meaning that some portion of local costs will go unfunded . . . A second problem with full-cost reimbursement is that the approach does not encourage efficiency. One state representative pointed out that districts are actually encouraged to spend more under full-cost reimbursement, since in theory all costs will be compensated."

John Stivers, Maine’s curriculum development coordinator for career and technical education (or "CTE," in place of what used to be called voc), notes other peculiarities in the way Maine spends its federal education dollars. "Perkins in Maine is allocated in a way that is not common," he says. "Essentially the community-college system gets half, vocational centers get half, and then they each pony up approximately a third for adult education."

Maine has also chosen to keep the gender set-aside which was stripped out of the 1998 version of the Perkins Act (under the heading of "nontraditional recruitment and retention"), and here, Stivers says, "Typically Perkins doesn’t pay for institutionalized programming. The money is spent for kids with special needs or for new equipment to improve programs, but it’s not used at all on formal operations as it is in other states."

Perkins money also pays for a number of positions at the state Department of Education, including Stivers’s, which gives him a personal stake in the proposal currently simmering in the US Department of Education (ED). Last year the Bush Administration proposed eliminating the Perkins Act, which awarded funds based on population and income, with a new Secondary and Technical Education Excellence Act (STEE). This new initiative would be funded at $1 billion, a nearly 20 percent drop from the Perkins Act’s 2003 appropriation of $1.192 billion.

The ACTE and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) responded to Bush’s plan with a press release headlined "President’s FY2004 Budget Proposal Would Decimate Career and Technical Education," which although rhetorically overheated isn’t actually inaccurate. The STEE’s goals, as stated in a US Department of Education overview, don’t mention improving access to vocational and technical courses. Instead the first goal is to "increase the number of students taking a rigorous academic curriculum," which understandably gives technical ed teachers and administrators the willies because it explicitly ties local funding to compliance with politically motivated federal directives.

Hans Meeder, deputy assistant secretary in the federal Office of Vocational and Adult Education, echoes the MPR study’s last point regarding "efficiency" in a way that starts to make the government’s intentions clearer. He suggests that Maine’s funding system has created an "entitlement mentality that doesn’t actually achieve program improvement"; and when the word "entitlement" appears in conversation with a Republican official, it’s a safe bet that the word "competitive" isn’t far off.

Sure enough, the Education Department’s blueprint for the new STEE Act specifically calls for a replacement of the old formula allocations with a competitive grant process, creating an automatic bias in favor of wealthier districts and states with the resources to prepare grant proposals.

"People read the term ‘competitively’ the way they think it should be read," Meeder says. He objects to the current funding system because "it isn’t necessarily tied to specific program improvements; it’s almost an entitlement. Our policy objective is we’ve got to change that. We’re proposing competitive grants, but there’s a lot of room for discussing how a state would set up a competitive system. We’re pushing competitive, but also targeted, in a way that would help the districts that need it the most."

And what exactly would these targeted noncompetitive parts of the competitive system look like? "Frankly, we haven’t worked out those details," Meeder says. "But we’re certainly listening to those concerns."

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Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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