Making Sense of Industry-Based Skill Standards

Making Sense of Industry-Based Skill Standards

Dec 1995


Thomas Bailey
Donna Merritt
Institute on Education and the Economy
Teachers College, Columbia University

Executive Summary:

The skill standards movement has emerged from a conviction that technology and market changes have caused significant modifications in the types of skills and behaviors needed by workers on-the-job. This conviction has motivated a broad education reform movement that involves changes in curriculum and pedagogy and seeks to tie education more closely to the emerging needs of the workplace. Industry-based skill standards are believed to be a crucial component of that movement. Advocates not only argue that skill standards will strengthen the educational system but that they will also become a critical part of reform efforts in the workplace. Working together, educators and employers will get a chance to reexamine not only their relationships with each other, but activities within their own institutions. As a result of the growing conviction that skill standards can make a significant contribution to improving both education and work, the 1994 Goals 2000: Educate America Act established a National Skill Standards Board to promote the development of a national system of voluntary industry-based skill standards. Even earlier, starting in 1992, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education established twenty-two pilot projects to help lay the groundwork for a national system.

The fundamental goal of this report is to contribute to the development of a skill standards system. It does that in several ways. First, it provides some basic information about the skill standards movement and the pilot projects that will be helpful to groups trying to introduce or improve standards systems. Second, it seeks to raise some basic questions about the purpose of such a system. We argue that there are short-term goals which focus on improving the flow of information among schools, students, and employers. There are also long-term goals that place skill standards within the context of broad efforts to reform schools and workplaces. While both sets of goals are important, the nature and governance of skill standards systems designed to meet the long-term goals may differ sharply from systems focused on the short-term goals. Our report is designed both to clarify the tradeoffs involved with achieving those goals and to evaluate the extent to which the current efforts to build skill standards systems address either the long- or the short-term goals. Our conclusions are presented in the form of a series of suggestions for strengthening the pilot projects and broadening the system of skill standards. These recommendations are grouped into three broad categories: (1) goals, (2) substantive content, and (3) governance.


Bailey, T., & Merritt, D. (1995, December). Making sense of industry-based skill standards. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.