Six Stories About Six States: Programs of Study
University of Minnesota
The purpose of this investigation is to tell the story of how six states are developing Programs of Study (POS) as mandated by the Perkins IV federal legislation. Our effort focuses on how states’ technical assistance systems evolved and what successes and challenges existed for states developing POS. There was no intent to compare one state with another; instead, we sought to identify those elements they have in common and those that are unique to each state. The report includes profiles of each state, which are located throughout the United States.
States for the study were recommended from a group of states that had applied to a national organization to receive technical assistance on their POS. From that pool of states, three were selected from among those who received formal technical assistance; three were also selected from those that had not been included in the formal technical assistance program. All states agreed voluntarily to participate in the study.
Data were collected from March 2010 to June 2010 during on-site meetings and through “participatory journal” entries responding to specific questions about POS development. Interviews and voice recordings were transcribed and all data were analyzed using Spradley’s Developmental Research Sequence (1980), through which major themes and cluster topics were identified across sites. State profiles were based on two sources of information: (1) site visits to school districts (rural and urban) where interviews, focus groups, and group meetings were conducted with middle school, high school, college and university instructors and administrators, and community members supporting POS efforts, and, (2) written reflections by individuals in the states who were intimately connected to POS development. The two researchers involved in the study individually compared and contrasted the themes developed and then as a team generated a set of common themes and challenges reported from the states.
The overall findings were quite positive. No matter whether a state was described as “top-down,” with major direction and impetus for POS coming from the state department of education, or “bottom-up,” with a major focus on developing programs at the local level, all states had some mixture of involvement through advisory committees with the state for establishing the general guidelines and templates for program requirements, important program components, processes for program approval and validation, and systems for communicating among and between the various levels of institutional participation.
Every state had excellent examples of good collaborations, alignment, inter-institutional articulation and matriculation between secondary and postsecondary, integration of academics with career and technical education (CTE) courses and activities, and long-term plans for achieving Perkins IV goals for 2013. Based on spoken and written comments, the trends for states updating and continuing their POS development efforts to align with Perkins IV goals were both positive and promising.
Supporting these positive trends were some specific findings or themes that included the following.
- Technical assistance is provided at both the state and local levels.
Technical assistance for POS development came from both the state and local levels, delivered by teams experienced with CTE. Every state had a technical assistance team that was competent and passionate about ensuring the success of POS efforts.
- No matter what the context, “relationships matter.”
A commonly repeated sentiment expressed by one study participant, and implied by many others, was: “You have it backwards. It is not rigor, relevance, and relationships; it is relationships, relevance, and rigor.” Participants posited that where there were good relationships between individuals and units, relevant and rigorous courses and programs emerged. Although both relationships and rigor were considered vital, developing good working relationships between individuals involved with POS, including teachers and students through student CTE organizations, positively impacted student motivation and learning and the ultimate delivery of the program.
- Champions deliver much of technical assistance.
At the state level, and even more so at the local level, technical assistance was delivered by “champions,” people deeply committed to CTE and to teacher and faculty collaborations. Many of those providing technical assistance came from the Tech Prep movement and leveraged their knowledge of program components to forge better and stronger secondary and postsecondary collaborations, as well as articulated, aligned curricula. In some states, individuals were actually recruited out of retirement to bring their extensive Tech Prep knowledge to provide additional supports for updating and aligning their state’s POS development efforts with the Perkins IV goals for 2013.
- POS are more than just about CTE: They are about basic educational reform connecting academic learning with real-world contexts.
Most participants in the six states suggested that the POS system in their state, despite its tremendous requirements for detail and paperwork, was a positive force because it promoted dialogue and discussion among and between secondary and postsecondary institutions, and, business/industry personnel. The POS system in each state allowed the POS stakeholders a venue to focus on what was being taught, what needed to be taught, and why it was important to have articulation and collaboration between educational systems and business to produce high quality preparation for education, work, and life. Participants thought the POS effort was about more than just connecting CTE with academics and different institutional levels: It was more about developing educational reforms around project-based learning; integrating academics with hands-on, real-world learning; and engaging students in interests that go beyond the school curriculum.
Challenges to the Implementation of Programs of Study
Although much of what was occurring in the states appeared to be moving in positive directions, the study also found that there were fundamental challenges to implementing large-scale federal legislation at both the state and local levels. Not all states had the same infrastructure or level of organization and collaboration between secondary and postsecondary education for instance; nor did they have the same priorities for program development (e.g., labor market responsiveness vs. career education orientation). Specific challenges noted included the following.
- Cultural/mission misalignments existed between secondary and postsecondary, as well as between academic and CTE programs.
One of the greatest challenges to the development of POS was the perceived mission misalignments between secondary and postsecondary institutions and faculty. The missions and focus of secondary and postsecondary institutions were highlighted as being different, partially due to the ages of the students they serve and their ability to operate independently in the world of adults and the world of work. In addition, at both the secondary and postsecondary level, connecting academic instruction and CTE programs has been around for a long time. Getting academic teachers to understand POS means they need to work with CTE personnel, however, and getting postsecondary faculty to understand POS means they need to work with secondary education teachers. Bringing these groups together remains a persistent challenge that has been increased by a lack of sufficient time to develop relationships and a shortage of people with credibility in both worlds who could lead such efforts. It can be difficult to foster a spirit of collaboration when some educators and administrators perceive that their efforts at the different academic levels misalign with the educational aims and expected outcomes of others.
- Time and resources are needed to meet all the demands of POS development and certification.
Besides the time needed to build successful collaborations, most participants thought there was a need for more extensive time and resources to address all the logistical and programmatic demands of the Perkins IV POS goals for 2013. Most felt the paperwork, articulation, collaboration, and group development of curriculum and dual credit systems’ expectations were enormous and that they would require more time and resources to effectively implement to the letter and intent of POS legislation. One described the process as “building a boat while sailing it”—even meeting the implementing challenges of just the basics for Perkins updates didn’t seem to allow for the time needed to update and maintain, let alone construct and test, the reworked POS system before making it fully operational.
• Real-world occupational pathways are not always linear.
Many individuals in the participating states suggested that measuring the success of POS might be compromised because career or occupational pathways are not always linear. Some of the adults interviewed cited their own personal experiences in which they left education right after high school in order to take jobs to which they were connected (frequently through after-school career programs) and then later returned to postsecondary education to pursue their careers. Yet, as mentioned by several teachers and business people, some students do well in secondary programs and actually get job offers right out of high school, thus forgoing immediate transition into postsecondary training programs. This meant, according to the interviews, that while there was some occupational and skill success on the secondary level, it actually undercut the standards for success for POS sequences and outcomes, thus making the programs appear to be unsuccessful, when in fact, the student had actually benefitted from the CTE program itself.
Several recommendations arose from the data and analyses that could potentially improve the development and implementation of POS. They include the following.
- Continue the collaboration between state and local personnel around issues of articulation, alignment, and course and program implementation.
In order to keep improving POS initiatives throughout the states, participants believed that it was necessary to continue to (1) develop collaborations between secondary and postsecondary and between academic and CTE instructors, as well as to (2) pursue stronger articulations between courses, programs, and business and industry outcomes. Every state had already developed good models of POS systems and had already approved and authorized their adoption and implementation. The challenge was simply to continue the process and expand the opportunities for all connected to the effort to meet, interact, and develop the courses, institutional articulation, and personal relationships needed to achieve the goals set for 2013 in the Perkins IV legislation. The problem, for several interviewed, was that they might not be able to meet the expected outcomes. More time and resources were needed.
- Find a way to streamline the paperwork and approval process so as to remove some of the burden from teachers and business and industry representatives. Try to keep the process simple and consistent—don’t keep changing the requirements and system each year.
One of the challenges mentioned in all states was the enormous amount of paperwork associated with documenting important POS components, including courses, aligned and articulated curricula, business and industry involvement, and other related elements. Many states regularly altered some of the POS forms and requirements over the years. Several participants vented their complaints during the focus groups and interviews regarding putting in hours of work preparing and having POS materials signed off on, only to have to redo their efforts to accommodate the newest requirements. Although all of the states are moving to more stable, sophisticated systems, it is important to be reminded that frequent changes at the top were often mentioned as frustrating and demoralizing for people on the ground.
- As some states have done, develop stronger partnerships with other postsecondary education institutions to assist with staff training and evaluation. There should be special emphasis placed on teacher development and training models to connect academic instruction with real-world contexts.
In some states, individuals who had a long history with CTE and with the newer POS efforts suggested that the effort could be strengthened by helping teachers learn to develop programs that used real-world contexts, such as work-based learning, as a teaching platform for academic instruction. They said that academic teachers were not taught how to use work-based learning contexts to teach academic concepts. Vice-versa, career and vocational teachers were not as effectively taught how to teach academic concepts through work-based activities. Several cited models, such as Math-in-CTE, as efforts to do just such teaching, and suggested that these efforts needed to be reinforced and developed in teacher education/teacher development programs in universities responsible for teacher pre-service and teacher staff training. They suggested that four-year institutions involved in this work could collaborate with high schools and community colleges to provide added support and direction to ensure that the more general goals of Perkins IV legislation was being supported through a larger, connected program.
- Develop a publicity campaign within the state that promotes POS, explaining why they have value for all students.
Individuals in most states believed there were POS models that were sufficiently well developed that they could be publicized as exemplars of what POS are trying to accomplish. Many felt POS were still not well known in their state and would benefit from a media or promotional campaign to inform the public, especially parents, of the availability of this outstanding model of education. Such a promotional campaign would also help to alert business and industry and get them more involved. In essence, going public with the purpose, goals, and opportunities presented by POS would broaden their appeal and make them much more credible as an educational initiative.
- Ensure, no matter what the configuration (top-down or local control), that there is sufficient information flow so that those “at the top” may constantly hear and react to the comments or perceptions of those people “on the ground” who are actually delivering the instruction.
Participants in every state expressed concern about the tensions between the ideal POS operating at the state level and the reality of trying to implement POS for people “on the ground.” People at the state level were aware of these tensions; they just needed to find more time, resources, and opportunities for interaction to ensure that those actually implementing and teaching POS in school districts and community colleges could provide continuous feedback so the system didn’t get too complicated or too distant from reality.
• Focus on making counselors an important part of the POS team.
Most of the participants in the study believed that POS needed more involvement from counselors, especially high school counselors, in order to reach their full potential as an effective educational and occupational strategy. Students and their parents needed to think about career plans and pathways and the many programs available to help them achieve their lifetime goals. To do this, counselors should be included in the POS teams so they can both obtain and share the POS story with students as they plan their school programs.
- Collect appropriate and accurate data on participants and program outcomes.
One of the real challenges to state personnel was devising systems that provided accurate data regarding who was involved in CTE (and POS) and how students could be tracked and monitored in order to determine the full impact of the effort. There was concern that, because of inefficiencies in collecting data, some students wouldn’t be counted and the overall measure of the success of POS might be diminished. All states were aware of this issue and were developing plans to address it. States should be reminded that clear and effective ways to identify POS students and track their progress from secondary to postsecondary to employment will weigh heavily in the overall assessment of their programs’ success.
- Recognize the legal and logistical restrictions in developing POS efforts and resolve them in realistic ways.
Individuals from almost every state discussed some of the issues that prevented them from developing POS. Some were concerned about legal restrictions, especially for secondary students, that prevented students from performing the physical activities of certain occupations identified as strong POS models. They suggested there were laws in place that didn’t allow students under 18 to perform work in particular settings, especially if there were safety concerns and limitations. In addition, they also noted logistical problems where a CTE training program at the secondary level didn’t have a matching course/program in the local community college. This prevented the kind of articulation and alignment envisioned in the Perkins IV legislation.
Six stories of POS in six states reveal that this CTE initiative is alive and well. Despite several challenges, many of which were experienced in Tech Prep programs developed years ago, POS are expanding their scope and numbers and becoming a more stable component of the CTE system for delivering articulated, documented, collaborative programs that truly connect secondary schools, community colleges, and business and industry. Technical assistance in developing these initiatives is provided by real “champions” in the field, frequently persons with Tech Prep experience, who assist with all levels of course development, cross-institutional collaboration, and instructional integrity. Time will tell how effective this technical assistance is in creating a sustainable, effective system for delivering CTE that is integrally connected to academic instruction and produces educated and skilled employees for tomorrow’s workforce.
Shumer, R., & Digby, C. (2011, April). Six stories about six states: Programs of study. Louisville, KY: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Louisville.