Expanding Work-Based Learning Under ESSA and Perkins V

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This month, we’re examining current research and state examples of work-based learning in practice. This guest post comes from Austin Estes, senior policy associate at Advance CTE. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author. To see the other posts in this series, click here.

The World Economic Forum predicts that, by 2022, the widespread advancement of high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud technology will transform up to 75 million jobs. To prepare for the future of work, today’s students need to know how to navigate an increasingly fluid, technology-based workforce — and work-based learning can help them get there.

Work-based learning — which can include low-exposure activities, such as career fairs or job shadowing, or intensive, sustained experiences, such as an internships or pre-apprenticeships — helps students gain real-world skills under the guidance and mentorship of industry professionals.

While work-based learning is often delivered at the local level in coordination with education and business leaders, states play a critical role in setting expectations and scaling work-based learning for all students. With new flexibility in both the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), state leaders have the opportunity to strengthen and scale work-based learning to ensure all students can develop real-world skills.

One specific leverage point between ESSA and Perkins V is accountability. Under ESSA, states are given the flexibility to choose a measure of school quality or student success that aligns with their visions and priorities for public education. Forty states adopted measures of career readiness in their accountability systems — more than double the number of states with career readiness indicators in 2014. Of those states, 12 are specifically counting work-based learning as a measure of success for high school students.

These states can take their ESSA accountability systems into consideration as they define and set performance targets for Perkins V. When Perkins V was reauthorized in 2018, Congress gave states the opportunity to choose a secondary CTE program quality indicator from among three options, one of which is a measure of work-based learning completion. This indicator only applies to the population of students graduating high school after concentrating in CTE programs, but states can still use the opportunity to align definitions, data collection cycles and reporting between Perkins V and ESSA to elevate the importance of work-based learning in high school.

State and local leaders can also braid funding from ESSA and Perkins to strengthen and expand work-based learning opportunities for students. State leaders can start by mapping different funding streams between each of the laws and identifying critical opportunities. For example, they can use ESSA funds to train school leaders on integrating rigorous academics and work-based learning and Perkins V leadership funds to establish and scale work-based learning opportunities for students. Working in tandem, both ESSA and Perkins V can be used in service of a broader statewide work-based learning initiative.

But state leaders should ground this work in a shared vision for work-based learning. A statewide vision sets common expectations and resources for those managing work-based learning experiences on the ground and can help build consensus through meaningful and sustained employer and stakeholder engagement.

This approach has been widely effective in Tennessee, where state leaders have made a coordinated effort to define and align expectations for work-based learning in order to achieve the state’s Drive to 55 goal of increasing the percentage of adults in the state with a postsecondary credential or certification. In 2014, the state board of education mapped out a framework for work-based learning to clearly articulate the expectations and components that would make up a high-quality experience. This framework has been used at the state and local levels to drive work-based learning delivery.

In short, work-based learning is a critical strategy to help learners develop the real-world skills and experiences they need to prepare for the future of work. State policymakers can expand access to work-based learning opportunities through ESSA and Perkins V implementation by aligning data collection and accountability, braiding funding and setting a statewide vision.

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