Senior Obama Administration Official Sees Major Role for Career, Technical Education

Career and technical education should be embedded in K-12 and higher education in a way that prepares today’s students for quality jobs, a senior Obama administration official said Monday.

Among the nation’s approximately 175 million adults, 93 million are considered low-skilled Americans, said Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education. “This is unfortunately what we can’t afford in the next century,” she told the National Policy Seminar of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) in Arlington, Va.

While the Obama administration has focused on increasing the number of college graduates and those with at least some college, Kanter said it’s equally important to promote career readiness.

“It’s about college and career,” she said. “Some people want to say one or the other. But it’s the ‘and’ that’s important.”

Kanter cited the need to break down silos between education and employment programs and, in some cases, build connections within the education sector. She cited her experience as a community college administrator in trying to update auto mechanic education programs because of concerns that many students lacked math competencies.

“Students weren’t graduating from the programs with strong math skills,” she said. In response, auto mechanic and general education instructors created an engineering and automotive math sequence for students. Kanter said the federal government should do more to provide targeted funding for such innovations.

She also praised the Harlem Children’s Zone, where advocates in education, human services and other sectors have joined together to combat intergenerational poverty. “We need education partnering with business, industry and government,” she said.

Kanter spoke to the organization at a critical time for career and technical education (CTE), with Congress soon scheduled to consider renewal of four key federal programs for this sector – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act governing K-12 policy, the Carl D. Perkins Act for CTE, the Workforce Investment Act and the Higher Education Act. This convergence of events can provide a major boost for career education, she argued.

 “This is an opportunity to embed CTE not as a separate program but as an integrated part of K-12 and higher education,” Kanter said.

ACTE leaders also recognize that this is a chance to emphasize the importance of career and technical education. “This country cannot recover from this recession without a skilled workforce,” said Jan Bray, ACTE executive director. Federal funding supports both high schools and colleges in delivering quality career and technical education, she added.

One key issue for the sector is the administration’s recommendations for the Perkins Act, which provides funds for CTE at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Kanter said the department’s plan will include more rigorous and comparable standards and a greater emphasis on innovation – all targeting college and career readiness.

She also expected a greater focus on competency-based education, which she described as a “gateway” to a strong future. “We want students to demonstrate what they know and do,” she said.

Kanter outlined the administration’s new proposal for career academies. The President’s new education budget would earmark $1 billion over three years for these projects, which Bray notes are based on successful models offered in several states.

The undersecretary reiterated the administration’s support for expanded Pell Grants, which help low-income students afford post-high school career and technical education including two- and four-year programs as well as certificate programs.  “We think career and technical education is uniquely positioned to bridge high school, postsecondary education and apprenticeship,” she added.