Education Secretary Touts Career and Tech Education Competitive Grant Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Obama administration proposal to award $1 billion in competitive grant funding to career and technical education is expected to help usher in a new era for how students are prepared for college and careers.

That was the heart of the message U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered Tuesday at a national conference for career academy educators.

“We see this investment as a critical part of our overall vision to expand career and technical programs,” Duncan told about 1,300 individuals convening this week for the annual conference of the National Academy Foundation, or NAF.

To draw down the proposed competitive grant funding, career academies will have to partner with institutions of higher learning and the private sector and secure 25 percent matching funds.

“This will encourage engagement and sustainability for the long haul,” Duncan said.

Duncan said awarding the proposed funding competitively to consortiums that involve postsecondary institutions and the private sector is in line with the administration’s plans to “break down silos.”

“Communities have to come together to help our young people be successful,” Duncan said.

In addition to calling attention to President Obama’s proposed $1 billion in competitive grant funding for career and technical education in 2013, Duncan highlighted the essential points of the Obama Administration’s “Investing in America’s Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Education.”

Among other things, Duncan said, the blueprint calls for ensuring that the skills taught in CTE programs reflect actual labor market needs so that students can get skills necessary for high-demand jobs that pay well.

Duncan praised NAF as a critical partner in the Obama Administration’s goal to help the United States return to its former status as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

As evidence of the effectiveness of career academies, Duncan cited a U.S. Department of Education-funded MDRC study that found career academy graduates commanded higher salaries than their non-academy peers and that these impacts were concentrated among young men.

However, the same study found that while career academies “served as viable pathways to a range of postsecondary education opportunities … they do not appear to have been more effective than options available to the non-Academy group.”

“More than 90 percent of both groups graduated from high school or received a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and half completed a postsecondary credential,” MDRC says.

The education secretary’s speech drew a standing ovation and was followed by a series of critical questions during a Q&A with members of the audience.

In his speech, Duncan said he often ponders whether the country suffers from a jobs crisis or a skills crisis.

“I can’t tell you how many CEOs have said to me and the president that we’re trying to hire,” but that workers lack the skills necessary to do the work, Duncan said.

The skills subject prompted one audience member to cite a recent New Yorker article titled “Is the Job Market Suffering from a Skills Gap?”

“Some of the skills gap is of companies’ own making, applying perfectionist standards and slashing training and development and entrance pathways, so they’re creating a gap,” the audience member said, reiterating what he took away from the July 9 New Yorker article. “What is the Department of Education asking of employers to recognize their part in this process?”

“What I’m always interested in is how do we solve problems,” Duncan said. “There is probably plenty of blame to go around. But at the end of the day (blame) doesn’t get it done.”

Duncan said there’s a need for industry and educators to collaborate more to make sure that curriculums are relevant to job market demands.

To bolster his point, he cited a recent trip where CEOs and school superintendents had gathered for his visit.

He said he asked the CEOs what percentage of graduates they felt were ready to work, and one CEO said 50 percent. Duncan then asked how often the CEOs and school superintendents get together and someone quipped, “When the [education] secretary comes to town.”

“They had never talked,” Duncan said. “These are great educational leaders, great business leaders who can’t outsource jobs. Those sort of alliances are so deeply needed. Industry has to be at the table. They don’t get a pass.”

J.D. Hoye, president of NAF, said she was heartened by the Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion in competitive grant funding for career and technical education.

“I think the investment would provide a strong incentive,” Hoye said. “It won’t fully underwrite the magnitude of the change we need to see in public education, but with the work in front of us … resources incent people to innovate.”

Hoye also emphasized that career and technical education is “so not” about going straight from high school to work.

“We’re trying to end all of our conversations with being college and career ready,” Hoye said.

The growing emphasis that NAF is placing on college was evident in many of the workshops featured at the organization’s conference. Workshop titles included: “Strategies for Providing College and Career Guidance Within Your Academy,” “Federal Policy Related to College and Career Readiness,” and “College and Career Ready: What do we mean?”