Have You Met Carl Perkins?

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education John King called for the reauthorization of one of education’s most important pieces of legislation, The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act, named for the longtime Democratic Congressman from Kentucky. On March 9, King called on Congress to reauthorize the Perkins Act so, “every student, in every community, has access to rigorous, relevant and results-driven CTE programs.”

The Secretary’s urging—following the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act and some current Congressional action—may be just the spark to incite action. And if the new Perkins includes some needed realignments and refocusing, it could go a long way to preparing generations of high school graduates for the 21st century workforce.

Student working with circuits

Students at Antioch High School in Nashville, Tenn. have the opportunity to study mechatronics, the technology of combining electronics and mechanical engineerings. Students can earn early college credit and industry certifications in this field while still in high school. Photo Courtesy: Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Academies of Nashville

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act has been the major funder of high school career and college readiness efforts since 1984. It covers:

  • Equipment and laboratories for programs from agriculture to forensics, graphic design to mechatronics.
  • Career explorations from class field trips to local employers to individual students shadowing industry professionals.
  • Teacher professional development and industry “externships,” for example allowing a geometry teacher to spend a day with a television production company to learn how geometry is used in digital design—from sets to lighting.

And these are only a few of the ways that Perkins provides academic and technical knowledge and skills to help students succeed in the global economy.

Perkins funding, about $1.1 billion a year, goes to states, then to districts, and on to high schools and some middle schools. Even some colleges, mostly two-year community or technical schools, receive Perkins funding—for adult and dual-enrollment distance learning, equipment, and career counseling.

The Act was last reauthorized in 2006. That authorization expired in 2013. Congressional funding has kept the program going, albeit at lower levels. But that may change.

In October, Senators Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) announced bipartisan principles for Perkins reauthorization that included increasing career counseling, strengthening school-to-career pathways, and supporting innovation to keep up with changes in needed workforce skills. That same month, the House began holding hearings with testimony from CTE experts on strategies for updating the Act.  

Secretary King’s Perkins Act blueprint has four principles that are similar to the Senate’s: greater alignment with today’s labor market, more collaboration among schools and employers, greater accountability for student academic and employment outcomes, and increased innovation by local and state education agencies.  

Beyond these overall principals, reauthorizing Perkins will entail some fine tuning. Here are five changes—a list based on my years of CTE teaching and administration—Congress might want to consider.

Make CTE classes:

  • Rigorous and widely accessible. States and districts should demonstrate that they are providing high quality CTE instruction. And all students should be able to explore a wide range of careers through rigorous programs of study that teach marketable skills for college or careers.
  • Based on local and regional employment needs. School districts should conduct local needs assessments before launching programs. This would both make schools responsive to local workforce priorities and encourage relationships between employers and schools.
  • Linked to real life job training. After graduation, students should be able to easily connect what they learned in their high school CTE programs to college or to industry training and certification.
  • Focused on improved student outcomes. CTE programs should provide students with opportunities demonstrated, through research, to yield positive postsecondary results. States should enhance CTE program evaluations to ensure that schools offer high quality work-based learning, career development, and CTE classes integrated into each state’s and district’s academic requirements.
  • Aligned with other federal education and employment programs. Aligning CTE with requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which calls for state standards to mirror relevant CTE standards, and of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act would eliminate duplication among education agencies.

Career and technical education is poised to take a giant leap with reauthorization of the Perkins Act. If done right, it will help millions of students learn the skills they will need for tomorrow’s careers. As Secretary King put it, “… we need a new law for a new era in CTE.”