What can we learn from the Perkins Act?: Assessing vocational schools’ performance standards and accountability measures

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Executive Summary / Introduction

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act was signed into law in 2006. As a reauthorization of the original 1984 Perkins Act, the purpose of this law was to promote the further development of career and technical education and to create accountability system to understand state and school performance. While other reports have detailed many elements of Perkins accountability, this report is the first to assess them alongside broader accountability trends in education policy. In this report, we examine this accountability system in the context of vocational education and current accountability measures. Ultimately, we make two large-scale recommendations: first, we recommend that the model used for Perkins performance standards be adopted for all public schools; second, we propose a fused model of Perkins accountability and No Child Left Behind accountability measures in response to these performance standards.


Vocational schools

Vocational schools in the United States refer almost exclusively to secondary and postsecondary institutions designed to provide students with a skilled trade, as opposed to the academic-focused programs of traditional high schools and universities. While some high schools and universities incorporate vocational training, true vocational schools are generally distinguished from traditional four-year colleges. The primary difference (other than career paths and opportunities) between vocational schools and traditional colleges is the time and investment it takes to complete the education. Traditional universities generally take at least four years to complete and can cost upwards of $200,000 dollars for tuition alone. Vocational institutions will take usually take one to two years and only cost about $33,000 on average. A huge reason for the time and investment disparities is that universities require students to enroll in a broad range of classes that may not have to do with the student’s intended field of study. Vocational schools will focus exclusively on the student’s intended field of study dealing with her particular trade. Effective vocational schools can propel a student into a rewarding career path, while ineffective ones can severely limit a student’s post-secondary career/educational options. Vocational schools at the secondary level are similar in purpose to post-secondary institutions, but function within the school district system. Consequently, they are subject to state/federal funding and regulations.

There are over 11,000 vocational secondary schools and 2,600 post-secondary vocational schools with over 14 million students enrolled at the institutions across the country. Critics of vocational schools often point to the absence of academics and an overfocus of programs on simply getting people to work. Particularly at the secondary level, when the students are not adults in need of a carer and just high school students, this can have some negative implications. One negative implication is tracking. Tracking is a major criticism of secondary vocational programs. Putting students, especially low income students, on a certain path can steer kids away from opportunities, such as a traditional university,  in education in favor of their learned trade. This can lead to increases in educational inequality and discourage future generations of low income students from pursuing a traditional university education. Vocational schools are also sometimes viewed as institutions where low income students are pushed who cannot succeed in traditional academic settings. As a result of administrative neglect, students who become victims of tacking can become outpaced by their peers career-wise and financial-wise. Additionally, because of the increased demand for vocational schools, for-profit vocational programs have entered the educational market. These schools are potentially more expensive and unaccredited, which poses a financial risk to low-income students on federal loans that may be targets for these predatory programs.

Advocates of vocational schools point to the extensive on-paper benefits of vocational schools. The cost of investment is certainly lower, and advocates may even argue that this presents a better situation for low income students who would otherwise be unable to afford a traditional education. An absence of college debt and an increased likelihood of finding a job outweighs any negatives that are found with tracking students. It is no secret that some college graduates are in higher demands than others, and not all majors are going to guarantee a high paying job, or any job, upon graduation. The more pessimistic statistics point to as much as 50% of college graduates being unemployed or underemployed.

It is important to note there is a distinction between secondary and post-secondary vocational institutions. Secondary vocational schools are public high schools that may offer the same advantages of any traditional high school – AP classes, the opportunity to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. There exists opportunity for both technical and and academic training, where students get to test the theory behind the academics that they are studying. Additionally students still have the opportunity to attend college upon graduation. Advocates will additionally point to students being able to explore different fields of study as an opportunity to make a more informed decision regarding their college endeavors.

Accountability standards

With any allocation of funding from the federal level, there is some attempted measure of accountability, that comes with it. Accountability in secondary education in the United States can come from many levels, from the school to federal mandates. The most obvious example of a recent push for (and against) accountability can be found in the implementation and removal of Common Core into and from curriculums across the country. While Common Core had national implications, it started out as a movement at the state and local levels. It was proposed partially in response to different educational standards and benchmarks across state lines that resulted from No Child Left Behind, which allowed different states to set their own metrics for accountability. Consequently, some states set higher standards for education than others. This resulted in a number of issues, one of which is the discrepancy in performance based funding. The intent of performance based funding involves tying a positive correlation of student performance with funding to these schools. The purpose is to more efficiently allocate funding to schools with key student performance benchmarks to incentivize continued, improved measurable performance of students and schools. Performance based funding empowers individual schools and school administrators to more effectively allocate state funding in areas that they deem most impactful to student performance. These investments would ideally result in continued success and more desired results. Incentivizing schools by offering them monetary awards can potentially promote school growth, competition, and ultimately lead to better schools.

However, when the roads of individualized state standards and performance based funding cross, issues can arise. Currently, there are 35 states that are instituting some kind of performance based funding. With a system involving so many states, it is going to have national implications. The idea of performance based funding is generally an easy sell to most people and politicians, given its relatively simple theory. The better you do, the better your schools is funded, the better you keep doing. The benefits of school competition can be highlighted, and this will overall improve education in the United States. Unfortunately, the situation is much more complicated than it appears at the surface. A report from the Century Foundation indicates that despite the intentions of performance based funding, such practices failed to yield long-term benefits to schools that received this funding. Perhaps performance based funding can have an impact in issues where the problem facing a school is not multi-faceted, but this is rarely the case. Issues that impede school progress and development are likely highly complex and require a variety of different practices and policies to result in sustained high performance. They can exacerbate inequality when already high-achieving and well-funded schools are judged based on this system, leaving behind lower-performing schools that that will have a harder time adapting to new standards. They do not address issues of inequality and do not take into account the relative starting points for each school. Under No Child Left Behind, they also provided state and school administrators the opportunity to set  their own standards, which caused some states to lower standards to seemingly increase their performance (see Figure 1). Performance based funding can certainly play a role in incentivizing school performance, but its success will be limited if it fully takes over the role of accountability for public schools.

Figure 1. State performance standards under No Child Left Behind, 2005.

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act

There has been increased support from the federal government for vocational education at the secondary level in the United States, particularly with the authorization of the Perkins Act in 1984 and its reauthorization in 1998 and 2006. Carl D. Perkins was a Democrat from Kentucky who served in the House of Representatives. He was a strong support of technical education, and his legacy can be found in both the Perkins Loan and the Perkins Act. While colloquially referred to as vocational education, new wording in the law changes the vernacular from “vocational” to “career and technical education”.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of the law makes federal funding available for career and technical education to high school students and adults. The federal government allocates almost $1.3 billion to the Perkins Act every year, which is administered under the Department of Education’s Department of Vocational and Adult Education. These grants are allocated to the states and are intended to develop state and local career and technical education. Perkins Basic State Grants are given directly to the states that determine their own method for funding to school districts and postsecondary vocational schools. States are allowed complete discrepancy in allocation of funds between these secondary and postsecondary institutions. Further delegation of funding occurs when states are required by law to distribute a minimum of 85% of their federal funding to local programs and districts.

The federal government does require that the method of resource allocation be advantageous to disadvantaged schools and low income students. This needs-based allocation method must be explicitly stated in the law. The most flexible aspect of the law comes from the remaining 15%, which are earmarked for “leadership” and “administrative” activities. This funding is not required to be distributed to the local level. Overall, however, the newest reauthorization of the Perkins law enables more local flexibility than previous versions. It also requires states to set specific and reliable accountability standards. It requires secondary schools to be accountable to the “Perkins Core Indicators of Performance”. These include standard academic achievement in traditional subjects such as reading and mathematics, their technical school attainment, graduation, and post-secondary vocational school placement.

Accountability under the Perkins Act

An essential element of the Perkins Act is its set of accountability measures, which are used to ensure that recipients of federal funding from Perkins grants produce quality educational outcomes for students.

High school programs are held accountable to three criteria: academic achievement and high school graduation rates, technical skill attainment, and transitions to college, employment or the military. States are required to use their No Child Left Behind accountability standards, focusing on achievement in math and English, and high school graduate rates.

Technical skill attainment is measured via industry-recognized standards to ensure that they are rigorous and are translatable to skills used in post-graduation employment. Virginia’s Department of Education, for example, uses a High School Industry Credentialing initiative that requires students to complete a recognized industry certification or receive a state-issued professional license in order to graduate high school. Where industry-standards are not available, states are required to justify the validity and reliability of their chosen assessment system.

Beyond this, states have the authority to determine their own performance indicators and yearly targets. These targets are established at the state level, and then again at the local level. If states or schools do not meet their performance target, they are required by law to develop a plan of action as to how it will improve its performance. However, the federal government is not required to impose sanctions on any career or technical program on the basis of not meeting its yearly performance targets. Rather, the Perkins Act requires the federal government to provide “technical assistance” to allow schools to better their programs. The terms of this assistance are left to the federal government and individual schools.

Reporting of accountability data occurs at both the local and state level. The data is separated by categories established in the No Child Left Behind Act. The data is analyzed at the state and local levels based on performance gaps across student subpopulations. However, neither local schools nor states are held accountable for student performance according to subgroup categories.

There are many benefits to the design of the most recent authorization of the Perkins Act. First, its performance indicators are relevant to its mission — it uses industry standards and postgraduate pathways to determine whether students have been prepared for college and/or career. It also is focused on alignment between state and school accountability.

At the same time, there exist several drawbacks to the implementation of this act. First, states have experienced difficulty in collecting accurate data on performance indicators. The requirement to track post-employment plans in particular presents an obstacle, in that it can only collect data via surveys so as to not violate FERPA privacy protections for students. Second, CTE’s lack of consequences for performance gaps in subpopulations present an issue for issues of access and inclusion. Such relaxed accountability is beneficial to schools where performance gaps are inevitable and not likely at the sole expense of the school’s instructional quality. However, if schools are not held accountable to performance gaps among subgroups, it is difficult to ensure equity for disadvantaged groups in career and technical education. Given that women and people of color are underrepresented in many CTE programs in math and science, holding schools accountable to access and inclusion is of paramount importance.

What can be learned from Perkins accountability?

As evidenced in this report, the Perkins Act’s accountability structure has marked differences from traditional accountability measures as laid out in the No Child Left Behind Act. In this section, we assess the benefits and drawbacks of both programs on two key differences, and make recommendations as to how elements of both accountability structures can be fused to make a more just accountability system for the future.

Perhaps the most salient of differences is in the extent which states are able to set their own standards. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, states have the power to lower or raise their performance targets – which often leads to unfocused and misaligned standards of rigor that vary from state to state. However, many of the performance indicators embedded in the Perkins Act do not allow for states to make their curriculum or standards less rigorous – rather, they must be aligned to industry-defined standards that ensure that students deemed proficient are actually prepared to enter the workforce. We find the Perkins Act to be far superior in this regard. The accountability structure of No Child Left Behind places too much autonomy on states to create their own standards with no regard for whether they mark legitimate proficiency of students. Students from state to state should not be held to different standards based on the leniency of policy-makers, especially when those who set standards are rewarded for setting low standards for students. The accountability standards detailed in the Perkins Act, however, have clear links to the mission of vocational schooling – to be prepared for a career out of high school. Standards are created by an independent body in industry rather than officials within state departments, and thus have a vested interest in students meeting high standards so as to actually be skilled in their trade when they plan to enter the workforce.

Recommendation 1: Preserve the performance standards of the Perkins Act, and expand them to all public schools. Require states to better align their performance standards to a common set of standards that is proven to be college and career ready. Have an independent body – perhaps out of a university or other independent institution — create these academic standards and maintain them to keep up with the changing academic expectations of post-graduates. Develop reliable systems for reporting performance data accurately and consistently.

Yet another key difference lies in the ways in which schools and states are actually held accountable towards their performance. Under NCLB, states and schools are punished severely for not achieving their Adequate Yearly Progress. Schools face heavy restructuring, or worse, complete closures, for failing to meet their yearly performance standards. These extreme measures have been shown to target schools with predominantly students of color enrolled, and have negative effects on learning outcomes on the most at-risk students. Meanwhile, the Perkins Act offers little consequence for not meeting performance standards, and thus does not hold schools or states accountable to high performance. Seeing as there is a large amount of underrepresented and at-risk students in CTE programs, we believe that there must be some form of accountability that ensures that they are given a high-quality education. Without stricter accountability measures, it is impossible to ensure access and equity for all students.

Recommendation 2: Abolish the accountability measures of both the NCLB/ESSA and the Perkins Act. Instead, create accountability measures that promote meeting performance targets without sanctioning schools in ways that affect learning outcomes for students. Provide extra resources to schools who do not meet their performance targets rather than punish them for not doing well.


The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act plays an essential role in offering what Labaree considers a fundamental purpose of education: social efficiency. Under this model for education, which aims to ensure that every role in the economy is filled by skilled workers, career and technical education is of great importance. The Perkins Act provides greater attention and resources towards vocational education, and creates a uniquely standardized yet loose system of accountability to accompany it. In this report, we assessed this accountability system as it relates to pre-existing systems of accountability measures, and made two recommendations of how to expand this system. First, we propose toe expand the attributes of Perkins performance standards such that all public schools must adhere to them. Second, we recommend a combined model of both Perkins and No Child Left Behind/Elementary and Secondary Education Act accountability measures to incentivize meeting these standards. We find that such recommendations will help hold states and schools accountable to providing quality vocational education to students across the United States. Without them, we may lose sight of one of the most important purposes of American education.

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End notes:

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[4] Hanford, Emily. “The Troubled History of Vocational Education.”American RadioWorks. N.p., 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

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[8] Bidwell, Allie. “Vocational High Schools: Career Path or Kiss of Death?”Usnews.com. US News, 2 May 2014. Web. 3 May 2017.

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[12] Hillman, Nicholas. “Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work.” The Century Foundation. N.p., 01 June 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[13] Fain, Paul. “Critique of Performance-Based Funding.”Insidehighered.com. Inside Higher Ed, 25 May 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[14] Hillman.

[15] M. Steinberg and L. Sartain, “Does Teacher Evaluation Improve School Performance? Experimental Evidence from Chicago’s Excellence in Teaching Project,” Education Finance and Policy  10.4 (2015): 535–72.

[16] Debs, Mira. “Accountability as Education Policy.” Public Schools and Public Policy. Yale University, New Haven. 20 Feb 2017. Lecture.

[17] “Reauthorization of Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.” Home. US Department of Education (ED), 16 Mar. 2007. Web. 03 May 2017.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Threeton, Mark D. “At issue-the Carl D. Perkins career and technical education (CTE) act of 2006 and the roles and responsibilities of CTE teachers and faculty.” (2007).

[21] Meeder, Hans. “The Perkins Act of 2006: Connecting Career and Technical Education with the College and Career Readiness Agenda. Achieve Policy Brief.” Achieve, Inc. (2008).

[22] Hoachlander, E. Gareth. “Designing a Plan to Measure Vocational Education Results, Developing Accountability Systems to Meet Perkins Act Requirements.” Vocational Education Journal 66.2 (1991).

[23] American Vocational Association. “The official guide to the Perkins Act of 1998: the authoritative guide to federal legislation for vocational-technical education.” Alexandria, VA: AVA (1998).

[24] McDermott, Kathryn A. “What causes variation in states’ accountability policies?.” Peabody Journal of Education 78.4 (2003): 153-176.

[25] Dee, Thomas S., and Brian Jacob. “The impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement.” Journal of Policy Analysis and management 30.3 (2011): 418-446.