As of April 30, total Texas unemployment claims since mid-March have reached 1.5 million. This number is likely lower than the actual number of unemployed. To say that the state’s economy has taken a hit from COVID-19 lock-downs and the historical collapse of oil and gas would be an understatement.
And the crisis also affects our future workforce. How resilient are high school career and technical (CTE) programs? Are these programs able to pivot to existing –and future – labor market demand? Our recently published research, which compares the rates of vocational specialization in high schools in 2016 with their local labor markets, can help answer that.
In Port Arthur, prior to the collapse in the petroleum sector, many high-wage, high-growth jobs were found in the skilled trades, specifically in construction. Yet the most popular “clusters,” or specialized vocational areas, among students in the Education Service Region around Port Arthur were agriculture and human services.
Neither of those occupational clusters were associated with fast-growing or high wage jobs in the Port Arthur area prior to COVID-19. On the other hand, if they were to become fast-growing and high wage sectors, then schools should be able to respond by increasing their investment in these occupational clusters.
Will school districts that spent their weighted CTE funding (35% above the basic allocation) in programs that were poorly aligned in normal times with labor market demand be able to shift quickly to whatever labor market needs do emerge in the wake of this crisis?
In the wake of the COVID-19 statewide school shutdowns, the Texas Education Agency has waived federally-required accountability measures, including those for College, Career, and Military Readiness, for the 2020-21 school year. This decision offers policy-makers an opportunity to consider whether there might be alternative measures that school districts could pilot that might be better indications of how much value a given CTE program adds to a particular student’s education. Measures of mastery, such as completing approved apprenticeship or entrepreneurship programs, work-based learning co-ops, or postgraduation employment and earnings could be taken into account.
Currently, school districts receive their CTE allocation based on a full-time equivalent student formula. It boils down to how many hours of contact with district personnel (instructors of record) students have. It is certainly a simple way to determine who gets what, at least from the point of view of a bureaucracy.
Let’s rethink that. Policy-makers should start by taking into account the value proposition of CTE, which is to prepare students for careers and future technical education, and then examine carefully whether school districts are incentivized to help students attain those outcomes. The TEA’s CCMR accountability standards do not take into account postgraduation outcomes for students who do not attend college and who do not enlist in the military. Instead, the indicators are earning an industry-based certification or being “admitted to a post-secondary industry certification program” or completing “a college prep course offered by a partnership between a district and higher education institution.”
Industry-based certifications, approved by the TEA, are one important indication of whether a student is career-ready. But they still rely on a government agency to curate the list. And there is some controversy over what trades to include.
This is a small example of Friedrich August Hayek’s insight on the inherent perils of central planning, or the “knowledge problem.” Creating a larger basket of outcomes that count, including post-graduation employment, is one way to provide market-based feedback to students and schools.
Now is also the time for lawmakers to consider granting more flexibility to districts in how they spend their CTE allocations. We can incentivize schools to collaborate with community organizations and businesses, which are racing to rebuild civil society and local economies.
COVID-19’s effects are devastating, but districts can learn an important lesson – allow learning out of the box, and give more students a shot at a prosperous future.