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Cultivating Fertile Ground in Career and Technical Education for Industry-Recognized Credentials

By Christy Montgomery and Wendy Russell - May 17, 2023

Spring is a time when gardeners begin to scan the seed catalogs for the perfect hybrid cucumber, check the almanac for the last freeze date, and locate that Master Gardener Newsletter article on organic pest control methods. 

Just as gardeners know to seek know-how beyond their backyard, so do state Career and Technical Education (CTE) directors striving to implement the updated Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) modifications. Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC) sought to learn how select states had planted seeds and cultivated a fertile environment for reaching the Perkins V goal of providing programs of study that culminate in a postsecondary credential.

One helpful resource, released shortly after the Perkins V ​reauthorization in 2018, was the Council of Chief State School Officers’ report on Credential Currency: How States can Identify and Promote Credentials of Value.  Highlighting the variety, incentives, and measurement of industry-recognized credentials (IRCs) throughout secondary CTE in the United States, the report captured state-level promising practices that could be propagated and grown into healthy state programs.   

How States are Supporting Growing Programs

R9CC recently reviewed state secondary CTE websites on credentials of value to better understand key components of each states’ success. Just as a gardener uses tripod stakes to support growing plants, R9CC found states often implemented three supportive strategies to grow their IRC initiatives:  

  1. Create fertile environments for IRC ecosystems to emerge. 

  1. Foster cross-agency collaboration as a success metric for identifying IRCs of value. 

  1. Link to graduation requirements and career pathway programs that lead to increased IRC attainment. 

A deeper dig reveals policies that may be useful to other states that are striving to grow programs of study that support secondary IRC attainment. 

1. Governor and legislative support created fertile environments for IRC ecosystems to emerge.  

Leadership and support from the highest levels of government is essential in the development and sustainability of this work. Across states with promising practices, executive and legislative mandates recognized the economic necessity of providing opportunities to obtain IRCs. 

“State leaders and policymakers have an opportunity to look holistically across K-12 education, postsecondary, workforce development and economic development systems to eliminate barriers, and to align goals and collaborate across sectors to create inclusive, supportive opportunities for people to develop skills, earn credentials and enter careers.” (Cuevas and Keily, 2021)

  • Governors led the charge to strengthen their state’s workforce system by working in tandem with their legislatures to create innovative workforce incentive programs that increase high school students’ access to industry-recognized credentials in priority industry sectors. In one state, the legislature appropriated at the governor’s behest $4.5 million in both FY 2021 and FY 2022 to help school districts implement programs that provide $1,250 for each qualifying credential earned by students.  

  • States used the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act’s (WIOA) flexibility to incorporate Perkins V as part of the comprehensive approach to talent development. The state’s Combined State Plan blends educational, workforce development, and social service programs to benefit those with barriers to employment.  

  • States have invested in data tracking to identify the impact investments are having. In one example, State longitudinal data systems collect income data for students post-high school graduation by linking to students’ K-12 ID numbers to know the percent of high school students earning college credit, earned income of graduates, and IRCs with state and national comparisons.  

2. Cross-agency collaboration within the state was a common success metric for identifying IRCs of value.   

States are maintaining integrated education, workforce, and employer oversight bodies to vet IRCs that meet state-established criteria for determining value and workforce relevance. States are well positioned to take on this work because they can convene representatives from education, industry, and workforce development to ensure that industry-recognized credentials associated with CTE, workforce development programs and other educational pathways are accessible to students and have currency in the labor market. By building a list of endorsed credentials vetted by relevant stakeholders, states can ensure that there is transparency in the certification and assessment of student competencies. 

  • For example, in one state a collaborative process between agency workforce development, education, and the Governor’s Workforce cabinet staff established six criteria certifications must meet to appear on the states’ Graduation Pathway list and receive a designation of “preferred certification”.  

  • In another example, the state’s Workforce Investment Council (WIC) is the governing body that manages the Industry Based Certification (IBC) State Focus list. The WIC is comprised of members from business and industry, organized labor, state and local government, and community organizations. The members must be owners, chief executive officers (CEOs), chief operating officers (COOs), or other high-ranking officials.  

3. Linkages to graduation requirements and career pathways led to increased IRC attainment.  

States, in line with Perkins V, updated their graduation requirements and added opportunities to obtain IRCS to enhance students’ access to career pathways.  

  • States utilized flexibility to improve postsecondary attainment by merging two configurations established in different federal laws – career pathways under WIOA and programs of study under Perkins. Through the combined WIOA/Perkins V plan, states may align definitions and policies to create on and off ramps that span across K-12 and postsecondary.  

  • Students can prepare for college and career by deliberately aligning the state’s secondary Career Technical Education (CTE) strategy with its economic development work, via public-private partnerships. Partnerships include regional teams of K-12, postsecondary, workforce development, and industry representatives coming together to create course pathways for in-demand fields. The course pathways may include related work-based learning experiences and are anchored in regionally identified and state-approved IRCs. 

How do IRCs grow in your CTE Garden?  

Region 9 has offered examples of how some states strategically created a fertile and incentivized ecosystem for nurturing IRC attainment through cultivated programs of study aligned with state education and workforce policies, and defined IRCs of value linked to secondary graduation requirements. How might your CTE program use this supportive tripod to increase the hardiness of your state’s CTE program? Does it offer a nurturing environment that encourages students to complete a program of study with IRCs of value embedded in graduation requirements?    

Christy Montgomery-Jones is a consultant and project manager at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and serves as a project lead for the Career and Technical Education and Innovation project with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC). She has over 15 years of experience in workforce development and government administration. Christy is a skilled facilitator and takes great pride in offering innovative workforce solutions to customers at the regional, state, and national levels. She brings a breadth of knowledge engaging partners in strategic planning to achieve program and system alignment of workforce development, economic development, and education across states and regions. Before joining AIR, she served as the state workforce board director for Tennessee. 

Wendy Russell is a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). She serves as a coach working to support the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Career and Technical Education project. She aligns her strong education policy and practice expertise with workforce technical assistance design and delivery to inform her project work. She works to support the Illinois Board of Education Career and Technical Education to develop policies and data management strategies for industry-recognized credentials (IRCs) in secondary education. Russell coaches ISBE CTE staff to gain a broader perspective on the national IRC eco-system and within their State Perkins V plan, and action planning for state-wide IRC rollout.