While the United States is seen as a global leader in post-secondary education and training, it has lost its once unquestioned leadership position in elementary and secondary education and now struggles to compete with many other “developed countries” as demonstrated by its international test scores. As a result, education and training leaders at all levels have turned to international benchmarking to as one way of determining how to prepare the nation's future workforce for a global society and economy.
International benchmarking—the alignment of standards, instruction, professional development, and assessment to those of the highest-performing countries—was mentioned in the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Amendments of 2006 as a possible means to broaden the objective of Career and Technical Education (CTE), that is, where appropriate, to link CTE skill standards to world-class standards.
In any country, the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders, with leadership from employers, is critical to the success of the development of occupational/skill standards. In most European countries, there are four parties at the table in determining the definition, approval and management of their skill standards systems and qualifications frameworks: representatives from business and industry (often company specific and tied to their apprenticeship protocol), education and training subject matter experts, labor organizations, and government agencies. In Europe, more emphasis is placed on defining the ‘end product’ – their CTE programs strive to prepare students for mastery of an occupation that becomes their career with clear cut options for climbing the ladder within their version of a career pathway.
While the very nature and content of Occupational/Skill Standards dictates that the primary input and validation come from employers, this is not always the case. In the U.S., educators (as opposed to employers) are often the prime movers in the occupational standards development movement. Furthermore, skill standards often reflect what is being taught as opposed to what should be taught; historically, U.S. educators have used skill standards to define instruction, whereas most of the developed countries we compete with have used them to define assessment or “qualifications.” This makes it more difficult for us to make comparisons with other developed countries whose standards are more occupational in nature. The United States does excel in the development of third party industry-driven occupational certification systems such as ASE, AWS and NIMS.
As long as the U.S. education system continues to place more emphasis on academic course-taking, there will be less time at the secondary level for the taking of important electives in Career and Technical Education, Arts and Music. The real elephant in the room that has to be addressed when comparing the U.S. to other countries is just how “vocational” or “technical” we really want to be in terms of defining outcomes. In other words, do we want to graduate students who know about occupations within a broad career pathway that’s articulated to the next level, or students who can demonstrate that they can carry out workplace related activities before they are deemed “qualified?” In observing the significant investments European nations have made in apprenticeship systems and/or workplace programs that often start early in high school, it appears our competitors have chosen the latter.
Ron McCage, now retired, previously served as the Executive Director (September 1980-February 2007) and President (February 2007-September 2012) of the Career and Technical Education Consortium of States (CTECS) (formerly VTECS), a not-for-profit organization that specializes in performance based instructional design and assessment strategies for career and technical education. He developed a full-length report on international benchmarking in CTE five years ago for CTECS and the State of Arizona. His research included a thorough review of CTE systems in fifteen countries, with special attention given to Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, France, The Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.