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How States Ensure Quality Standards and Accountability in High School Work-Based Learning

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» 2021
MAY 12, 2021

Previous blog posts in this space have shared best practices in how states can provide funding, communications and equitable strategies for high school work-based learning programs. Another vital component is ensuring high-quality experiences for students.

As with other aspects of work-based learning, states vary in their development of quality standards. Our state-by-state analysis found that many states have taken the first step of creating lists of roles and responsibilities for program stakeholders, including teachers, work-based learning coordinators, employers and students, that provide a framework for design and implementation. For example, Iowa’s work-based learning guide states that work-based learning teacher-coordinators are responsible for program planning, development and related classroom instruction; on-the-job instruction and coordination; guidance and advice; program administration and management; community and public relations; and development in their professional roles and activities. Employers, meanwhile, are expected to “provide instruction on the specific tasks students are expected to complete on the job, as well as information about safety and the general operation of the business.”

Many fewer states, however, have defined what high-quality implementation of these responsibilities looks like. One state that has set a definition is Georgia, which has developed multiple standards for high-quality work-based learning. Each standard has an accompanying rubric to evaluate if a program meets the standard.

As part of its Career Connect Washington (CCW) initiative, Washington state has developed Career Launch programs, which include secondary career and technical education programs that meet credential requirements and contain a work-based component. That work-based component must be a “meaningful, high quality on-the-job experience” that is at the worksite (although criteria may have changed in the pandemic); offer pay and academic credit; be occupation-aligned; have an employer supervisor at the ratio typical for the occupation; define the competencies and skills gained; and be in full compliance with existing legal regulations.

Washington has also established processes to explicitly ensure employers are held accountable to these standards. In order to operate a Career Launch program, employers must complete an application, undergo a rigorous review process, and receive an endorsement from CCW. Endorsements last for three years, at which time programs must undergo a subsequent review to renew their endorsement. The endorsement renewal ensures programs continue to meet quality expectations year after year.

While accountability systems for employers are rare (our audit found Washington’s to be the only one), a handful of states – Georgia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington – have developed processes to ensure quality in the school-based elements of a program (e.g., standards for the instructor or coordinator, expectations about student evaluation). In New York, work-based learning programs must apply for approval from the state Department of Education and re-register every few years.  Registered programs must have a certified teacher or guidance counselor to serve as coordinator, an industry advisory committee, safety training prior to placement at a worksite, supervised on-the-job training, related in-school instruction, a memorandum of agreement between schools and employers, a student training plan, and an employer evaluation.

Pennsylvania created the Future Ready PA Index, which is a collection of public-facing school progress measures related to school and student success. One of the indicators is industry-based learning, which requires districts to report the percent of 12th-graders who complete a work-based learning experience as defined in the state’s Work-based Learning Toolkit.

Maryland uses guidelines, developed from a comprehensive review of best practices for high-quality work-based learning experiences, to shape site visits conducted as part of the state’s career and technical education program compliance review process. In Tennessee, a work-based learning policy guide provides a list of structures and systems that high-quality programs provide, and its work-based learning implementation guide requires districts to evaluate their programs by surveying participating employers, school personnel, students and other stakeholders. The Tennessee Department of Education provides sample evaluation frameworks to support districts in evaluating their programs and identifying opportunities for continuous improvement. Additionally, in order to be the teacher of record for a work-based learning course, an educator must complete Work-based Learning Certification Training and be recertified every two years.

Although many high school work-based learning programs are developed and implemented at the local level, states have an important role to play in setting quality expectations and holding schools and employers accountable. Without these kinds of clear and consistent expectations, there is no way to ensure all students are receiving the type of real-world learning experiences that prepare them adequately for life after high school.

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