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'Concentration' in Voc. Ed. Could Help Retain Potential Dropouts, Study Finds

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Analysts at the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (ncrve), attempting for the first time to assess the relationship between vocational programs and student retention, have found that students who "concentrate" in such studies are somewhat more likely to stay in school than students who take only scattered vocational courses.

Overall, the dropout rate for students taking vocational courses continues to be higher than for those in academic programs, the researchers note. But among students who are at "high risk" to drop out of school, those who concentrate in vocational courses are slightly less likely to do so than those students whose courses are scattered through the curriculum, according to the report, "Vocational Education and the High School Dropout."

The study was sponsored by the Education Department's office of vocational and adult education.

Data Analyzed

The researchers analyzed data obtained from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience, the Youth Cohort, and the high-school transcripts of more than 7,400 students who in 1980 were at least 16 years old.

The study represents the first research effort in which actual school transcripts--rather than students' self-descriptions--were used to identify vocational-education students.

The researchers separated the students into two groups--"high-probability dropouts" and "low-probability dropouts." They also controlled for factors that influence students' decisions to stay in school, such as family background, school characteristics, the local unemployment rate, and high-school experience.

The researchers were quick to note, however, that although statistically significant, the effect of vocational education on potential dropouts was minimal. Donna M. Mertens, the project's leader, said that the slight effect shown means that vocational education alone cannot improve the dropout rate.

Ms. Mertens said that with other kinds of intervention strategies, such as individual attention and counseling, educators have a good chance of helping potential dropouts stay in school.

The researchers found that vocational education has stronger "retention power" for 10th and 12th graders. This means that the number of vocational courses taken in the 9th and 11th grades helped to determine whether those students completed the following grades, according to Ms. Mertens.

The report contends that vocational education in the 9th grade may have helped retain students in the 10th grade, "because it offered them an alternative to an academic curriculum in which they have little interest."

'Strong Retentive Effect'

But the report adds that vocational education at the 10th grade level does not have a "strong retentive effect" in the 11th grade because of pressure to work and earn money.

"At this age, whatever retention power vocational education has appears to be masked by the opportunity for legal withdrawal from school,'' explained Norval L. McCaslin, associate director of the ncrve

He said if potential dropouts can be retained past this critical point, increased participation in vocational education could reduce the subsequent dropout rate.

Noting that most schools do not offer vocational education until 11th and 12th grades, the report recommends additional research to determine whether schools should offer a wider variety of vocational courses below the 11th grade.

"This suggestion is not meant to imply that vocational education by itself is a strong enough intervention strategy to keep the most alienated youth in school," according to the report. "However, it appears to be one ingredient that can make school more palatable" for potential dropouts.

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