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Bell Describes Vocational Programs as 'Equal Partners' in Reform Activities

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Washington--Despite the scant attention paid to vocational education in the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said last week that the nation's vocational system is nonetheless an important educational concern and should become an equal partner with college-preparatory programs.

Secretary Bell conceded that the report of the excellence commission "didn't touch enormously on vocational education" because vocational courses are not considered part of the traditional "academic core" subjects. But he asserted that "any branch of American education that enrolls 16 million students and has a budget of some $7 billion" should be a matter of substantial concern to educators and policymakers.

Secretary Bell's remarks came during a follow-up seminar here on "Education for Tomorrow's Jobs," a report by the National Academy of Sciences that was released in September. The work of a committee of educators, business executives, and labor leaders convened by the National Research Council--the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences--the report called for some "fundamental changes" in how vocational teachers are trained and programs are funded. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1983.)

It recommended, for example, a different funding approach for vocational programs, which would take into consideration program costs such as equipment, teachers' salaries, and remediation for disadvantaged students.

The committee also recommended an experimental incentive-grant program that would help make "high quality" vocational programs accessible to disadvantaged students.

In addition, the committee urged that teacher-certification rules be modified so that more individuals with occupational training or experience in industry could be recruited. And it called for the use of more part-time vocational teachers and the development of differential pay scales and monetary rewards for exemplary teachers.

Last week's meeting, which was jointly sponsored by the Education Department's office of vocational and adult education and the National Academy of Sciences, offered educators concerned with vocational education the opportunity to discuss the merits of the report's proposals. Although most of the participants said they welcomed the report, not all were in agreement with its recommendations.

Some expressed concern over the panel's recommendation on incentive grants, saying they believed it would mean fewer vocational students in the comprehensive high school. But others noted that the current system of funding allows obsolete programs to be maintained.

Calling the committee's report "a landmark study for vocational education," Mr. Bell said that unless educators work to solve the problems of access, teacher training, and funding in the vocational field, those problems "will become more critical as the economy improves and competition intensifies among nations."

"This Administration's position on vocational education is that it's an important part of employment and training," Mr. Bell said.

Drawing a parallel between the reports of the excellence commission and the National Academy of Sciences, the Secretary said he hoped the academy's report could do for vocational education what the excel-lence panel's report has been doing for education in general.

But some conference participants suggested that a key component of the excellence commission's report--the call for higher educational standards--may have the effect of depressing enrollments in vocational programs.

Joe D. Mills, state director of vocational education for the Florida Department of Education, said the state's new, raised standards have had a marked effect on "what we're able to do." For example, he said, there has been a reduction in the number of students participating in cooperative-education programs in the state since the state legislature voted in July to impose a 24-credit high-school graduation requirement.

Charles S. Benson, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that one way to counter the problems developing for vocational students as the states "rush to meet new graduation requirements" would be to improve program scheduling by lengthening the school day or to use competency-based programs so that "students can advance more rapidly."

Gene Bottoms, executive director of the American Vocational Association, said his organization is "beginning to hear rumors" of declining vocational enrollments around the country, and plans to conduct a survey of its membership to determine the accuracy of those rumors.

Mr. Bell said the Education Department plans to sponsor a series of regional meetings to carry on the work started by the National Academy of Science's report and to provide opportunities for further discussion. In addition, he said, the report will be disseminated at the national forum on education early next month in Indianapolis.

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