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Vocational Agriculture: A Model for Education Reform

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The numerous recent reports on secondary education in America are as revealing in what they neglect as in what they address. For example, precious little has been written about vocational education even though in 1980 more than two-thirds of all high-school students took at least one vocational-education course and about a fourth considered themselves to be following a vocational-education curriculum, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Today, the federal government is wrestling with the reauthorization of the Vocational Education Act, which has passed in both houses of the Congress and is under consideration by a conference committee. The act provides funds for the training of high-school students preparing to enter the labor market and for the retraining of workers who need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones. The reauthorization battle comes at a time when some education reformers, such as Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, are urgently calling for more attention to basic skills, a common curriculum that would eliminate "tracking," and vocational education as a self-contained curriculum. Other forces, like the National Alliance of Business, are calling for more training in job-specific skills to provide graduates ready to fill labor shortages. This tension, and the fact that academic programs are bound to compete for funds with vocational programs, promises to add to the confusion of policymakers.

After examining the vocational-education system for about five years, I am convinced that the nation should not pursue reform in education at the expense of vocational programs. If those who so diligently studied high schools had taken a closer look at vocational education, they might have noticed that there really are two alternative strategies for providing vocational skills. The first strategy, originally represented by trade and industrial education, was devised in the early 1900's to better fit workers for emerging manufacturing industries and immigrants for American city life. It is based on a traditional factory-production model in which workers automatically accept and follow standard procedures. This strategy was adapted for technical, distribution, office, health, and occupational home-economics occupations as they were added to the vocational curriculum. It has become the standard form of vocational education in the high school and dominates discussions of the future of vocational education.

The second strategy applies to vocational agriculture, a program originally intended to hasten the dissemination of scientific agricultural innovations throughout the farming regions by way of the schools, and to provide an education more relevant to rural life than the classical, city education. The strategy behind vocational agriculture is based on a production model in which workers make independent decisions and are encouraged to take initiative. While this form of vocational education is rarely mentioned by policy analysts, it may in fact be a model that could not only disarm the opponents of vocational education but also point the way for the implementation of important educational reforms.

Vocational agriculture characteristically includes many of the activities and approaches currently recommended for the improvement of secondary education in general: training for leadership and entrepreneurship, longer periods of time devoted daily to education, a problem-solving approach to learning, higher-quality teachers, and greater cooperation with the private sector. There is little doubt that it has been effective for agriculture in the past and has contributed to the phenomenal growth in American agricultural productivity since the turn of the century when these programs began.

Can this model be adapted to train students to work in other occupations--particularly new and emerging ones? Will it help meet today's goals for secondary education? Based on what I have seen and learned, I think it will.

The breadth and scope of vocational-agriculture education set it apart from most more narrowly focused trade and industrial programs. The agricultural curricula typically include all of the management, finance, and marketing aspects of farming--skills useful in any small business enterprise. Students are required to actually set up income-generating business projects or experiments and to record all financial transactions and production tasks in order to measure both profits and productivity. Because farming has too many variables to allow pat solutions, students must learn to innovate rather than simply remember and follow procedures.

The program's problem-solving orientation is more like the approaches learned in basic engineering and science than those learned in typical vocational-training programs. The effectiveness of vocational-agriculture's problem-solving skills was vividly demonstrated to me by a student from upstate New York who described how her experiments with artificial insemination reduced the maturation period of her family's cattle from 18 to 14 months.

Most of these vocational-agriculture programs are housed in comprehensive high schools, unlike many trade and industrial programs that are offered in physically separate centers. Keeping vocational agriculture in the comprehensive high school makes it easier to combine the vocational with the academic curriculum, answering those critics of vocational education who worry that vocational students do not seek or benefit from academic courses.

One of the most important features of vocational agriculture is the Future Farmers of America, which provides leadership training and requires after-school activities. The success of former FFA students is legendary--in the South alone its alumni include Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina, Gov. Robert Graham of Florida, and former President Jimmy Carter. On a more modest scale, local respect and recognition for the program has meant, for example, that Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Atlanta would hire any applicant wearing an FFA jacket to the interview, according to a former Georgia state director of vocational education. Equally important, the FFA is not just an after-school club; it is an"intracurricular" activity, as an Iowa teacher described it, "directly tied to what goes on in the classroom." The wide range of vocational-agriculture courses has recently met with criticism from policymakers and educators. Federal vocational education legislation has tried to "modernize" vocational agriculture by demanding that the programs be divided into specialized functions. Under the Vocational Education Act, students must specialize in narrow fields such as, "body and fender repair" or "home furnishings." In the same way, instead of following a general course of studies, a vocational-agriculture student must specialize in, for example, "agricultural mechanics." Fortunately, many wiser agriculture educators have been able to comply with federal and state requirements by assigning each student to a specialized field on paper, while leaving the broad-based curriculum intact.

Education reformers are again urging more school-business partnerships in education, an involvement that has long existed among vocational-agriculture programs and rural organizations and agribusinesses. Working closely with local business and political groups, students for decades have been able to observe and participate in marketing and buying cooperatives, and other community activities typical of farming regions. At the same time, the curriculum and the time spent with farm organizations help infuse students with the agrarian tradition of independence, cooperation, and self-education.

One of the results of this pedagogy is that vocational agriculture comes closer than any other educational program to meeting America's need for a revived entrepreneurial spirit and increased productivity. Current education policies seem to assume that simply adding a course on free enterprise to the curriculum will inspire entrepreneurial behavior. Entrepreneurship is not, however, something that can be learned from a series of lectures and readings. It is learned by observation and participation, and by being exposed to the risk-taking that farming, for example, requires.

Why haven't these strengths been recognized more widely by policymakers? The answer, in part, is that vocational education today is charged first and foremost with being responsive to labor-market demands. Thus vocational agriculture is criticized for training farmers when the demand for farmers is unquestionably declining. The federally mandated evaluation criterion, which is based on numbers of students employed in occupations for which they were trained, has become the accepted indicator of success. But this approach to evaluation is shortsighted. Critics should look beyond occupational titles and focus on the program's content, philosophy, and results. Vocational agriculture was never intended to meet occupational demand; it was meant to improve productivity, not to increase the numbers of farmers. It also prepares youths to adapt to demand and to be generally productive.

The danger vocational-agriculture programs face, aside from drastic cutbacks, is that policymakers, instead of adapting their strengths for use in other vocational programs, will force them to conform to the structure of those more specialized vocational programs under the guise of "modernizing." An "agricultural-mechanics" program I observed that was offered in an area vocational center away from the comprehensive high school was simply "auto mechanics" with tractors instead of autos. It had lost the traditional strengths of vocational agriculture.

It would be wrong to look back only with nostalgia at past vocational-agriculture programs. In fact, there have been weak programs and until the 1960's, blacks and women were excluded from the FFA and some other high-quality programs. Minorities and women are still underrepresented in both--but a great deal of progress has been made.

Despite the decline in demand for farmers, between 1972 and 1980 the proportion of all high-school students enrolled in vocational-agriculture programs doubled. This suggests that students recognize the strengths of the program. As a matter of fact, when I visited a vocational-agriculture class in West Virginia recently, all but one of the 18 students said they enrolled in the course to prepare for nonagricultural occupations--even though their school offered a traditional business program.

As educators and policymakers head down the road to the future, they should glance in their rear-view mirrors at the fields and farm animals of an agricultural sector that has recorded an astounding growth in productivity. This growth has been due, in part, to the success of vocational agriculture. With a little imagination on the part of educators, this model could produce not only productive, well-educated employees but also future employers and owners in the industrial and service sectors.

Vol. 4, Issue 4, Page 24, 21

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