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The Unfinished Agenda:The Role of Vocational EducationIn the High School

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The most common perception of vocational education is that it prepares youth for low-status jobs. This perception is rooted in the ancient concept of mind-body dualism.

"Head" occupations generally require a four-year college or professional degree. They have high status. Thus, courses and curricula that lead toward college also have high status and are valued by parents and students.

"Hand" occupations are frequently blue-collar, don't require a college or professional degree, and have low status. Thus, high-school courses that lead toward these occupations are viewed as second class or peripheral within the high-school curriculum.

Introduction: The Case for

Vocational Education

Americans are proud that our public-education system is accessible to all and that our society is committed to a quality high-school education for everyone. The pride is justified--but tempered by disappointment, for despite all our efforts, we have not reached our goal.

The bricks and mortar are in place. The teachers are there. But more than one-fourth of our high-school students drop out before graduation and the competencies of many of those who do graduate are questionable.

Recent criticisms of our secondary schools have documented growing deficiencies in the academic preparation of students. Many states have responded to these criticisms by increasing the number of academic courses required for high-school graduation. The assumption is that more academics, which may be the best preparation for college, is also the best preparation for life. This assumption is wrong.

The response by the state has some merit--it does show a strong commitment to improving the quality of education received by students in secondary schools. However, it ignores differences in student interests and abilities, and it ignores the needs of those high-school students who do not plan to go to college and who purposefully choose a vocational program.

A system of rigid academic requirements ignores individual differences. It screens out those who do not fit the mold. For example, requiring a third year of mathematics makes little sense, unless it is remedial, for a high-school student who cannot do 6th-grade math.

This report calls for a more balanced initiative to promote excellence and equity in our secondary schools. More is not necessarily better. Diversity may be more responsive to the problem.

Our society is obsessively concerned with higher education as a preparation for work and downgrades the intrinsic, lifelong value of education. Our secondary schools reflect this obsession by valuing only the college-bound. Such a narrow focus ignores the fact that approximately 80 percent of the jobs in America do not require a college degree, and most students will not obtain one.

This educational myopia that pervades our society produces predictable results:

An unacceptably high percentage of students (approximately 28 percent) drop out of high school.

Many high-school graduates cannot read, write, compute, or perform well enough to find meaningful work during or following high school.

Many college graduates, holding their unmarketable degrees, face disillusionment when their professional expectations collide with reality. They are unable to recognize the intrinsic value of their educations or understand its relevance to their personal goals.

High-school vocational education is downgraded and assigned second-class status, especially trade and industrial programs. Some of the most successful vocational programs, such as clerical and computer studies, are reluctantly listed as such.

Youth unemployment, especially among minority youth, is another major, national problem. As with most of our major problems, the factors that contribute are numerous. Schools can control only the preparation and skills they provide to students. The role of vocational education should be to make youth employable, whatever the state of the economy. And this significant role can be accomplished when vocational education complements academic education.

In this report we argue for a more balanced approach to attaining excellence in secondary schools. All students, whether college-bound or not, need a mix of both academic and vocational courses and enough elective options to match their interests and learning styles.

Vocational education must be a significant part of a quality high-school education. Many young people enter high school already turned off to the learning process. More of the same is not the answer. Motivating students not only to do better, but also in many cases, to stay in school, is a critical task of education. Vocational education is frequently the catalyst that reawakens their commitment to school and sparks a renewed interest in the academic skills. We believe vocational education can help prepare all our young people for adult life, not only at work and at home, but also in how they use their leisure time.

Vocational Education:

The Promise


Much has been written about the purposes of schooling and education that reflects the agreement that, with regard to our public schools, "we want it all." We want schools to help students achieve intellectual, social, vocational, and personal goals.

Vocational education addresses all these goals. Broadly, vocational education should be concerned with the development of the individual student in five areas: (1) personal skills and attitudes, (2) communication and computational skills, and technological literacy, (3) employability skills, (4) broad and specific occupational skills and knowledge, and (5) foundations for career planning and lifelong learning.

These purposes are shared by other parts of the secondary-school system, as well as by the external programs, agencies, and extracurricular functions of the school system. We all seek to provide youth with experiences that prepare them for continued educational opportunities and work, as well as for family, social, civic, and personal responsibilities.

A decline in the capacity of individual citizens to develop effective work habits, to become effective problem solvers, and to communicate will condemn us all to a meager existence. Thus, this report emphasizes how we can improve the growth-enhancing qualities of existing secondary-school vocational programs. We emphasize the need to improve both immediate and deferred outcomes and to achieve both individual and societal goals.

The issue is not whether secondary students should be prepared for jobs, nor is the issue whether secondary students should receive a general education or a specialized education. The truth of the matter is that all students need both kinds of preparation. It is not an either/or situation. Students seeking employment in the skilled and technical occupations must first develop a strong foundation in general education. Upon that base is built the specialization. For many students, depending upon the occupational area of interest, the specialization will come at the postsecondary level of education.

Vocational education in the secondary school has been viewed primarily as a vehicle for occupational training. This purpose continues to be an important part of vocational education at the secondary level. However, vocational education can and frequently does offer additional opportunities to enrich the educational experience of youth.

Vocational Education:

An Educational Process

What we see in secondary classrooms in America differs greatly from what we know about good teaching and learning. Recent studies of American high schools highlight a sameness and lack of variety in teaching methods. But instruction in the vocational classrooms offers an alternative--an avenue for breaking away from the all-too-similar characteristics of so many classrooms.

Vocational education is both a body of knowledge and an educational process, but the educational process has not received the degree of attention it deserves. Vocational education's potential to respond to diverse learning styles has been underutilized.

Secondary vocational programs teach problem-solving and analytical skills. Applied and small-group learning activities reinforce basic communication and interpersonal skills and promote their transferability to other settings. For example, this educational process promotes:

the ability to gather and analyze information,

the use of scientific inquiry and reasoning,

an appreciation of the implications of technological development, and

an understanding of the fundamentals of how our economic system works.

Instruction in vocational classrooms is usually individualized and cooperative. Most instructors emphasize student mastery of specific skills or competencies. Students progress at their own rate. Because some students work in teams, often on group projects, learning is also cooperative. Students help each other, and learn from each other, each contributing to the achievement of the group. Individualized and cooperative instruction have been found to improve student achievement better than conventional whole-group instruction.

As a means of teaching, vocational education often serves as the glue that holds the students' total education together, making academic work meaningful and goal-oriented. But the real strength of vocational education lies in its ability to motivate students. Secondary students enjoy their vocational activities. They find them interesting and relevant to their lives. Such programs motivate them to stay involved in productive and creative experiences. Many students report they would have dropped out of high school if they had not had the opportunity to take vocational courses in high school. Vocational student organizations are integral to motivating students.

Vocational education also provides some students with real-world learning experiences, through cooperative education in the workplace. It taps students' natural interests in the world about them and allows them to use their tactile and kinesthetic senses in learning. The applied orientation of vocational classes, coupled with a tradition of field-based activities, stimulates student motivation and provides concrete ways to learn abstract principles. Most important, students develop competence and confidence in their abilities by applying both knowledge and skills to the task at hand. Students get immediate feedback on how well they are performing.

Clearly, viewing vocational education as an educational process highlights its great promise for accomplishing the multiple goals of secondary schooling. One message most emphasized by some reports on secondary education is the need for alternative, more effective instruction and the lack of hands-on learning in secondary schools. When we look at vocational education as a process, we find the alternative modes of instruction that these reports advocate.

Fulfilling the Promise:

Challenges to Vocational Education

The promise of vocational education faces many obstacles and challenges before it can be fully realized. As a first step, the commission has identified and examined existing problem areas. Although they sometimes overlap, we present these problems in the following categories:

Perceptions of vocational education




Teacher education and recruitment

Standards and accountability



Business, labor, and community involvement

Field-based learning, including cooperative education

Some of these problems and challenges are specific to vocational education, and some are faced by secondary education as a whole. All need to be addressed.

Perceptions of Vocational Education

The most common perception of vocational education is that it prepares youth for low-status jobs. This perception is rooted in the ancient concept of mind-body dualism.

"Head" occupations generally require a four-year college or professional degree. They have high status. Thus, courses and curricula that lead toward college also have high status and are valued by parents and students.

"Hand" occupations are frequently blue-collar, don't require a college or professional degree, and have low status. Thus, high-school courses that lead toward these occupations are viewed as second class or peripheral within the high-school curriculum.

The perception is that vocational education typically prepares youth, especially males, for blue-collar "hand" occupations. Because most middle-class parents devalue any high-school program that is not a prerequisite for admission to four-year colleges or universities, they devalue vocational education. Consequently, school officials often view and use some vocational programs as a "dumping ground" for less able students.

According to the most recent (1984) "Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools," the majority of people believe that vocational-education courses (outranked only by mathematics and English) should be required for students not planning to go to college. Eighty-three percent of those polled felt vocational courses should be required--a dramatic increase from the 64-percent response in 1981. Further, 37 percent of the Gallup Poll respondents (up from 33 percent in 1981) felt that vocational education should be required for students planning to attend college. Clearly, this confirms a growing public sentiment for the importance of vocational experiences, especially for those not planning to attend college.

Educational reformers have long called for vocational and academic teachers to collaborate in developing a balanced curriculum--one in which such studies as English, science, mathematics, graphic arts, and electronics would collectively enlarge understanding of the workplace and, in turn, correct some of the traditional perceptions and stereotypes described here. The commission believes that both general and vocational education leaders must undertake to integrate their curricula and demonstrate the co-equal importance of academic and vocational learning. In doing this, we will be more responsive to the unique needs of all students in our nation's secondary schools.

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