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Vocational Programs 'Seriously Flawed,' Need Retooling, Says Finn

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Seattle--Calling current vocational-education programs "very seriously flawed," a high-ranking U.S. Education Department official told state legislators meeting here this month that schooling for non-college-bound students must be re-examined to strike a balance between the "educational excellence" desired by school reformers and the employment training needed in a rapidly changing workplace.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Chester E. Finn Jr., the Education Department's newly confirmed assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said requiring vocational students to take the same courses as the college-bound--a frequent feature in state reform measures--is not the answer for students who already have failed to meet lower academic standards.

"Is it right, we ask, to impose an academic curriculum and high standards on kids who may for various reasons find these things difficult to handle or uninteresting or ill-suited to the circumstances of their lives and their ambitions?" said Mr. Finn.

He cautioned, however, that the opposite viewpoint--a trade-training philosophy that requires little or no academic work of the vocational student--is equally ill-suited to future employment requirements.

"We've no reason to suppose that the kind of work [a student] undertakes in the year after leaving school is going to endure for him or even for the society, so fast is the pace of change in the world of employment," said the assistant education secretary.

"Indeed," he added, "it's all but certain that our 1985 high-school graduate will work in some jobs that do not yet exist, employing technol-ogy that has not yet been developed, engaging in tasks that have not yet been defined, being based in workplaces the nature and shape of which may be radically different from those of today."

Instead, Mr. Finn advocated a third course, which he described as "Option B."

Under "Option B," he said, all work-bound students would be well-grounded in basic skills. They would also have absorbed from their education, he said, "a set of values and behavioral norms that enable one to function effectively in the workplace--the ability to get out of bed in the morning and show up on time, day after day, and complete one's obligations, and take direction from one's superiors, and be honest and law-abiding and tolerant and conscientious, and so forth."

Such an educational program would eliminate the "tracking" ofel5lstudents, he said, suggesting that only a few courses during the last two years of high school should separate vocational-education students from the college-bound.

"Where [the curriculum] will diverge," he said, "is in the kinds of material that the teacher covers while imparting higher-order cognitive skills."

Students would be taught the same higher-order skills, but the materials for vocational-education students, he said, "may have less to do with the periodic table of the elements and more to do with scientific reasoning, less to do with Shakespeare and more to do with the logic that underlies a training manual."

Mr. Finn reminded the lawmakers that business, in general, is interested not in "narrow vocationalism" but in an employee's ability and willingness to learn throughout a working lifetime.

He quoted a new report by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of the nation's business leaders, as saying that business "prefers a curriculum that stresses literacy and mathematical and problem-solving skills. Such a curriculum should emphasize learning how to learn and adapting to change."

The report, which Mr. Finn characterized as "first-rate," is scheduled for release in September.

The curriculum for all students, he said, needs to reflect a conviction that "we're liberating young people, not limiting them."

"So let's educate them, all of them, in a way that frees them for a lifetime of opportunity," he concluded, "not in a way that binds them to a particular trade or sequence or vocation."

Mr. Finn's address was one of several conference sessions focusing on "at-risk" students and the impact of reform efforts on that population.

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