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New Vocational Goals Proposed for South

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The legislative council of the Southern Regional Education Board has recommended that high-school vocational programs in member states place more emphasis on basic academic skills and less on preparing students for specific jobs.

The council, comprising some 40 senators and representatives from 15 Southern states, made the proposal in a resolution adopting a series of recommendations on vocational education during a recent "legislative work conference" in Austin, Tex. The recommendations were developed by a subcommittee of the sreb's commission for educational quality, and had been approved by the governing board of the sreb this past summer.

Adoption of the recommendations coincides with ongoing attempts by a number of Southern states to re-examine the purpose of vocational education at the secondary level.

The sreb, oldest of the regional state compacts in education, typically plays an influential role in such situations, developing consensus among member states on key policy issues. The legislative council includes at least one state senator and one representative from each member state.

In choosing to emphasize the academic side of vocational studies, the Southern policymakers may sharpen the debate over the quality and focus of vocational education that has been simmering since the current school-reform movement began.

Last month, for example, the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit organization whose trustees represent 225 of the nation's leading corporations and postsecondary institutions, released a report that leveled harsh criticism at vocational-education programs.

It argued that many vocational programs are "warehousing" low achievers and ignoring their academic needs. And it said business leaders prefer a curriculum stressing literacy, mathematical, and problem-solving skills to one that emphasizes narrow vocational objectives.

But last November, a report by the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education charged that education-reform efforts are putting too much stress on "academics" and disregarding the needs of students who do not plan to attend college. It urged that vocational education be raised from its "second-class status" to one "co-equal" with college-preparatory programs.

Same Standards

The sreb recommended that students in vocational education be required to meet the same standards on high-school competency tests as other students.

Vocational curricula should be redesigned to teach the basic skills required of academic-track students, the legislative council said.

Noting that "vocational education is perceived by some as a custodial program for low-ability students who cannot make it academically," the sreb also argued that vocational programs should challenge students at all ability levels, not just students having problems in school.

The remedial-education needs of some vocational students must be addressed, it added, perhaps by teams of remedial and vocational educators.

Occupational Competencies

The sreb council also adopted these major recommendations:

Certain vocational courses should be recognized as meeting new high-school graduation requirements, if the courses lead to mastery of basic academic skills. Some vocational courses should be redesigned to incorporate basic-skills instruction.

Academic and vocational teachers should cooperate in developing programs that link academic knowledge with practical applications, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science.

The ability of vocational students to master "occupational competencies" should be assessed, just as students are now tested for academic competencies.

The placement rate of vocational-education graduates in full-time4jobs should be examined in any vocational program that purports to train students for job entry.

Industrial-arts courses should be updated to include content related to modern technology. "Building birdhouses and benches and so forth is a real nice thing," said state Senator Curtis Peterson of Florida, chairman of the sreb committee that developed the recommendations, "but it doesn't help you get a job."

Coordination between the business community, secondary vocational educators, and postsecondary vocational educators should be improved. In particular, coordinating bodies, composed primarily of lay people, should be created and given the authority to assess the needs of vocational programs and to approve or reject such programs on a state or regional basis.

A range of cooperative programs for vocational high-school students should be offered.

These might include, for example, a "two-plus-two" program, in which students begin a planned four-year curriculum during the last two years of high school and complete it with two years of postsecondary study and on-the-job training. Another possibility would be cooperative-learning arrangements, in which high-school students spend part of each day in a variety of retail or wholesale settings.

The sreb cautioned, however, that such settings should provide "real learning experiences" and not allow students to mark time in jobs with no chance for advancement.

State Activity

A number of Southern states have already taken steps to reform their vocational-education programs in line with the sreb recommendations.

Florida and South Carolina both require that for three consecutive years vocational-education programs place a certain percentage of their graduates in full-time jobs or lose state funding.

Florida will require a 70 percent job-placement rate for most programs, beginning with the 1986-87 school year; South Carolina will require a 50 percent job-placement rate in 1987-88.

Both states have also provided funds to upgrade vocational programs to meet new technological demands.

In addition, the South Carolina Advisory Council on Vocational and Technical Education is conducting a study of that state's vocational system, to be completed for the legislature no later than April.

The Georgia Board of Education last month approved a new definition of vocational education at the high-school level that emphasizes the need to teach vocational students basic academic skills, according to William P. Johnson, associate state superintendent for vocational education. The change was mandated by the state's education-reform act.

Lawmakers in Kentucky and North Carolina have created new task forces to oversee statewide studies of their vocational-education systems. Those studies will be completed in 1986 and 1987, respectively.

Beginning this school year, the North Carolina Board of Education will not approve any local vocational-education plan that does not meet new standards approved by the board this past summer.

According to Margaret B. Hay8den, special assistant to the state superintendent of education, those standards include a justification of the need for vocational programs based on student and labor-market demands, and a demonstration that vocational programs are responsive to new technological developments.

Abilities 'Underestimated'

David S. Spence, vice president and director of research for the sreb, agreed that vocational-education programs may in some cases fail to provide students with basic literacy and mathematics skills, and fail to place graduates in program-related jobs.

But he added that despite those weaknesses, vocational education can play an important role in motivating noncollege-bound students to learn basic skills.

"I just think we've underestimated what some of the students in vocational secondary programs can do, given a reason for learning," added Gene Bottoms, former executive director of the American Vocational Association and a member of the sreb committee that developed the recommendations.

He said that some students grasp concepts more readily through their practical application than through abstract thinking.

Mr. Spence said he shared the concerns of vocational educators that increased course requirements for high-school graduation may reduce the amount of time students have for vocational training and encourage some students who are not academically inclined to drop out of school.

Other Action

As part of the resolution adopting the vocational-education recommendations, members of sreb's legislative council also approved earlier recommendations the sreb had made for changes in educating all public-school teachers, not just those in vocational education.

In particular, lawmakers called on the governors of each of the 15 sreb states to establish ad hoc groups to promote reforms in the preservice and inservice training of both teachers and administrators.

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