Vocational Officials Weigh Bennett Plea For 'Sensible Middle Ground' in Studies
Atlanta--U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett told an attentive but uncertain vocational-education community here this month that to meet the changing needs of students and society the field must "stake out a sensible middle ground" between academics and trade skills.
Such training, Mr. Bennett said, should be broad enough to prepare students not only for specific jobs, but for "that 40-year sequence of events following graduation."
In his first major address on the subject of vocational studies, Mr. Bennett told participants at the American Vocational Association's annual meeting that achieving such balance would require changes in some programs. He urged the adoption of a "solid academic curriculum" that places greater emphasis on "broad career education" than on "job-specific training."
Although the Secretary's remarks drew criticism from some, many vocational educators here said they had already reached some of Mr. Bennett's conclusions. They expressed fears that unless significant adjustments are made, their programs may sink under the combined weight of increased academic requirements in the states and rapidly changing technology in the workplace.
Said Willard R. Daggett, director of occupational-education programs for the New York State education department: "If you hang in with job-specific training as your only goal, and give only lip service to broad vocational goals, then you're in trouble."
As speakers in other sessions made clear, the imperative for change has led vocational educators to ally themselves with the business community, labor groups, postsecondary institutions, and others in an effort to build partnerships that will reshape and revitalize their programs.
In his address, Mr. Bennett said that although one of the strengths of American education is its ability to "accommodate differences in students' needs," the best education for all students is a general one that provides "civic, personal, and utilitarian" training.
Educators agree generally on the curricular components of both civic and personal education, the secretary said, but there is less accord on how to provide a utilitarian education.
"There is, on the one hand, the view which holds that what the employment-bound student needs is academic rigor," said Mr. Bennett. "On the other hand is the view that the student not planning on college does not really need to learn much by way of academics. Instead, he must learn a trade that he can use immediately after graduating."
The "sensible middle ground," according to Mr. Bennett, is an approach that emphasizes the teach-ing of "general skills, general knowledge, and worthy values and habits."
General skills, he said, include basic literacy and mathematical abilities; general knowledge is information about the world that makes students "more likely to be workers who are able to learn over the course of a lifetime."
In addition to these, said the Secretary, the development of such life habits as punctuality, cooperation, and reliability "enables a person to function effectively on the job."
Such a broad-based utilitarian education, said Mr. Bennett, is what employers most want but "have lately been telling us that they feel [is] lacking" in the education of their new employees.
Secretary Bennett asked the vocational educators to carefully weigh the objectives of their individual programs.
"It may be that you will decide that job-specific training is best suited for the postsecondary level," he said. "Perhaps you will decide that vocational education in our high schools should be exploratory, in the form of broad career education, examining the behaviors and skills required in different jobs."
Programs in Trouble
For many of those attending the conference, Mr. Bennett's remarks represented unwelcome but relevant advice. And, they noted, some states have already developed cur-ricular programs similar to those he described.
"We've got to listen to Secretary Bennett, even though we don't want to," said New York's Mr. Daggett.
At a later session sponsored by the National Association of Large City Directors of Vocational Educators, Mr. Daggett said that secondary vocational education is "at the crossroads," and predicted that as many as one-third of the programs currently in existence may not survive the pressures of change.
In New York, he said, curricular reforms instituted under the state's education-reform plan have led to a "new basics" curriculum for vocational education, which blends job-specific training and general education.
Such revisions, Mr. Daggett said, address not only the administrative problems brought about by "tough new academic regulations," but also the fact that in teaching job-specific courses today, vocational educators "can't keep updated fast enough."
'Other People's Needs'
A similar program in Ohio gives vocational students the option of taking "applied academics" classes in mathematics, science, and communications for general-education credit. According to Sonia M. Price, assistant director for the Ohio education department, the classes, taught jointly by academic and vocational instructors, "give local school districts different kinds of ways to strengthen academics." .
Now in its first year, the Ohio pro-gram grew out of the recommendations of a state blue-ribbon commission on vocational education, Ms. Price said. The choice for educators, she said, was either "lose students or find a way to incorporate academics while strengthening vocational programs."
Alain E. Hunter, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's department of industrial, technological, and occupational education, suggested that another way to improve vocational education would be to develop a 14-year curriculum, with more specialized job-skills training beginning in grade 13, following the acquisition of basic academic and vocational skills.
"For a person to have that kind of survey experience," he argued, ''you need 14 years of education."
Most of the vocational educators here agreed, however, that the primary aim of curriculum-reform efforts is to teach students ways of thinking that will prepare them for the workplace of the future.
"What will save vocational education," Mr. Daggett said, "is the ability to solve other people's problems instead of our own."
The Role of Industry
Conference participants pointed to the growth of cooperative arrangements with higher education, business, and other groups as one hopeful development. And the most important of these partnerships, they agreed, will be those with business and industry.
Said Paul O. Lentz, director of vo-cational education for the Cabarrus County, N.C., schools and the ava's vice president for administration: "Industry, by putting pressure on the schools and school boards to turn out a better product, will ensure that kids are trained and have academic skills. They will start demanding resources."
In fact, a resolution stressing the need to expand such "collaborative efforts" with business and industry was among those passed by the ava's Assembly of Delegates here.
The association's president, Rosemary F. Kolde, said that the ava also plans to establish a private-sector council--composed of executives from both large corporations and small businesses--early next year. Its goal, she said, will be to "have them understand our problems, and give us advice and counsel on what we can do to solve some of their problems by providing the types of employees that they need."
A New Mission
But some vocational educators said that the best response to the pressures for change would be a more unified sense of purpose.
Neil Edmunds, chairman of industrial education at the University of Nebraska and vice president of the ava's industrial-arts education division, said the field must "be aware of all the movements in education and try to sort out vocational education's place among them."
But, he added, "we have not yet come to grips with that."