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Study Cites Pressures on Vocational Education

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The combined impact of a declining student population and education reforms that have raised academic requirements may produce an enrollment war between vocational schools and comprehensive high schools, preliminary data from the National Assessment of Vocational Education suggest.

Findings from the first of three interim reports to be issued as part of the federally mandated study indicate that enrollment in vocational programs is declining faster than the school-age population.

And one byproduct of that decline has been strained relations between vocational officials and high-school counselors and administrators, says the report.

The national assessment was undertaken to guide the Congress in its deliberations next year on the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act.

The first report, released this month, presents a broad overview of issues in the field. Subsequent reports will include more detailed statistical examinations of problem areas.

From site visits, case studies, and a review of existing literature, the nave researchers identified sharp drops in vocational enrollments as one such area.

In New York State, for example, enrollments in vocational programs fell by 6.7 percent between 1982 and 1986, while overall secondary-school enrollments decreased by 5.1 percent. Similar declines have been documented in California and elsewhere, according to the report.

The competition for students such declines have fostered, it says, has become so intense in some locales that school administrators there consider public relations a large part of their job. Maintaining enrollment, they told researchers, is one of their major functions.

Vocational administrators in New York and other sites visited by the nave research team complained that officials at comprehensive high schools urge their counselors and teachers to discourage students from attending an area facility.

Some districts may limit the overall number of students they will support at a vocational school, the officials said, and others will often direct the most "costly" students, such as the handicapped, to the area facility.

In particular, the vocational administrators reported, they are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to middle-school students, an age group they would like make more aware of high-school vocational programs. Guidance counselors, they said, contribute to that difficulty.

The study suggests that recent academic reforms have exacerbated the problems brought about by declining overall enrollments.

It cites such specific reforms as increases in the number of units in core or academic courses required for graduation and the introduction of advanced diplomas or special certificates for additional academic coursework.

These new requirements place growing--and often competing--demands on students' time, the report says, and contribute to enrollment declines not only in area vocational schools, but also in vocational programs offered at comprehensive high schools.

Although the interim report contains no official recommendations, it lists several local and state responses to the problems outlined.

Curricular Flexibility Needed

One area in which fundamental change is needed, it suggests, is the organization of vocational-education curricula.

To accommodate the tighter schedule reform mandates have created, the report says, vocational education may need to shift away from multi-year, multi-course, multi-period programs to shorter and more flexible offerings.

The study notes that some districts have integrated academic and vocational programs, offering courses that not only meet graduation requirements but also attract a cross-section of students.

Statistics from the report--based on 1982 data from the U.S. Education Department's "High School and Beyond Survey"--indicate that vocational programs are, in fact, appealing to a cross-section of the student population. They show that 97 percent of all high-school students take at least one course designated as vocational.

"Enrollment in vocational education among students is entirely a matter of degree, not an either-or proposition," the report states.

The report's analysis of the 1982 figures shows that the amount of vocational coursework a student takes is affected more by his post-graduation plans than his academic ability or family income.

Work-bound students averaged slightly more than six vocational credits, while those planning to earn a four-year college degree averaged about three credits.

In the two subsequent nave re4ports, transcript data now being collected on the high-school class of 1987 will provide more detailed information on the extent to which vocational enrollments are changing nationwide.

Focus on Disadvantaged

In addition, the final reports will examine more closely how disadvantaged students--the target group for the Perkins Act--are being served.

This month's report notes that there is little information at present on the access of the disadvantaged to high-quality vocational training.

Obtaining a greater understanding of the nature and extent of the problems faced by this target group is a priority, it says.

The researchers will study in particular the question of whether disadvantaged students should be placed in separate settings or mainstreamed with regular vocational classes.

The second interim report is scheduled for release in July, and the final report will be presented to the Congress in January, 1989.

They are expected to evaluate the implementation of the Perkins Act and draw a finer outline of the relationship between skills training and the economy.

Copies of the reports are available from the National Assessment of Vocational Education, U.S. Education Department, FOB-6, Room 3141, 400 Maryland Ave. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.

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