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Vocational Education Column

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The "sloppiness'' with which students are tracked into vocational and academic courses at comprehensive high schools results in a self-fulfilling prophecy for many low-income and low-achieving students, according to a new report from the National Center for Research on Vocational Education.

The two-year, federally funded study, conducted by researchers at the RAND Corporation, is based on student transcripts and interviews with faculty members and students at three unnamed West Coast high schools. It found that "concentrated vocational-education course-taking was largely, but not entirely, reserved for the least academically able students in the school.''

In addition, low-income and disadvantaged minority students took more vocational courses than did whites and middle-class minority youngsters.

Such differences held up not only within but between schools. The high school with the largest number of poor, African-American, and Latino students, for example, offered the weakest curriculum, with the fewest college-preparatory classes and the narrowest range of vocational offerings. But it also enrolled the largest percentage of students in vocational classes.

"The term 'dumping ground' is harsh,'' says the report, "but that is the word our respondents used over and over again to explain an important function of vocational classes at their schools.''

"At best,'' it concludes, "the current context for high school vocational education is characterized by benign neglect of its programs and students, and at worst by disdain for programs, teachers, and students.''

The report recommends blurring the distinction between academic and vocational studies, as part of a larger effort to reconstruct the high school curriculum.

For information about ordering the report, "Educational Matchmaking: Academic and Vocational Tracking in Comprehensive High Schools,'' call (800) 637-7652.

The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund has provided nearly $1 million to the National Conference of State Legislatures and Jobs for the Future to begin a two-year project that will help five states develop and carry out comprehensive workforce-development strategies.

State teams of legislators, business leaders, educators, labor representatives, and others will be selected through a competitive process in January. Each team will receive extensive technical help.

Christine DeVita, the president of the foundation, said that "an especially important beneficiary of this effort will be the many young people who will receive the training they'll need to secure higher-paying jobs in the future.''

Interested states should call Barbara Puls of the N.C.S.L. at (303) 830-2200.--L.O.

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