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Study Finds Little Consistency in 'Tech Prep' Efforts

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"Tech prep'' programs are still in an embryonic phase of development and need to form a clearer vision of what student populations they will serve and how they will serve them, a new study concludes.

There is "little consistency in purpose, design, or curriculum [for tech-prep programs] across states and often within states,'' notes the report, which was released this month by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Tech-prep programs link the last two years of high school with two or more years of postsecondary training and apprenticeships. The programs, which generally target non-college-bound students, emphasize applied mathematics, science, communications, and technology coursework and lead to an associate's degree or certificate in a specific field.

Under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, Congress appropriated $104 million in fiscal 1993 for states to develop tech-prep programs.

The report was written by five researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and released by the vocational-research center, which is based at the University of California at Berkeley.

The researchers surveyed 228 tech-prep programs at 200 separate institutions in the summer of 1991 and conducted more in-depth case studies at 12 institutions.

The study argues that much of the framework of the programs remains unclear, with such issues as what populations of students will be targeted by the programs--in particular, to what degree at-risk students will be involved--still to be settled.

Another question is whether the programs will emphasize skills for high-technology fields or "less sophisticated 'mid-tech' or 'low-tech''' jobs, the report suggests.

"Tech prep as an operational reality is just beginning to emerge,'' the study notes, adding that the "seamless path'' between high school and postsecondary training envisioned for tech-prep programs "is not yet a reality for most.''

At-Risk Efforts Urged

Among the study's findings:

  • Many of the programs are relatively young, with roughly half having been launched between 1989 and 1991.
  • The 120 programs in operation for one year or more at the time of the study enrolled some 30,000 secondary and 4,200 postsecondary students.
  • Slightly more than half of the programs were "2 + 2'' programs, which include two years of high school and two years of postsecondary study, while only 12 percent were "2 + 2 + 2'' programs, which include four years of postsecondary study and lead to a bachelor's degree.

However, the researchers speculated that in the future, more programs will be linked to four-year colleges and universities.

  • Only a third of the 120 programs in operation for one year or more reported having special activities for at-risk students.

The study is especially critical of the lack of attention paid to at-risk students. Programs should be "broadened beyond the scope of the academically able student to accommodate a much higher percentage of the at-risk population,'' it urges.

In only a few of the institutions and consortia studied, the study found, were the new tech-prep programs linked with existing school services and personnel for at-risk students.

Moreover, few programs served special-needs populations, in particular non-English-speaking students, the report says.

The institutions that had made greater efforts to include at-risk populations did so because of local "priorities and interests'' rathe than federal tech-prep legislation or leadership, the researchers concluded.

'Troubling' Lack of Training

The study also cites a paucity of systematic professional-development activities to support the initiatives.

"This absence of an essential component is troubling,'' the study's authors write. "The history of failed reforms or change initiatives attributable to inadequate preparation and training of the operational personnel involved is too clear. This component must be included.''

The researchers conclude that the most significant outcome of the still evolving tech-prep programs to date is the relationships that have been formed between participating precollegiate and higher-education institutions.

"Insuring the continuation of this relationship through formal professional-development activities and continued opportunities for informal exchange may be a critical ingredient in the success or failure of tech-prep programs at the operational level,'' the report says.

Copies of the study are available for $5 each from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, Materials Distribution Service, Western Illinois University, 46 Horrabin Hall, Macomb, Ill. 61455; (800) 637-7652.

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