Published Online: May 19, 1999
Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Debating the Direction of Vocational Education

Debating the Direction of Vocational Education

In The New Republic, a pundit argues that "vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation."

Not so, counters another. Vocational education should have "as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity, and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate."

Such a debate would be timely in political journals today. These words, though, date back to 1915.

The first writer was David Snedden, the education commissioner of Massachusetts. He believed in "social efficiency"--the notion that education could prepare youths for the particular niches they were destined to fill as adults. To that end, he argued, some high school students should receive vocational education, and others a general education.

His critic, the philosopher and educator John Dewey, attacked this policy as "social predestination." Instead of focusing on specialized skills with machines, he argued, schools should give all students a broad understanding of the world of work.

Snedden, it turned out, won the argument, and his views consequently set the course for American schools' vocational curriculum for most of the 20th century. Whether that was the wisest course is now a matter of debate.

At the time of World War I, most students who wanted to pursue a particular industrial or agricultural career attended trade schools, usually privately run by manufacturers, mechanics' institutes, and similar groups. A few public "manual training" schools taught skills such as woodworking and metalworking for the purpose of complementing boys' intellectual pursuits. Some regular high schools embraced that philosophy by teaching selected manual-training courses.

But for the most part, vocational education was not a regular feature of the public school curriculum.

This changed as concerns about the feverish pace of industrialization began to preoccupy the nation. Businesses needed workers, and society looked to the public schools to produce them.

Charles Prosser, one of Snedden's former colleagues in graduate school at Teachers College, Columbia University, was one of the leaders of this movement. Perhaps best known for championing the much-derided "life-adjustment movement" in schools in the 1940s and '50s, Prosser wrote key provisions of the first federal legislation for secondary-level vocational education.

The resulting law--the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917--provided money for agricultural, trade, industrial, and home economics education for students over 14 "who are preparing for a trade or industrial pursuit." It set up the funding in such a way that vocational education began to be administered and taught on a mass scale separately from general education, either in its own wing of a regular high school or in its own building.

In the 1920s and 1930s, vocational education students typically took a set of skills-based courses to prepare them to work in a specific occupation. In some states, students took those courses for only half a day; they studied academics along with general education students for the rest of the day. Elsewhere, students stayed all day in a vocational education track.

Over time, states broadened their definitions of vocational education. By the 1940s, many states offered a "building trades" track, which taught carpentry, plumbing, and roofing all in one.

But those who helped carry out that model of vocational education disagree about whether it served the country well.

Herbert M. Kliebard, a former vocational education teacher and now a professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that separate training for narrowly defined jobs was never a good idea at the high school level.

"This greatly exaggerated emphasis on education not simply as getting ready generally but as direct and explicit preparation for what lies ahead is perhaps the cruelest of the legacies of vocationalism," he writes in Schooled to Work, a book released last month by Teachers College Press.

But others maintain that vocational education, as envisioned by Snedden and Prosser, was successful--at least for a while.

"Smith-Hughes served a wonderful purpose when America was in that basic orientation to specific jobs and mechanical types of applications," says Hobart H. Conover of Delmar, N.Y., who taught clerical skills to high school students from 1935 to 1949.

In the 1940s, secondary and postsecondary vocational education schools trained 7.5 million people for jobs in defense and war production for World War II, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education.

The quality of vocational education programs began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, says Gene Bottoms, who, as the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, directs the High Schools That Work program. That program extends to vocational students the same challenging academic courses provided to college-bound students.

Bottoms argues that federal legislation passed during those decades, such as the Vocational Education Act of 1963, placed too much emphasis on at-risk students. "Access became paramount, but what that got translated into was lowering standards for vocational studies," he says.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a labor economist and the vice president for public leadership for the Educational Testing Service, adds that the value of a narrowly defined vocational education decreased with the reduction of manufacturing jobs in the early 1970s. Now, he says, "people need more general education and more general skills."

Most educators today agree that the course vocational education has taken for most of the century must be redirected.

"We have to face the reality that vocational education conjures up in people's minds an image of something that is not as rigorous, that's preparing people for the jobs of the past, not the future," says Patricia W. McNeil, the assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's office of vocational and adult education.

Most reforms call for blending vocational education with challenging academics. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990, for example, encourages the integration of academic and vocational education. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 aims to expose students of all academic levels to experiences in the workplace.

Reform programs also include "tech prep"--which links high school students' vocational education with two years of study at the postsecondary level--and "career academies," schools structured around an occupational theme.

The philosophy driving this "new vocationalism" is reminiscent of John Dewey, according to W. Norton Grubb, an economist in the school of education at the University of California, Berkeley.

"You use occupations as a lens back into other subjects, such as English and math and science," he explains. "That's the real Deweyan application of vocational education."

PHOTO: High school students in New York City could study a variety of retail-related trades at the Central High School of Needle Trades in the heart of the city's garment district.
—Corbis-Bettmann

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Page 27

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