Academic Emphasis Is Found To Improve Voc.-Ed. Performance

By Lonnie Harp — December 09, 1992 6 min read

An advanced curriculum that weaves together academic study and instruction about the world of work can dramatically improve the performance of high school students in vocational- and general-education tracks, the results of a five-year pilot program suggest.

Students in the participating schools that made the greatest strides in combining academic and vocational programs showed significant improvement on national reading, mathematics, and science tests, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, which launched the project in 1987 and now guides 100 such programs in 19 states.

The findings from the S.R.E.B.'s High Schools That Work project--the most widespread current program testing the combination of academic and vocational subjects--were contained in a report released by the board late last month. The study looked at the original 28 pilot sites in 13 Southern states.

The project demonstrates that non-college-bound students are capable of much higher achievement than typically has been expected of them, Gene Bottoms, the director of the S.R.E.B. program, said last week.

“It takes a lot of work, but we can move from an atmosphere that simply accommodates these students to one that really accelerates them,’' he said. “We’re beginning to document that we’ve underestimated what these students can do.’'

In conjunction with the release of the report, “Making High Schools Work,’' the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund announced a $2 million grant that will expand the S.R.E.B. network to 300 sites within two years.

Perkins Act Spurs Interest

The promising results of the S.R.E.B. program come as many school districts are being forced to address the issue of the academic preparation of vocational students.

In reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act in 1990, Congress said that meshing vocational and academic material should be a priority of local educators who receive federal vocational funds.

Many school administrators and state officials who are grappling with the issue apparently are turning to the S.R.E.B. for guidance. Beyond the 19 states now participating in High Schools That Work, officials said, interest has been expressed by educators in almost as many more states, from California to New York.

“Many students relate to these materials better than they do to the usual curriculum,’' said Melanie Neilson, a planning specialist for the Indiana vocational-education office, which is one of the sponsors of the S.R.E.B. project sites.

“The teachers basically say they’ve stopped hearing students ask, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ '' she said. “This is working better for the students, and that encourages teachers, too.’'

Academic Studies ‘Repackaged’

The High Schools That Work program was launched by state officials in the participating states, who designated the local pilot sites. The program to date has primarily tapped existing state and local funds, with some money coming from the S.R.E.B.

Rather than installing a single model curriculum, the program draws on local sites’ own curricular changes and on curriculum materials that were designed in each state under S.R.E.B. guidance.

The pilot schools agreed to replace low-level academic courses with classes that would take content from college-preparatory classes and repackage it in a “real world’’ context. Math classes, for example, might use lessons from construction sites, while biology lessons engage students in health or agricultural issues.

As the academic courses were revamped, vocational courses were also overhauled to provide stronger doses of math, science, and English. Requirements were changed to mandate four English credits and three each in math and science.

Teachers from both academic and vocational disciplines huddled to consider new approaches, and schools expanded supplemental programs designed to assist students through the transition to studying academically more difficult material.

“If we want students to be able to use what they learn in high school, we must give them authentic problems to solve,’' the S.R.E.B. report says. “We must help them understand why they are learning something, and how it will help them on the job, at home, and in the community.’'

Mr. Bottoms said that in the five years since the pilot effort began, 15 of the original 28 sites have eliminated general-track courses that led to a high school diploma but were geared toward neither collegiate study nor occupational preparation. Nine others are working toward abolishing their general-track offerings.

The other four schools in the pilot group have shown little progress in this area, Mr. Bottoms said, a fact he attributed to inadequate support from superintendents and principals.

Gains on NAEP

The most encouraging results, as measured by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, were seen in the schools that most fully combined academic and vocational coursework, the report indicates.

Participating students in the eight schools that the S.R.E.B. deemed to best represent the program’s ideals showed improvement on NAEP tests following the start of the program; the biggest gains were for students who completed a fully integrated academic-vocational curriculum.

Students completing an integrated curriculum, for example, would have taken applied-science and applied-mathematics courses, rather than more typical general-track courses such as consumer math and introductory science.

The average NAEP reading score for participating students in the top eight schools in the project rose from 50.7 in 1988 to 54.4 in 1990, just under the 54.9 national average. But the 21 percent of such students who completed the full S.R.E.B. curriculum did even better, averaging a 55.5 score.

The eight schools also posted gains in math and science. The participating students averaged 284.5 on the NAEP math test in 1988; the score rose to 290.3 in 1990, compared with the 300.7 national average. On the science test, the average score rose from 254.7 to 278.9 in 1990, compared with the 287.1 national average.

In both math and science, as in reading, however, students who were taught entirely with the new curriculum outscored the national average.

An important factor in achieving these improvements, the report says, is the heightened interest level and engagement of students who had previously been left in boring classes.

“All students are entitled to--and should expect--tough courses that mean something to their lives now and in the future, extra help when needed, and recognition and reward for good results,’' the authors write.

Changing the ‘Mindset’

The S.R.E.B. report helps further document the movement toward greater integration of academic and vocational studies.

In a report this year on such efforts, the National Center for Research in Vocational Education cautioned, “While we found a great deal of activity and interest in curriculum integration, we also found a lack of clarity and precision about the purposes of and procedures for integration.’'

For Mr. Bottoms of the S.R.E.B., the most difficult aspect of such integration is changing educators’ attitudes.

“It’s hard work for a high school faculty to move from the mindset of sorting people out into those who can do, who go into higher-level classes, and those who can’t, who go into a lower level,’' he said, “to one where all students can master more advanced academics.’'

Copies of the S.R.E.B. study are available for $10.95 each from the Southern Regional Education Board, 592 10th St., N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30318-5790; (404) 875-9211.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Academic Emphasis Is Found To Improve Voc.-Ed. Performance