Analysts at the U.S. Education Department are seeking-and receiving-a wealth of advice from educators, employers, and state officials as they prepare for a sweeping assessment of goals I and policies in vocational education.
At a recent planning conference in Washington, several hundred experts from government and private industry gathered to discuss the direction of the department’s study, which was requested by the Congress in the 1984 reauthorization of the federal aid program for vocational training.
That law, commonly known as the Perkins Act in honor of the late Representative Carl Perkins of Kentucky, provided that the department report its findings by January 1989, with preliminary reports due in June and July of 1988.
Coming at a time when the vocational- education community has come under heavy criticism from some reform advocates, and because it is likely to influence the Congress’s design of the next aid reauthorization act, the survey is attracting considerable interest.
John F. Jennings, general counsel to the House Education and Labor subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education, agreed that the assessment would provide a starting point for debate, as did a similar 1981 study by the National Institute of Education.
The earlier study reached the general conclusion that the federal program was attempting to do too much with too little money, Mr. Jennings noted. It is a concern that continues to trouble some policymakers.
“These are recurring questions that come up every time we reauthorize,” Mr. Jennings said.
A key issue, and one that received much of the conference’s attention, was the degree to which vocational schools, especially those at the secondary level, should concentrate on basic skills, such as reading, applied mathematics, and science.
“It’s a question of what vocational education should look like, what it should attempt to accomplish at the secondary level,” said John G. Wirt, who is directing the study for the department’s office of planning, budget, and evaluation.
Several officials, including Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, have suggested that vocational education programs need to offer a balanced curriculum, one that stresses both academics and technical skills.
“I agree that it can be done, but rm not sure it’s being done now,” said Stuart Rosenfeld, director of research for the Southern Growth Policies Board.
Limited classroom time often does not allow for students to take both types of courses, Mr. Rosenfeld said.
Combining both elements in one course is also difficult, he added, because vocational institutions strive to recruit instructors who are highly skilled specialists in their field.
“You bring in experts who are up to date on the specific techniques and equipment in their occupation, but who are not able to teach the academic component,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.
Another area the department has been mandated to examine is the degree of coordination at the state and local level between vocational education and other job-training programs. Both the Perkins Act and the Job Training Partnership Act attempt to encourage such cooperation with set aside funds and interlocking boards.
‘“1’he governors are increasingly interested in the possibility of creating economic-development packages,” Mr. Wirt said. ‘“They are looking to both ‘voc ed’ resources and J.T.P.A. resources.”
Many job-training officials, Mr. Rosenfeld noted, have been reluctant to direct funding to vocational schools because of a belief that their clients do better away from traditional classrooms, in programs run by community groups, for example.
The study should pay particular attention to the differing roles of classroom instruction and on-the-job training, said Gloria Ruth, an analyst for the Battelle Institute and a director of the American Society for Training and Development.
Because vocational schools have a difficult time keeping up with the introduction of new technology in the work place, she said, providing specialized job training in vocational high schools may not be an effective use of resources.
‘“The concept that the assessment will have to examine,” Ms. Ruth said, “is that the content of vocational education for a specific job is not as beneficial as the training that occurs on the job.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as E.D. Sets Groundwork for Vocational-Education Study