Education Opinion

Stereotypes of Vocational Education Are Not True

By Harry F. Silberman — April 08, 1987 6 min read
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The primary reason Wellford W. Wilms gives for his proposal to separate education from vocational training is to raise the economic productivity of our labor force and expand employment. However, the job-shortage problem and America’s declining economic competitiveness are not simply results of functional illiteracy and lack of entry-level job skills, as he assumes.

Declining productivity stems from other sources, such as corporate decisions to move plants to countries where labor costs are cheaper. Otherwise, why would we have become less competitive during the past decade, when educational-reform efforts have been greatly intensified and corporate investments in training have risen to record levels?

While education cannot by itself significantly increase the number of available jobs in the economy, the question remains: Does vocational education belong in the public schools and community colleges? Not if the stereotypes of vocational education presented by Mr. Wilms are true, but I contend that they are not.

For example, do vocational courses contribute nothing to the general education of students? The early research studies are equivocal, but more rigorous recent studies yield clear evidence in support of vocational programs’ broad educational content. And as a former graduate of a vocational program, I am convinced that my courses were valid. In those courses we worked together to solve practical problems, took pleasure in the products we created, and had to understand the technical principles behind what we were doing.

Furthermore, in my visits to vocational classrooms around the country, I seldom see the “narrow’’ job training that would fit Mr. Wilms’s stereotype. Instructors are trying to get students to plan and make decisions about their own work, instead of waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do.

Are vocational programs insufficiently responsive to the labor market? First, the portrait of the volatile labor market has been greatly overdrawn. The large core of entry-level jobs has not changed very much and is not likely to disappear in the near future. The high-technology jobs that have changed most rapidly involve a relatively minor share of the total labor force, and I believe we are currently preparing adequate numbers of scientists and engineers to meet that need.

Second, vocational programs in the public high schools and community colleges have broadened their focus in recent years and have been quite responsive to changing enrollment patterns, which reflect labor-market demand. This has been especially helpful to large numbers of small businesses that can’t afford to do their own training.

Do vocational programs enroll a disproportionate share of low-income, minority students? This stereotype, also mentioned by Mr. Wilms, is only partially true. Most vocational courses in high schools and community colleges enroll a broad cross-section of the total school population. But although an Ohio State University study found that minority students are less likely than other students to choose vocational programs, it also revealed that high-school vocational courses do attract a disproportionate share of students who come from lower-income families and who have less academic ability and lower school performance.

This concentration of poor students in vocational courses is a serious concern that deserves attention. But we can’t blame the vocational courses for the learning problems of these students, since their deficits are present at initial enrollment and they do not lose ground during their vocational training.

For contrary to the popular image that all vocational graduates go directly to work after high school, Suzanne Laughlin, a research assistant at Ohio State University, in studying a sample of students from a national longitudinal survey, found the majority of them enrolled in some type of postsecondary program, and more than 60 percent of those who enrolled completed that program or were still successfully enrolled at the time of the latest follow-up.

To correct the flaws he sees in vocational education, Mr. Wilms proposes contracting with employers and proprietary schools to provide vocational courses. If the public schools were eligible to bid in open competition on those contracts, I think they would retain their training role. Currently, many school districts and community colleges are providing both education and training to employees under contracts with private companies. Therefore, they should certainly be able to win a contract to provide those same services to their own students.

But there are serious potential problems in the open-competition approach. For example, there is the problem of “creaming.’' Contractors find subtle ways to screen out trainees who require extra help, selecting those who are already employable and leaving those who are in greatest need of assistance to the public schools. There is also a problem of conflicting priorities of profit and service. Vendors who compete for the training dollar have no incentive to be sympathetic to the longer-range vocational needs of their students. They will probably confine their emphasis to short-term placement.

Rigorous evaluation of existing performance-contracting experiments is needed before major policy decisions are made. Mr. Wilms cites the work of California’s Employment and Training Panel as an exemplary model, but it is not clear that model significantly improves the quality of its trainees at a lower cost than other means.

The purpose of that $55-million program is to train the unemployed, or persons about to become unemployed. Master contractors who administer the activities may receive up to $800 per successful placement. In a critical review, a California legislative analyst recently cited the program for excessive administrative costs, and observed that the funds were inappropriately used to subsidize and supplant employers’ normal training costs for employees who were in no danger of being laid off.

Performance contracting is appealingly simple in theory: Set up precise behavioral objectives and make payments contingent upon their achievement. In practice, however, such incentive systems are very difficult to apply. Laws designed to manipulate incentives don’t often have their intended effect. And when the incentives don’t work as planned, it becomes necessary to construct ever-tighter bureaucratic controls to regulate the behavior of the vendor until, often, the new system is a more rigid replica of the one it replaced. In addition, it is expensive and difficult to establish valid ways to measure the performance of the vendor--ways that cannot be finessed or circumvented by sophisticated contractors.

What are the likely consequences of taking vocational education out of the public schools and community colleges? I think Mr. Wilms is unrealistic in assuming that resources now devoted to improving vocational programs would be redirected toward the realization of John Dewey’s early vision of a more active experiential curriculum. These resources would instead be devoted to filling the curriculum with more academic disciplines. The ever-increasing specialization among academic disciplines at graduate levels would simply be reflected downward into our high schools. Each discipline would compete for its own pipeline of students.

What, then, can be done to improve the status of vocational education? First, we must recognize that only about 7 percent of the federal education budget is spent on vocational education. If we are serious about improving vocational education, we should be spending more on it, rather than eliminating it from the budget. We must strengthen these programs to appeal to a wider range of students; we must actively recruit teachers from a broader source of talented persons; and we must raise the quality of the learning experiences.

These goals cannot be achieved without resources and public support. The separation of academic and vocational education cannot substitute for such a commitment. Eliminating vocational education from our schools would merely serve the purposes of budget cutters who would reduce our public schools to inexpensive custodial institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1987 edition of Education Week as Stereotypes of Vocational Education Are Not True


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