Education Letter to the Editor

Voc. Ed. and High School Reform

May 17, 2005 8 min read
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To the Editor:

Gary Hoachlander has written a timely and wise Commentary (“Does Vocational Education Have a Role to Play In High School Reform?,” Commentary, April 27, 2005.) It is timely because high school reform cannot succeed without tackling head-on the quality of secondary career and technical education. There are simply too many vocational concentrators in U.S. high schools—about a quarter of high school enrollments—to ignore these students and their schools and programs.

It is wise because Mr. Hoachlander goes right to the hardest question: how to raise academic quality and achievement for these students without sacrificing the employment and career-related benefits that career and technical education provides. This is no easy task; Mr. Hoachlander zeroes in on three ways that state and federal policymakers can be particularly helpful: investments in curriculum redesign, professional development, and high school assessments that test for a broad set of skills and knowledge.

Jobs for the Future and the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program recently published a set of essays that also ask what role, if any, secondary career and technical education should play in a modernized high school experience (Remaking Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century, downloadable at www.jff.org). Our authors—practitioners and policymakers from within and outside career and technical education—reaffirm the value of a career and technical education pathway, but are sobered by the difficult work that is needed to bring secondary CTE to a consistently high level of quality that prepares students for both college and careers.

These authors propose several additional strategies for state and federal action, including improvement in the collection and use of data on student academic and employment outcomes; better and more student-centered collaboration between CTE schools and their sending districts; alignment of CTE program offerings with state economic-development strategies that promote high-wage and high-skill occupations; and accountability systems that routinely phase out obsolete programs and promote the expansion of forward-looking ones in high-demand industries.

As states map out high school reform strategies in the wake of the recent summit of governors and business leaders, they would be well served to bring career and technical education off the sidelines. High school reform is bound to founder if states and localities do not grapple with the critical challenges—and opportunities—highlighted by both Mr. Hoachlander and the authors of the JFF-Aspen Institute volume.

Richard Kazis

Senior Vice President

Jobs for the Future

Boston, Mass.

To the Editor:

Gary Hoachlander hit the nail on the head. I have been involved with career and technical education for 19 years, and I am still trying to figure out when we were determined to be accountable for academic improvement in secondary education.

Apparently, the measure of effectiveness for high schools now is scores on academic-achievement tests. But the public backlash that has accompanied the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s testing provisions should give us cause to to question that. Surely test results are not the only means of gauging secondary education’s effectiveness. And can the impact of career and technical education even be assessed on statewide exams?

Moreover, in Missouri, as in many other states, secondary school testing begins in the 10th grade, a time before students are enrolled in career and technical education. Will the results of those tests say anything about the program’s academic impact?

Mr. Hoachlander makes an excellent case that career and technical education is performing well for employers and students. This, in my view, is our mission. At my own career-focused secondary school, we have administered the WorkKeys assessment, which is produced by the ACT program. For several years, we assessed our students’ pre- and post-instruction performance in reading and math. The results demonstrated consistent gains from instruction.

When we compared our post-test results with the scores reported by ACT for the occupational fields, our students consistently scored at or above those occupational levels. According to our mandatory six-month follow-up, our students’ placements in employment, college, or the military are at or above 90 percent. This 90 percent placement rate is consistent across the state of Missouri.

No one would disagree that reading, computing, writing, and thinking critically are survival skills all of our students need. Career and technical education embraces these skills and puts them to work. As Mr. Hoachlander’s analysis indicates, career and technical education is giving students the means to become high-skilled, well-paid citizens who can thrive in our society.

Al Babich

Vocational Resource Educator

Northland Career Center

Platte City, Mo.

To the Editor:

In his otherwise penetrating analysis, Gary Hoachlander gives short shrift to the origin of the debate over the place that career and technical education occupies in today’s accountability movement. By failing to make a distinction between education and training, Mr. Hoachlander unwittingly adds to the confusion over the controversy. It is quite possible to be well educated but poorly prepared to earn a living, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, too many students have repeatedly been told that without a four-year degree from a college or university, they are dead in the water. But high school students are sophisticated enough to know about the many well-paying and gratifying jobs that do not require a college degree. By continuing to oversell the indispensability of a sheepskin, educators ultimately do a grave disservice to students and, in the process, lose credibility with them.

Just as there is life after high school, so too is there a bright future for many students who, for one reason or another, are not interested in college. Educators doubting this observation need to attend the periodic class reunions of the high schools where they worked. They would soon learn, decades after the graduation of their students, that an academic path is no assurance of anything except the individual’s inner satisfaction.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

Gary Hoachlander’s Commentary provides support for those of us involved in the Sisyphean task of promoting career-preparation education for high school students.

Many of us, having much experience but little scientifically based research available on which to build our case, know the value of career and technical education, or CTE, for the students who pursue it. We have seen the gamut of students. The academically talented who enter CTE over the objections of their guidance counselors and then excel, either with or without a college degree. The bright but low-achieving students who blossom in the hands-on, application-oriented CTE programs. The academically bereft who, after years of suffering the label of “academic failure” and on the verge of dropping out, find a haven and the potential for success in a CTE program.

We intuitively know that a student who pursues three or four years of a career-preparation program at the high school level has a much greater chance of successfully completing a postsecondary program in that field than does a student entering the same college program after four years of college prep. Ironically, most college programs are themselves career preparation (law, business, education, engineering, and the like), and there is solid research indicating that students achieving the most financial benefit from their college programs are career-preparation graduates.

As career-preparation educators, we sit in awe as more and more students are encouraged or even mandated to complete a college-preparation program. But does that make sense? Fewer than 30 percent of adults in this country possess four-year degrees, and approximately the same percentage of our jobs require four-year degrees. Generating a population of 100 percent college graduates will not produce an economy that requires a college degree for 100 percent of its jobs. Yet many well-paying jobs begging for applicants go unfilled because they require skills not typically developed in colleges.

While our suburban high schools are being applauded for sending 85 percent to 95 percent of their students off to college, one in three of these students will not make it to the second year. What have we done for these students? Has anyone seen a job listing that reads: “Wanted: bright young college dropout with two high school credits in a living language, and one each in English lit. honors, calculus, and biology honors”?

The very characteristics that make career and technical education successful are the ones threatened by the push to provide students with the type of coursework assessed in most standardized tests. The CTE environment is the truly interdisciplinary environment espoused by John Dewey: one in which students develop “diagnostic abilities, capacities for bringing interdisciplinary knowledge to bear on complex problems, understanding of systems, [and] facility in applying abstract knowledge and academic skills in authentic, real-life situations.”

Unlike the monomania found in traditional academic disciplines, career and technical education draws from as many disciplines as needed to achieve its goals. It does so in a process similar to how problems are dealt with in real life.

So thank you for bringing light to an area of education too long relegated to the second-best choice. If career and technical education can be as successful as it is serving the students deemed “not college material,” imagine the success it might have if all students were allowed (or, perish the thought, even encouraged) to begin preparing for life with a solid career education.

Joseph H. Crowley


Warwick Area Career & Technical Center

Warwick, R.I.


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