Too Much Stress on Academics, Voc.-Ed. Commission Charges

By Thomas Toch — November 28, 1984 6 min read

Washington--A national study of vocational education scheduled to be released here this week delivers a stinging denunciation of recent calls by school reformers for a greater emphasis on traditional academic subjects by all students.

“The assumption [of recent criticisms of secondary education] is that more academics, which may be the best preparation for college, is also the best preparation for life. This assumption is wrong,” contend the members of the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education in a report titled “The Unfinished Agenda: The Role of Vocational Education in the High School.”

Full text of report on page 9.

Steps taken in many states to increase graduation requirements in such subjects as mathematics, science, English, social studies, and foreign languages “ignore differences in student interest and ability, and ignore the needs of those high-school students who do not plan to go to college and who purposefully choose a vocational program,” the commission writes. The require-ments “screen out those who do not fit the mold.”

Over half of the vocational educators responding to a 1984 survey by the American Vocational Association cited in the commission’s report said they expected a moderate or severe decline in enrollments in vocational classes as a result of enacted or expected changes in high-school graduation requirements.

The 14-member commission of educators, university faculty members, and representatives from business and labor was established in January of this year by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at Ohio State University with the approval of the U.S. Education Department’s office of vocational and adult education, which funds and oversees the center under a Congressional mandate.

The center created the commission, a spokesman said, because other recent reports on the American high school “did not attend to the vocational preparation of secondary-school students at all.”

The commission’s work was paid for by funds from the center’s fiscal 1984 budget of $5.4 million. The center has a five-year contract with the federal vocational- and adult-education office to do work in vocational education and it has a similar but separate five-year arrangement with the National Institute of Education.

The spokesman for the center declined to provide the exact cost of the 11-month commission project.

‘Co-Equal’ Role Seen

In a foreword to the commission’s report, Harry F. Silberman, chairman of the commission and a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, describes the report as “a frank assessment of the strengths and weak3nesses of secondary vocational education.’'

The report, however, offers an extended defense of the role of vocational education in American schools today.

“Vocational education must be a significant part of a quality high-school education,” the commission writes. “We argue for a more balanced approach to attaining excellence in secondary schools. All students, whether college bound or not, need a mix of both academic and vocational courses.” Academic and vocational learning are of “co-equal importance,” the commission concludes.

In endorsing a prominant role for vocational training in the schools, the commission contradicts the recommendation of a task force assembled recently by the National Academy of Sciences to elicit employers’ views of the role of education for students entering the workforce from high school.

That panel concluded that, “Technical education, vocational training, and curricula providing specific jobs skills can enhance a student’s employability, but cannot substitute for education in the core competencies. ... The core competencies must always come first during the high-school years.”

According to the commission, vo-cational education “serves as the glue that holds the students’ total education together, making academic work meaningful and goal-oriented.”

“But the real strength of vocational education,” the commission adds, “lies in its ability to motivate students. Secondary students enjoy their vocational activities. ... Many report they would have dropped out of high school if they had not had the opportunity to take vocational courses.”

Diversity as a Strength

The commission also cites diversity of instructional techniques as a strength of vocational education. “Recent studies of American high schools highlight a sameness and lack of variety in teaching methods,” the commission writes. “Instruction in vocational classrooms offers an alternative--an avenue for breaking away from the all-too-similar characteristics of so many classrooms.”

Moreover, the commission asserts, “secondary vocational programs teach problem-solving and analytical skills.”

“Instruction in vocational classrooms,” it adds, “is usually individualized and cooperative” and traditionally “emphasizes student mastery of specific skills or compe-tencies.” Individualized instruction and so-called “mastery learning” have been advocated by many proponents of school reform recently.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 75 percent of all 1982 graduates of public high schools had taken at least one vocational course designed to teach students a job skill and 27 percent of those students were enrolled in a vocational “track.”

‘Enormous Inequities’

The commission reports that “enormous inequities” exist in the quality of vocational offerings in suburban schools and in rural and inner-city areas. It also concludes that inadequate knowledge of vocational offerings “subtly but formidably” reduces students’ interest in them.

To rectify that problem, the commission proposes the expansion of school counseling services; specifically, it recommends that each counselor advise no more than 250 students.

Echoing a proposal unveiled this month by a gubernatorial education-reform panel in Georgia, the vocational commission also urges that the majority of vocational-education programs be offered in comprehensive high schools rather than in area or regional vocational centers. And it criticizes the practice of “channeling” less-able students into vocational programs. To do so, the commission says, stigmatizes the programs and the students in them.

The panel adds that “it is as unfair to limit the vocational-education opportunities of academic students as it is to stigmatize those who are in the [vocational] programs.” It recommends that schools avoid the practice of offering students diplomas reflecting courses of study of varying difficulty.

Greater Collaboration

The commission also calls for greater collaboration among schools, businesses, and labor in developing curricula for vocational programs and in expanding “field-based” programs. “We have barely scratched the surface in both areas,” the panel writes.

It also recommends that students be allowed to satisfy some high-school requirements in mathematics, science, English, and social studies with vocational courses that are “comparable in content coverage and rigor.”

In all, the commission makes 33 recommendations. Its report is based on school visits and testimony from 163 individuals at 10 regional hearings, as well as interviews with “hundreds” of others involved with vocational education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Too Much Stress on Academics, Voc.-Ed. Commission Charges