Vexed by Policy Shifts, Vocational Leaders Mount Counteroffense

By Thomas Toch — December 12, 1984 5 min read
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For years a powerful voice in American education, the vocational community has found itself pushed aside recently by the movement to cut electives and focus students’ attention on traditional academic subjects.

But members of the American Vocational Association, meeting here last week, decided to take the offensive, to confront the critics of vocational programs in the state legislatures and in public-opinion forums.

“The public is looking at voc ed as if it is the stepchild of education, not as part of it,” said Richard Sass, a cooperative-education teacher at Main South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “There’s no doubt about it, voc ed is going to be set back two or three years by the reform movement.”

Rewritten Requirements

Rewritten graduation requirements that limit electives in favor of more mathematics, science, English, social studies, and foreign languages have been most threatening to vocational programs, according to association members who attended the meeting.

“Every one of the five regional meetings here dealt with that subject,” said Gary D. Meers, professor of education at the University of Nebraska and president of the 46,000-member association. “There is a definite move under way to eliminate voc ed. It’s seen as a threat rather than as a complement to the academic curriculum.”

Reports Blamed

Vocational education’s place in the high-school curriculum has been weakened largely by the proliferating reports on education, educators here contended. But they said they hoped another recent report will be one of the most effective weapons in their counteroffensive.

Released last month by a commission working under the aegis of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the latest study contends that vocational education provides many students with motivation to continue in school and enhances analytical and problem-solving skills. (See Education Week, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 1984)

“Each of you should get the report and communicate it to your school board and your state legislature,” Harry F. Silberman, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and chairman of the commission that wrote the report, told an overflow meeting of hundreds of participants who had gathered to hear about the study.

Targeted Mailings

The ava also plans to make “monthly targeted mailings to key groups of policymakers in each state,” according to Joel H. Magisos, a vice president of the association who is an official at the national vocational center, a federally supported organization.

“The difference will be between talking to ourselves and talking to key policymakers,” he said. Added Rosemary Kolde, assistant superintendent of the Great Oaks Joint Vocational School District in Cincinnati and president-elect of the ava: “We have to do a better job of lobbying at the state level.”

The organization also plans to hire a firm or an individual to conduct a national media campaign, according to Ms. Kolde. She said the campaign will include television advertisements, a film or videotape about vocational education, and a push to develop closer ties with the national news organizations. She said the ava has not budgeted funds for the project yet.

Business Link Envisioned

Association officials are also hoping to build closer ties to business. “They could be our strongest ally,” said Ms. Kolde, “They need our product, we need their help.”

Participants at the convention noted that there are also moves under way in Virginia and other states to persuade legislatures and state boards of education to allow students to fill some part of their graduation requirements in mathematics, science, and other areas with vocational-education courses that include instruction in those fields.

Enrollment Declines

Many of the 4,000 association members present at the meeting talked of existing or impending declines in student enrollment in their programs as students begin to shift their attention to subjects they must take to earn a diploma.

“In many schools in the district, vocational programs are already diminishing rapidly,” noted Jerry L. McCleary, principal of the West Jordan High School near Salt Lake City.

A realignment of policymaking authority in the states has contributed to the recent downgrading of vocational training, according to Ms. Kolde.

“In the past, vocational policy was made by state boards of vocational education and in the state departments of education,” she said. “Now, decisions are being made in the governors’ offices. And governors are bringing in aides who are not disposed to vocational education.”

“They are overriding or greatly diminishing the planning and implementation authority of the boards of vocational education and the state education department,” she said, adding that Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, are states that are de-emphasizing vocational education.

Sounding a major theme from the vocational-education commission’s report, ava members harshly criticized the emphasis being placed by states on traditional academic courses.

“They are taking all choice away from students,” said Mr. Meers. “And there’s no doubt about it, the dropout rate will increase as a result.”

“There is still a practical aspect of education and people are forgetting it,” added Mr. Sass.

Stream of Criticism

Members of the ava acknowledged that the steady criticism of their profession over the past two years has been demoralizing.

“Week after week there was another critical report,” Ms. Kolde said. “It took the wind out of our sails.”

Vocational educators said the assaults from academic reformers have come at a time when the perennial problem of keeping equipment up to date is worsening.

“There is new technology in all fields of voc ed, and it’s very expensive,” said Paul O. Lentz, an ava vice president. “The gap [between the equipment used in industry and that available to the schools] is widening, and it is going to be worse.”

Technology on Display

A sprawling trade exhibition at the ava meeting displayed computers and robots as part of many traditional vocational activities. For example, computers on display could be used to teach the workings of the internal-combustion engine to auto-mechanics classes and to help students in health-care classes regulate patients’ treatment.

“The curriculum is getting more technology-oriented,” said Irvin T. Lathrop, a professor in the industrial-arts department at California State University at Long Beach. Even the machines are being tied to computers.”

Participants interviewed at the ava meeting generally agreed that standards need to be raised in vocational programs if they are to attract talented students in the coming era of fewer electives.

There have not been widespread efforts to raise standards in the profession recently, they said, although some states, such as New York, and some school systems, such as the Great Oaks district in Cincinnati, have made efforts to rethink and restructure their vocational programs.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Vexed by Policy Shifts, Vocational Leaders Mount Counteroffense


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