Are Students Preparing For Yesterday's Workforce?

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The current move to raise educational standards, including those in mathematics and science, is rekindling a longstanding debate over the role of vocational-education programs in preparing students for employment in a high-technology society.

Because vocational students typically seek to enter the workforce without further training, deficiencies in their preparation are immediately visible--and have contributed to the growth of a multi-billion-dollar "shadow" educational system in the private sector designed to upgrade worker skills.

But to what degree those deficiencies can be remedied at the high-school level, and to what degree students' competence in science and mathematics is involved, remains unclear. Moreover, if, as some experts suggest, the vast majority of future jobs will not require highly technical skills, the widely held view that vocational educators ought to gear their programs toward such skills may be misguided, observers contend.

Although the subject was given only a brief nod in the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the vocational side of precollegiate training involves about two-thirds of all high-school students to one extent or another (at a cost of $3.1 billion in 1980-81). On those grounds alone, those concerned with vocational education suggest, any reassessment of secondary education in general must give due consideration to the needs of students who will go directly into the job market--and to the nature of the economy that will employ them.

Some in the education community believe that all students, regardless of their educational track, should receive the same training in the basic skills, even if it means providing fewer electives and vocational-education offerings.

Advocates of vocational education, on the other hand, contend that training in specific job-related skills is the best preparation for "life and work" and a strong inducement for some students to stay in school. And although they agree on the need to improve the quality of the schools, they also say that the push for increased math and science requirements represents a narrow approach to a broad and complex set of problems.

"We support the idea of improving the quality of education," says Gene Bottoms, executive director of the American Vocational Association (ava), the national organization that represents approximately 50,000 vocational educators from secondary and postsecondary institutions. ''Our disagreement will be on how we get from here to there."

There will be "an awful lot of students who won't find high school meaningful," according to Mr. Bottoms, if the recommendations of the excellence commission are implemented literally so that all students are enrolled in courses that for the past several

years have been considered "college preparatory."

Currently, vocational students are required to have the same number of mathematics and science course credits as students in other programs. Those courses, however, are usually in applied math and science in most districts, taught in connection with vocational instruction. In Anne Arundel County, Md., for example, students enrolled in a three-credit masonry course receive one of those credits in math.

The ava is lobbying, according to Mr. Bottoms, for increased federal support for vocational education to "strengthen the math, science, and technological base" as it relates to students' occupational objectives.


More than 10 million students nationwide are enrolled in vocational-education courses in either comprehensive high schools, vocational schools, or area vocational centers, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. The comprehensive high school accounts for the largest number of vocational-education enrollees, and it is generally recognized as the most ineffective setting.

"It's not the specialized high schools that are in trouble," Mr. Bottoms asserts; the vocational-technical schools have not had the discipline and truancy problems that exist in the other high schools, he says."We haven't faced up to the fact that the comprehensive high school has the difficulty of being all things to all people."

Henry David, former director of the National Institute of Education's vocational-education study, believes the new mandates will compel students to spend more time in mathematics and science, thus diminishing choice in vocational education and other electives.

Vocational education can provide students with the groundwork for participating in the labor market, and the value of that groundwork, Mr. David asserts, "is not insignificant. For a substantial number of students, the preparation [they receive] in high school for work is all they get."

Any attempt to mandate additional requirements in mathematics, science, or English, he adds, will "have perturbing effects on student behavior."

Already, some vocational educators have pointed out, students enter their high-school programs with great deficiencies in their basic skills. And business executives, union leaders, and school officials polled last year by the Center for Public Resources all said they saw serious deficiencies in reading, writing, math, science, speaking and listening, and reasoning skills among high-school graduates and nongraduates entering the workforce.

The survey found that both business and union leaders identified widespread deficiencies in math and science skills among entry-level workers, a trend that some experts say will have a damaging effect on emerging high-technology industries.

But according to "The Educational Implications of High Technology," a research report by two Stanford University professors--Henry M. Levin and Russell Rumberger--high-technology occupations will account for only 7 percent of the new jobs created between now and 1990. The two researchers acknowledge that high technology will "profoundly affect'' many existing jobs; but they also contend that it will "further simplify and routinize work tasks, reducing opportunities for worker individuality and judgment."

By 1990, the researchers estimate, the U.S. will need three times as many janitors (600,000) as new computer-systems analysts (200,000). During the same period, projected growth in the number of computer programmers (150,000) will be one-fifth that of fast-food workers and kitchen helpers (800,000).

The preponderance of people affected by industrial shifts and technological change will not need more math or computer science, Mr. Levin and Mr. Rumberger assert in their report. They argue that general education requirements that create good citizens and productive workers "are not [emphasiss added] likely to be altered significantly by high technology."

"My general concern [with vocational education] is that it specializes kids too early," Mr. Rumberger says. "In the old days, high school provided sufficient education for the marketplace," he says. But economic stability and long-term attachment to one job are no longer applicable, he suggests.

Because the economy is "unpredictable and changing rapidly," Mr. Rumberger says, "it would be hard to argue for a narrow focus" in education such as that provided in most vocational-education programs. He said a general-education program is the best approach, with students taking more specific training after high school and at regular intervals throughout their careers.


One factor contributing to the inability of vocational programs to graduate more students who can read and solve basic computational problems, experts agree, is the typical vocational program's lack of integration with the schools' academic programs. Vocational-education programs "stand apart from the main activity of the schools, which is to prepare students for college," says Charles S. Benson, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley. "They have, by and large, a working-class clientele."

Therefore, contends Mr. Benson, who worked on the nie study, more math and science for vocational students could produce favorable results. But he admits there could also be drawbacks.

"A current weakness of a lot of vocational-education programs is that neither the teachers nor the students have enough background in math and science to do a good job in content," Mr. Benson says. That situation may be aggravated, he suggests, when the programs have to accommodate larger numbers of students who are rejected by the academic programs because they are unable to meet the higher standards of proficiency in math and science.

"If the emphasis on math and science means anything, and if standards are raised, I can see if vocational education gets involved that some students would get the benefits, but the program will be even more exclusive," Mr. Benson notes. "It's an opportunity for vocational education to raise its status with respect to other educational programs and the business community."

But an increase in requirements would also mean "a potential loss of equal educational opportunity" for disadvantaged, minority, and handicapped students, according to Mr. Benson.

Michael O'Keefe, vice president for programs and policy studies for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, believes the pressure now being exerted on vocational educators is healthy. But he says it is unhealthy that the discussions, so far, have not adequately addressed the educational needs of students not planning to attend college.

"We ought to stop pretending to these kids that we're preparing them to walk into jobs," Mr. O'Keefe says. "We need to rethink what we are training kids for."

"I think that if we were to provide a Mortimer Adler curriculum," Mr. O'Keefe says, "it wouldn't work for all kids." There are some students, he adds, who by the time they are in high school are "turned off" by the traditional academic subjects.

"There are a lot of issues," Mr. O'Keefe says, "and the solutions are not terribly uniform." But unless vocational educators join with those from general education, solutions will not be forthcoming, he predicts.

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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