The Continuing Need for Vocational Education

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When you walk into a mechanic's garage, do you want to talk about Plato or Charles Dickens?

More likely, you want to discuss fuel injection or automatic transmissions.

But if schools follow the "ideal'' curriculum recently outlined by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett--or similar programs proposed by other reformers--you may find that your mechanic is better prepared to identify the Republic than he is your radiator.

In promoting an agenda biased toward college-bound students, Mr. Bennett and like-minded critics of American schools ignore the needs of vocational-education students.

The Secretary's hypothetical "James Madison High School,'' for example, would stress academic toughness in a curriculum centered on the study of Western culture. Course requirements would include four years of English, three years each of science, mathematics, and social studies, and two years of a foreign language.

Such a program would not be appropriate for vocational-education students, who make up a large portion of the high-school population in many communities. As the future workforce for America's industries, these young people deserve an education suited to their interests and goals.

Not all students are cut out for college; some prefer to learn a trade and enter the working world. If we try to force these students into an academic mold, they are likely to become frustrated and drop out of high school.

Certainly all young people should master in school the skills and concepts essential to productive citizenship. They should understand, for instance, the principles of American democracy and economics.

Through practice in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, they must learn to communicate effectively. And they should develop in school the analytical skills necessary to diagnose problems and make decisions based on sound reasoning.

But is it a disaster that every student does not know who Plato was? Do all high-school students need to know every famous author in world literature or each great composer in music history?

Mr. Bennett's curriculum pushes vocational education--what he calls "shop''--into the elective category. Yet it is the technical skills learned in "shop'' that will be most important for many students after high-school graduation.

Local factory managers may be impressed by job applicants who can quote Shakespeare, but will they hire them? In real life, supervisors want people with technical skills or work experience.

In their efforts to provide students with the necessary skills, vocational-education programs are currently in the throes of change. Industry is moving from low to high technology. For virtually all vocational fields, computer literacy has become critical. In addressing such developments, combined and upgraded vocational curricula are demanding more of students.

For example, as more cars are constructed with computer systems, auto mechanics must understand microcomputer electronics.

Factory workers need to know more about robotics and microprocessors as more advanced equipment is installed by manufacturers. Cabinetmaking, for instance, while once identified with craftsmanship, now is dominated by computer-driven machines.

At a recent meeting of the World Congress on Vocational Education, held in Australia, representatives of corporations like General Motors and the Volvo Company of Sweden emphasized the need for a broader, multi-craft training for vocational students. To maintain quality while remaining competitive, such companies seek not technical specialists but versatile workers who can manage a cluster of skills.

Hoping to meet this need, many vocational programs are combining courses. Classes in, say, electronics, plumbing, and carpentry may be integrated into building trades. In the past--and sometimes the present--the installation of a light-switch required three workers and six hours of labor: a carpenter to cut a hole, an electrician to run the wire, and a plasterer to patch the hole. From the new perspective, it's a two-hour job for one skilled journeyman.

In light of the ongoing changes in the workplace, schools must also carefully design academic programs for vocational students.

Mathematics, science, and civics should be taught in more practical--but not easier--ways. All vocational-education courses should become more rigorous and more relevant to students' future needs.

The watered-down versions of college-preparatory courses commonly offered to vocational students serve no useful purpose. While such courses approach information abstractly, vocational-education programs should present similar material in applied terms.

A student in an electronics or welding program, for example, may need applied algebra rather than college algebra. Similarly, English classes might provide such a student with invaluable training in technical writing; study of Sophocles might not be necessary.

In many schools, the academic classes designed for vocational students--often informally prefixed "shop''--are terminal programs: They offer limited information and lead nowhere.

Graduates of such programs who later attempt to further their education face a struggle. The limited scope of their vocational courses does not adequately prepare them for community college or associate-degree programs, let alone baccalaureate-degree programs.

A smarter and harder-working labor force will be essential as the nation strives to regain its industrial competitiveness. Today's vocational-education students will make up the backbone of that force.

In Taiwan, 70 percent of all students are enrolled in vocational-education programs. There are seven vocational-education high schools for each academic high school. The reverse ratio would better describe the situation in the United States, where often one vocational school must serve many districts.

Yet a directory of occupations released by the U.S. Labor Department indicates that only 20 percent of the jobs listed require a college degree. The other 80 percent call for the types of skills usually taught in vocational-education programs.

While some familiar jobs of the past--such as that of machine operator--are disappearing, new ones are taking their place. Forecasts of the future job market identify, for instance, a growing need for office-machine service technicians and data-processing-machine mechanics. In the building trades, more sophisticated systems, such as climate-controlled environments, will require service from workers familiar with computerized technology.

Schools are obliged to provide a sound academic education for all of their students, and the calls for excellence have brought about some positive changes. But we must remember that American schools serve a wide range of students and that the future needs of the non-college-bound deserve equal attention. In the interest not only of equity but also of economic growth, we must maintain effective vocational-education programs.

Vol. 07, Issue 27, Page 32

Published in Print: March 30, 1988, as The Continuing Need for Vocational Education
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