Enrollments in Voc. Ed. Down From '82 to '90

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Disabled and disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in vocational classes, a Congressionally mandated study has found, while vocational enrollments over all have plummeted.

Between 1982 and 1990, the interim report of the National Assessment of Vocational Education found, the number of vocational credits earned by high school students decreased 11 percent.

At the same time, however, the study reports that the number of credits earned by special-needs students has skyrocketed. Such students include those who are economically or educationally disadvantaged, disabled, or have limited English proficiency. In 1992, such students constituted 34 percent of high school graduates but earned 43 percent of all vocational credits.

Disabled students took more vocational courses than any other group--earning an average of 5.99 credits in vocational education, compared with 4.10 for all students.

The study also found that special-needs students tend to be concentrated in training for low-status occupations, such as food service, auto-body repairs, and the metalworking trades.

Congress mandated the mammoth, three-year study in 1990 in amendments to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act. Prepared within the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, it examines most major aspects of vocational education in high schools and postsecondary institutions nationwide.

The interim report, released this month, includes data available as of October. A final report will be released July 1 and could set the stage for changes when Congress reauthorizes the Perkins law next year.

"[T]here is reason to believe that many special-population students are being channeled into vocational education for reasons incidental to their best educational interests,'' the report warns. "This inappropriate placement of students is commonly called 'dumping.' The practice is an old one, but it seems to be increasing.''

"As vocational enrollments have been declining, there's an incentive on the part of vocational programs in secondary schools to bring more of these students in to keep their enrollments up,'' said David P. Boesel, the assessment's director.

The study blamed the phenomenon, in part, on the Perkins Act. The law requires districts to recruit special-needs students and to provide them with supplementary services.

Although research has found that disabled students who participate in vocational education are more likely to be employed, there is no evidence of similar benefits for disadvantaged or limited-English-proficient students.

The report cautions that excessive enrollments of such students in vocational education could lead to the programs' becoming stigmatized and isolated--the exact opposite of what Congress intended.

Although its recommendations will not be available until the final report is released, the report cautions that it "is not clear that federal legislation should continue to try to steer more special-population students into vocational education.''

One of the changes Congress approved in 1990 was to cease providing separate funds for special-needs students. Instead, the law targets funds to districts with high concentrations of such students and requires assurances that their needs will be met. Although advocates had worried that the changes would lead to a reduction in supplementary services for such groups, that does not appear to be happening.

'Not Very Demanding'

The study draws upon a variety of research and data, including two national surveys--one conducted in 1992, the other in 1993--of vocational administrators in states, districts, schools, and postsecondary institutions. Case studies also were researched in 20 communities.

In general, the report found that high school vocational programs are "not very demanding.'' Vocational students earn fewer academic credits--and fewer advanced academic credits--than other students. On average, they are assigned about 40 percent as much homework. And they are less likely to be assigned writing in class.

Although increased high school graduation requirements have narrowed the gap in academic coursetaking, substantial differences remain. Ironically, the largest deficit is in mathematics and science courses, which are required for many technical careers.

The number of students taking a "coherent sequence'' of vocational courses, and the number taking upper-level vocational classes, also declined between 1982 and 1990. Such is the case even among "vocational concentrators,'' who earn at least three credits within a specific occupational field.

Such findings are particularly troubling, the report suggests, since research shows that students who concentrate their coursework in a vocational field are more likely to find a training-related job and earn more in such jobs than their peers.

Widespread, Not Deep

The report's depiction of traditional vocational education in high schools underscores the need for many of the reforms contained in the 1990 Perkins Act. The act requires states to develop performance standards for vocational education. It also encourages districts to integrate academic and vocational education and to create stronger ties to postsecondary institutions through "tech prep'' programs. (Such programs typically link the last two years of high school with the first two years of college, leading to an associate's degree or a skills certificate.)

The study found that the act appears to be having an impact on local programs. School districts that receive Perkins funds, for instance, have taken more steps to integrate their curricula and more steps to develop tech-prep programs than those that do not.

In general, though, implementation of the reforms appears so far to be widespread rather than deep.

On the whole, the study found, districts are attempting to integrate academic and vocational content within the existing curriculum. Typically, these efforts entail incorporating some academic content into a few vocational classes, or offering applied academics courses based on commercially available materials.

While a majority of schools surveyed said they had established procedures for collaboration between academic and vocational teachers, only about one-third of those provided common planning periods, and only about one-fourth made increased time available to teachers.

Moreover, fewer than 11 percent of vocational teachers reported spending more than 10 percent of their class time on most academic subjects, and even smaller percentages of academic teachers spent that much time on occupational matters.

Studies by a number of researchers have also indicated that, at the secondary level, integration typically involves instruction in only basic academic skills. The report cautions that, if "instruction in integrated courses is and remains at low levels, students in training for careers would probably be better off in traditional academic classes.''

'New and Struggling'

The report found similarly broad but shallow implementation of tech-prep efforts nationwide.

Approximately three-fourths of all community colleges said they had started tech-prep programs by 1991-92. At the high school level, 41 percent of regular districts and 82 percent of vocational districts reported having begun such programs. But most are still in the earliest stages of planning and implementation. Most have no students yet, those with students tend to be small, and the definition of tech-prep is often hazy.

As with integration, most high schools and postsecondary institutions seem to be trying to fit small tech-prep programs or pieces of programs into their existing curricula.

"Most secondary vocational education is still pretty traditional,'' Mr. Boesel warned, "and the Perkins reforms are new, small, and sort of struggling. ... The question is to what extent will those new efforts grow roots and spread and become systemic reforms.''

The law also requires states to develop performance standards and measures for vocational education, to be used by local grant recipients.

Most states reported going beyond the requirements of the Perkins Act, developing a fuller array of performance measures than required and applying them to all vocational programs, not just those receiving Perkins funds. But at the time of the surveys, most of the new systems were not yet functioning at the local level, and the extent to which they would be used to improve vocational programs was unclear.

Only a minority of districts reported strong state support for Perkins reforms. But the study found that greater state activism is associated with more local reform. For example, districts are more likely to implement integration and performance standards in states that actively support them.

In general, postsecondary vocational education seems to be in better shape, according to the study. Vocational enrollments are increasing at that level, along with total enrollment; and the concentration of special-population students is stable.

Postsecondary programs also seem to provide more structure than their secondary counterparts. Occupational majors and course prerequisites are common. And postsecondary institutions are more likely than high schools to be taking steps to integrate across their curricula, rather than within academic and vocational courses.

Vol. 13, Issue 17

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