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Vocational Education’s New Job: Defend Thyself

By Sean Cavanagh — February 23, 2005 9 min read
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When educators from across the country, and even other nations, are looking for ideas on how to blend career and technical training with demanding academics, their search often takes them to this rural pocket of southern Delaware, the home of Sussex Technical High School.

Fifteen years after overhauling its mission, this school framed by fields and farmhouses has seen its test scores rise, its enrollment climb, and the local businesses that once lamented its poorly skilled graduates help shape its classes.

Like many other vocational-themed programs, the school relies primarily on state and local money to operate, but it also receives federal funding under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act—about $250,000 a year.

Now that flow of federal cash, and similar aid to career-oriented schools nationwide, is in doubt. President Bush is proposing to eliminate the entire $1.3 billion federal vocational program in his fiscal 2006 budget.

Aid’s Impact Debated

At Sussex Tech, which serves 1,200 students in grades 9-12, those federal resources are vital, school officials say. The funding pays for state-of-the-art machinery, such as the automotive-alignment machines and diagnostic computers that local and national industries say students need to know how to operate. It pays for professional development for teachers and safety upgrades to facilities and the campus.

“It has a ripple effect,” Principal A.J. Lathbury said of the money from Washington. “We just do not have the sort of tax base that would be able to support the type of equipment we need to deliver industry standards. If you cannot operate with what business and industry needs, you’re doing a disservice to the students and the community.”

Yet critics say that not every vocational program has the successful track record of Sussex Tech. In the president’s proposed budget, the Bush administration argues that the federal vocational education program has yielded “little or no evidence of improved outcomes,” despite decades of federal spending.

Tricia Peoples, a senior at Sussex Technical High School in Delaware, grinds a weld on a truck fender. The school is noted for its successful vocational programs.

With those alleged shortcomings in mind, the administration has proposed using the money spent on such programs to pay for Mr. Bush’s $1.5 billion plan to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates to include more testing and academic programs in the nation’s high schools. Under the plan, states would decide whether local vocational programs should still get some of that federal money aimed at improving high schools.

In many ways, career and technical education was a natural target for that shift in funding priorities, several observers say. The billion-dollar-plus program is the largest single source of U.S. Department of Education spending on high schools, according to a 2004 federal study.

Some federal lawmakers have already voiced doubts about whether Congress will agree to Mr. Bush’s high school proposals or to the vocational cuts. (“Cuts Proposed in Bush Budget Hit Education,” Feb. 16, 2005.) Support for the Perkins Act is obvious, they say, given the recent re-introduction of bipartisan legislation in both the House and the Senate to reauthorize the program. But others in Congress say they expect a fight for every dollar of vocational spending.

“We believe in the Perkins program,” U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., said at a Feb. 15 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, which is considering the reauthorization proposal. “But the reality is, we have a burden of proof to meet, or we’re not going to be around next year.”

Polish or Purge It?

Proponents of vocational education have survived similar battles before. For the two previous years, the Bush administration proposed reductions of about one-quarter of Perkins’ funding, only to see Congress restore it in the final budget for that year.

As recently as last year, President Bush seemed committed to overhauling Perkins, not eliminating it. In May 2004, his administration unveiled a detailed blueprint of changes it hoped Congress would approve to the program.

“I’m going to ask Congress to reform the Perkins vocational program,” the president said in a speech at an Arkansas community college last April. “That’s not to cut back on the money. It’s quite the contrary. It’s to make sure the money we are spending prepares these youngsters for the jobs of the 21st century.”

But this year, after taking a “good, hard look” at vocational spending, the administration has decided that its high school improvement plan would be a more effective strategy to encourage schools to prepare all students for college and the workforce, said C. Todd Jones, the Education Department’s associate deputy secretary for the budget.

The high school strategy, Mr. Jones argued, would give school district leaders the flexibility to choose among several different federally funded approaches to helping students academically—with vocational training being one option. The strategy would also ensure that federally financed vocational programs were integrated with other high school reforms, rather than isolated from those improvements, he said.

“The administration believes we have a mixed collection of vocational education programs in this country,” Mr. Jones said. While some are “exceptional,” he said, “we don’t think all programs are like that. We know some programs are not effective.”

Federal aid amounts to only about 10 percent of overall spending on vocational education nationwide. Yet critics say the flaws in the federal commitment were laid bare in the 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education, an independent, congressionally chartered study of career and technical efforts.

While vocational students have improved their academic performance and were taking more rigorous courses than ever, career-oriented courses were not likely to spark even greater academic gains, or college attendance, without “substantial modifications to policy, curriculum, and teacher training,” the report said.

Backers of vocational programs say that many of those conclusions are outdated and undersell the benefits that trade-oriented classes offer students at risk of dropping out of high school.

They point to findings such as a 2001 study conducted by Stephen B. Plank, an assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Students who took the equivalent of roughly nine career- or technically-oriented courses during high school were less likely to drop out of school than their peers who took fewer, if any such courses, his report found.

Arizona officials last month said that students who took career-oriented courses outperformed the general population in reading, writing, and mathematics on a statewide test known as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.

Delaware Associate Secretary of Education Lewis L. Atkinson told last week’s House education committee hearing that students in the state’s comprehensive vocational schools scored as well as or better than their non-career- focused peers in reading and math—and that those schools’ dropout rates were roughly half the statewide average.

Without vocational education, “you lose the context for a lot of students for [why they need] those academic requirements,” Mr. Atkinson said. “It’s the glue that holds that student to the school every day.”

Basic Skills at Work

At Sussex Tech, those connections are well-established. After struggling with lackluster test scores and enrollment through the 1980s, the school in 1991 revamped its program. With the help of community and business leaders, the Delaware school upgraded its curriculum, course scheduling, and teacher training.

Today, its students take four years of mathematics and English and three years of science, with a college-preparatory emphasis in each subject. Along with those basics, students must choose from one of four career “clusters”: automotive; communications and information; health and human services; or industrial and engineering.

Sussex Technical High School senior Tyler Humpton makes a lacrosse-stick handle in his carpentry class. Students there must also take four years of math and English and three years of science.

Money under the Perkins Act arrives at Sussex Tech through the federal program’s two major funding streams: state grants, which pay for a host of academic improvement and technical efforts; and a lesser amount through Tech-Prep, a program which supports links between K-12 and college. The school’s students must complete projects at different grade levels that blend trade skills with academics. Teachers of both trade and academic courses coordinate their lessons.

Those links were evident in a precalculus lesson led by mathematics teacher Donna Johnson on a Friday morning earlier this month. After guiding her class through a stream of equations on a whiteboard, she offered them a real-world link.

Some of you have a health and human-service focus, she told her students. If you’re a nurse giving intravenous fluid to a patient, she asked, how might a rational equation help you set fluid levels, when you have to be accurate to the millimeter? (In an upcoming project, Ms. Johnson and others plan to ask students to investigate a car crash, using equations to gauge the angle of impact, speed, and other factors.)

“Whenever you’re teaching math, the first thing students always ask is, ‘When am I ever going to use it?’ ” Ms. Johnson explained later. “That’s one of the great things about this school—they actually do use it.”

Jessica Marviel, a 17-year-old who attends another math class taught by Ms. Johnson, appreciates those school-to-work links. The senior plans to attend a professional program next year to seek certification as a registered nurse. Through Sussex Tech, she is already certified as a nurse’s assistant. The student recalls that for her and her parents, Sussex Tech offered clear educational advantages over traditional high schools.

“They thought I’d get a better education here,” she said.

Critics of the federal Perkins program don’t dispute the merits of career programs like Sussex Tech. But the existing system does little to distinguish between top-end models and others that provide students with outdated skills, said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust. The Washington policy organization supports strong accountability measures for schools and high academic expectations for disadvantaged students.

Too many vocational programs today “take advantage of a belief system that some students can’t achieve at certain levels,” said Mr. Wiener, who supports overhauling, but not eliminating, the Perkins program. In high schools today, “the opportunities for students have changed a lot,” he said. “Voc ed has changed less, and federal policy has changed not much at all.”

Vocational programs around the country have already faced budget cuts because of local district pressures to pay for other remedial courses, tutoring, and other academic services under the No Child Left Behind Act, said Jim Stone, the director of the National Resource Center for Career and Technical Education, in St. Paul, Minn.

If the Perkins program were eliminated, states and districts “wouldn’t necessarily go out Monday and shut down their auto programs,” said Mr. Stone, whose center receives Perkins funding. But “you would see states scrambling to [make up] those dollars.”

Mr. Lathbury, the Sussex Tech principal, believes that many vocational programs would thrive under the sort of changes his school embraced years ago. A self-described “car-head” who once owned his own shop that souped up autos before he moved into education, said he understands what lures students to his program, and what keeps them there.

“Are we an exception? Maybe. But we’re not doing anything that anybody else can’t do,” he said. “I believe we’ve been the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean for kids who don’t see themselves fitting in the traditional setting.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as Vocational Education’s New Job: Defend Thyself

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