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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Does Vocational Education Have a Role to Play In High School Reform?

By Gary Hoachlander — April 26, 2005 9 min read
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By adding a heavier academic load to their CTE programs, many students are choosing to work harder rather than withdraw from career and technical education.

As the high school attracts renewed attention as a focus of school reform, it’s an opportune time to ask some hard questions about the role vocational education, now more commonly called career and technical education, or CTE, should play in secondary education. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (Perkins III) is currently up for reauthorization, but President Bush has proposed a different approach, one that would allow, but not require, states to spend federal funds on career and technical education.

Current national and state school reform efforts are dominated, and rightly so, by the goal of boosting academic achievement for all students. High schools, however, have long had an additional goal: preparing students for success in the workforce. These two aims are not mutually exclusive—academics are, of course, essential in the workplace—but nor are they exactly the same. Given the academic emphasis of current reform efforts, as well as the dramatic changes in the world economy and labor markets, can we expect high schools to do both well?

We can start by examining what we know about career and technical education’s effectiveness, no simple task given the many expectations placed on career and technical education in policy and in practice. Besides charging CTE with strengthening students’ technical skills, preparing them for work, and improving their earnings, Perkins III established the premise that CTE must be accountable for academic achievement as well.

The legislation clearly indicates that career and technical education’s success should be measured, in large part, by its contribution to improved achievement levels, as well as higher rates of high school graduation and enrollment in, and completion of, postsecondary education. Commissioned by Congress to provide guidance for the Perkins reauthorization, the recent National Assessment of Vocational Education, or NAVE, report looks broadly at the effectiveness of career and technical education over the past 10 years. Its findings suggest that we may want to reconsider some of our expectations.

The NAVE report found career and technical education to be highly successful in improving earnings, for both students who enter the workforce right out of high school and those who work while going to college. The more CTE courses students took, the more their earnings increased. These benefits accrued across many groups, including students who are economically and educationally disadvantaged, those with disabilities, and both men and women. Students who took both a core academic curriculum and CTE courses reaped the greatest earnings benefits of all. Seven years after high school graduation, students earned about 2 percent more annually for each vocational course they took, or about $450 per course, based on average annual earnings of about $24,000. By this measure, career and technical education works.

One of the great ironies in the high school reform debate is that we criticize academic instruction for failing to do what it is supposed to do, while we condemn career and technical education for succeeding in doing what it was designed to do.

Critics of such education have long worried that vocational courses would lure students away from more rigorous academic study and doom them to stagnation in low-paying jobs. The NAVE report shows otherwise. Nearly all students (96.6 percent) choose (vocational courses are electives) to take some CTE courses in high school. About one-fourth of all high school seniors are vocational “concentrators” (students earning at least three credits in a single vocational program area). While it is true that lower-achieving students are more likely to be concentrators than higher-achieving students, fully 15 percent of all high school seniors with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher were concentrators in 2000.

Moreover, the 1990s saw vocational concentrators taking more—and more rigorous—academic courses. Some 50 percent of concentrators completed the “New Basics” academic core curriculum in 2000, up from about 19 percent in 1990, while the number completing a college-preparatory curriculum nearly tripled. They also improved academically. On 12th grade tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, vocational concentrators boosted their reading scores by about 8 scale points between 1994 and 1998, and their math scores by about 11 scale points between 1990 and 2000.

More vocational concentrators enrolled in postsecondary education immediately after high school during the 1990s than did in the 1980s (54.7 percent and 41.5 percent, respectively). It turns out that many enrolled later, so that by seven years after graduating from high school, nearly three-fourths of CTE concentrators had participated in postsecondary education or training to some extent. Eighteen percent eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, and by eight years after high school graduation, 53 percent of concentrators had earned a postsecondary degree or certificate.

What do these findings tell us? Participation in career and technical education has clear labor-market benefits, and these increase with greater participation. CTE has continuing appeal to students, and to a broader range of students than previously. By adding a heavier academic load to their CTE programs, many students are choosing to work harder rather than withdraw from career and technical education. There is some evidence that this coursework helps keep students who might otherwise drop out engaged in school and inspires more students to enter college. The coursework is certainly compatible with more rigorous academic study, improved academic achievement, and postsecondary enrollment.

But compatibility may not be enough. The crux of the matter for some high school reformers is whether or not career and technical education can contribute directly to improved academic achievement. From the NAVE report, the fairest assessment of this is that, although CTE does not detract from this goal, it does not necessarily aid in its realization. This despite a series of innovations ranging from tech-prep programs of study to career academies to efforts to incorporate more academic content into vocational courses.

Policymakers need to take these findings seriously and do some careful thinking about the role of career and technical education in high school. We can begin by asking how much we value the employment advantages that participation in such programs produces. Do these gains matter—for students who do not go to college, as well as for those who do and need to support themselves while in school? If we do care about these outcomes, we should be careful about adopting policies that, by design or by default, squeeze career and technical education out of the high school curriculum. We should also be wary of strategies that restructure CTE to produce greater academic achievement, but may jeopardize the earnings gains it now produces.

Can we have it both ways? Can we create in high schools a CTE curriculum that preserves real gains in earnings and employment while also promoting greater academic knowledge and skills? Perhaps. But the truth is that we don’t yet know. There are at least two major obstacles to finding out.

Even where CTE supposedly has been redesigned to promote such learning, such as in career academies, there is little evidence that this objective has been achieved.

First, most vocational curricula and instruction in high schools are not currently designed to produce academic learning. Career and technical education generally has been formulated to produce the very outcomes we observe: employment gains resulting from specific occupational preparation emphasizing basic technical and employability skills. One of the great ironies in the high school reform debate is that we criticize academic instruction for failing to do what it is supposed to do, while we condemn career and technical education for succeeding in doing what it was designed to do.

If we are really serious about expecting career and technical education to produce both academic and employment gains, there is a great deal of work to do on redesigning curriculum and teaching to accomplish these dual aims. Relatively little work has been done on the tedious but essential tasks of specifying clearly how to upgrade the academic and technical content of career and technical programs and courses.

Most CTE teachers have not been trained to exploit the academic content in technical instruction; most academic teachers know little about how their disciplinary knowledge is used in industries and workplaces. Other than exhorting educators to “integrate” and “articulate,” public policy has said very little about how this is to be accomplished.

Second, we don’t currently have measures that can appropriately assess career and technical education’s contributions to academic learning. Even where CTE supposedly has been redesigned to promote such learning, such as in career academies, there is little evidence that this objective has been achieved. It is possible that these reforms have simply failed. But it is also possible that we are using the wrong metric to evaluate them. So far, the only gauge of these efforts’ academic results has been standardized achievement tests. And, by that measure, these efforts have performed no better (or worse) than the conventional academic curriculum. Standardized tests are vital to our efforts to improve student performance, but the fact is that they assess very narrow definitions of academic achievement. For the most part, they do not measure students’ diagnostic abilities, capacities for bringing interdisciplinary knowledge to bear on complex problems, understanding of systems, or facility in applying abstract knowledge and academic skills to authentic, real-life situations.

Are the new forms of vocational education that are emerging in some high schools around the country producing this kind of learning? They purport to be, but we don’t really know because we do not have valid, reliable assessment instruments to tell us whether or not this learning is occurring. It would be a good idea to find out. Public policy could help by clarifying the kind of academic and technical learning outcomes we seek from restructured career and technical education, and by supporting the substantial research-and- development effort needed to create good assessments.

Is there a role for career and technical education, as conventionally practiced or substantially restructured, in high school reform? It depends. If our only objective is academic achievement, especially as measured by existing standardized assessments, the answer is probably no. There is very little evidence that career and technical education, in its traditional or emergent forms, will produce this result. However, if we believe that the earnings and employment advantages resulting from CTE are important, in tandem with academic achievement, we should be careful about casually casting career and technical education aside. A policy of benign neglect is always hazardous.

If we believe that career and technical education could play a significant role in high school improvement if it is refashioned to produce not only earnings gains but also increased academic mastery, then we have considerable work to do.

Federal policy could lead this effort. But to achieve significant progress, the legislative agenda needs to address more squarely the difficult challenges posed by curriculum redesign, professional development, and expanded assessment. Anything less will squander an important opportunity to make both employment and higher academic achievement accessible to the large numbers of high school students left behind in our current system.

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