College & Workforce Readiness

Vocational Programs Earn Mixed Reviews, Face Academic Push

By Lynn Olson — May 23, 2006 5 min read
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When it comes to work readiness, no topic is more debated than the place of career and technical education in high schools.

President Bush has proposed eliminating the entire $1.3 billion federal vocational program in his fiscal 2007 budget, the second year in a row he has targeted the program. The White House Office of Management and Budget rated the vocational education state grants, which account for most of that money, “ineffective” for having produced little or no evidence of improved student outcomes.

Yet in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to add another $50 million for career and technical education to his state’s $36.6 billion K-12 education budget, on top of $20 million appropriated for fiscal 2006.

“For too long, vocational education has been looked down upon and considered second-class education,” the Republican governor said during a March 21 speech at Duncan Polytechnical High School in Fresno. “People who say that could not be more wrong.”

The disagreement rests, in part, on whether one focuses on the monetary or academic outcomes of career education.

Research by John H. Bishop, an economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has found that taking career and technical courses in high school beyond the introductory level is a predictor of higher earnings eight years after graduation. The effects of vocational coursetaking are slightly larger for students who go on to get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, he found.

Similarly, a rigorous evaluation of “career academies” in nine high schools across the United States found that young men who had participated in the programs earned over $10,000 more than members of a control group over the four-year period after high school graduation.

It’s estimated that more than 2,500 career academies are in schools nationwide. They typically are small learning communities that combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, in partnership with local employers that provide opportunities for work-based learning.

James J. Kemple, the study’s author and the director of K-12 education policy at MDRC, the New York City-based research organization that conducted the study, said the earnings differential is substantial—on the order of an 18 percent increase in monthly wages. Given the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of many programs aimed at lower-performing students, he said, “finding something that really seems to work is path-breaking.”

Not Either-Or

On the other hand, the study found the academies had no impact—positive or negative—on students’ educational attainment, including test scores, dropout and graduation rates, and enrollment or persistence in postsecondary education.

While that’s disappointing for supporters hoping to show the career academies had an educational payoff, Mr. Kemple said, “the impacts that we saw on employment and earnings did not come at the expense of reducing students’ access to postsecondary education, so students weren’t forced to make a choice between labor-market participation and postsecondary education.”

High Schools That Work is another popular school improvement initiative that combines a rigorous academic core—at least four years of college-preparatory English and mathematics, three years of lab sciences and social studies, and one computer course—with at least four credits in a career and technical area.

Follow-up surveys of graduates who have completed the recommended curriculum have found over nine in 10 enroll in postsecondary education, and fewer than 11 percent need remedial math courses in college and fewer than 6 percent remedial English, said Gene Bottoms, the program’s founder and the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, based in Atlanta. They also have very low unemployment rates. Of the students who have worked since graduation, 22 percent were unemployed for the median of five weeks.

Mr. Bottoms argues that the new workplace requires both the ability to think and reason with numbers, using multistep problems, and the ability to read and comprehend technical materials and to express oneself in technical language.

“School career and technical studies historically have focused on one’s ability to do things,” he said, “and that remains important.

“But in the old days, you got down a set of procedures,” he continued. “In the new workplace, each situation is so different and novel that you’re going to have to be able to read and decipher a whole range of technical documents and information, as you think through different problems or projects you’re working on.”

High school career and technical programs need to shift their pedagogy, Mr. Bottoms said, so that when students engage in complicated projects, “all students understand the science and math involved, and you don’t just grade on the end product itself, but on the understanding students acquire through this process.”

Mr. Kemple of MDRC agrees.

“There needs to be a stronger focus on the academic piece of the career academy or any career-technical education program,” he said. “I think that’s the next generation.” In California, the James Irvine Foundation last month announced a new center aimed at expanding high school students’ opportunities to prepare for college and careers simultaneously. Called ConnectEd, the Berkeley-based center will support the development of high school curricula that are at once academically rigorous and connected to the state’s thriving business and industry sectors. (“New Center Aims to Help Motivate Calif. High Schoolers,” April 12, 2006.)

“What we’re trying to promote through ConnectEd,” said Gary Hoachlander, the group’s president, “are comprehensive programs of academic and technical study organized around major industry sectors or career clusters that prepare students for both college and career, not some for college and some for the world of work.”

“From my perspective,” he said, “we need to stop addressing school improvement by focusing on academics in isolation from career and technical education, or career and technical education is isolation from academics. These two need to work together.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Vocational Programs Earn Mixed Reviews, Face Academic Push

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