Can Vocational Education Produce the Citizens We Need?

Students on the technical track need solid academics, not just job training. It's important to spend these public-education dollars wisely.
by | April 24, 2013

There is both good and bad news in a comprehensive education-reform law just signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. If done right, allowing students to choose between a high-school diploma focused on college-level work and one geared toward technical training could produce positive results. But if it's done wrong, those choosing the technical track would be the biggest losers.

The legislation, said Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, who is a former school superintendent, "makes sure that we embed into our curriculum those job skills that are necessary for students to walk off the graduation stage and get real jobs in the real economy." It's a hard statement to disagree with, until it comes to determining just which skills students need to get those jobs.

There is a long history of support for treating public education almost as a job-training program rather than a means of preparing people to function more broadly as active citizens in a democracy. In a 2011 speech before the National Governors Association, Bill Gates proposed redirecting higher-education funding for the liberal arts toward disciplines demonstrated to create jobs.

But whether that's an efficient way to spend scarce public-education dollars is questionable: The one thing these education-as-workforce-development efforts seem to have in common is poor results. In 1998, Connecticut had slightly higher reading scores than Massachusetts. But while Massachusetts opted for clearly articulated academic goals, Connecticut adopted a "hands-on," skills-based approach. By 2005, Massachusetts' scores had jumped dramatically, and Connecticut was one of seven states that had seen its reading scores drop the most.

Today, backers of education as workforce development are rallying around "21st century skills," which would give abilities such as "systems thinking" and "cross-cultural competence" equal billing with academic content. Once again, the results aren't promising -- particularly for poor and minority students.

Perhaps no state has embraced 21st-century skills as enthusiastically as has West Virginia. But an analysis by Matthew Ladner, a research scholar at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, found that West Virginia was the only state whose National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math scores for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches students fell between 2003 and 2009.

There is a way to do vocational-technical education right. Since 2001, state test scores at Massachusetts' 26 regional vocational-technical high schools have jumped by 40 percent. The schools' graduation rates top state averages, and dropouts are less than half as frequent as in other public high schools.

There are a number of reasons for the Massachusetts voc-techs' success. Research shows that the same level of skills is required for entry-level career success as for college entrance. Today, the technical manuals that voc-tech students will have to use are written at a reading level as high as that expected of college sophomores. Math plays a large role in such occupations as carpentry and automobile technology, and science expertise is needed for everything from metal fabrication to agriculture.

In response to the research findings, Massachusetts voc-techs upgraded their academic programs. All Bay State voc-tech teachers now hold an academic license in their fields of instruction, and a number of the schools offer advanced-placement courses.

Massachusetts' experience demonstrates just how well technical education grounded in academics can work. Unfortunately, a provision of Florida's new law that would allow students to substitute narrow industry certifications, for anything from a computer programmer to an automotive technician, for traditional math and science courses is a red flag that the Sunshine State may be headed in a direction that would deny technical-track students the academic foundation they need. If that's the case, those students will be prepared for neither college nor the world of work.

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