Could More High School Vocational Programs Prep for Jobs?

As lawmakers look for new avenues to provide jobs, some are turning toward high school vocational programs as a means of building a better workforce.
by , | November 8, 2011

Earlier this year, Harvard University published a paper called Pathways to Prosperity, which included this interesting projection: only about one-third of the 47 million jobs expected to be created between 2008 and 2018 will require a bachelor's degree, upending the traditional notion that success is strictly defined by graduating at a four-year college.

Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Radcliffe tells Governing that employers in his state have told him that they have jobs to fill -- welders and auto technicians, for example -- but lack qualified candidates to take them. As the Wisconsin state legislature holds its special session on job creation, Radcliffe has proposed a bill that would create a separate tract for some students: instead of studying for a traditional high school diploma, they would work toward a vocational degree. These students would have reduced requirements for traditional math, science and English credits. Those classes would be replaced with vocational ones.

Radcliffe says he believes this program could fill employers' needs and create reasonably well-paying, middle-class jobs. "We've gotten away from technical training in high schools, and that's moving us in the wrong direction. That's probably why we're losing jobs to other countries," he says. "The emphasis should be back on that captive audience that we have in high school students."

The idea of developing programs with a more precise focus on career training is becoming more popular. Chicago recently announced it would open five high school, community college "hybrid" schools in 2012, the Chicago Tribune reports. Students might study a little longer, up to six years, but they would leave with a high school diploma as well as an associate's degree with specialized training.

In some ways, Radcliffe's proposal is the first of its kind. A document from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction claims that 15 states currently have some kind of career and technical training track, but students in those states must still meet the standard high school diploma requirements in those core subjects.

The Wisconsin legislation has already aroused some passionate opponents who say it would ultimately be detrimental to students who might enroll in the program. They worry that eliminating requirements for English, math and science would be disastrous for students' development while failing to adequately prepare them for their chosen field.

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, notes that vocational programs have a "raggedy history" dating back to the 1970's when she was the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education during the Carter administration. They have been accused of segregating low-income and minority students while failing to produce the desired results. Because of the amount of training needed to work in even traditional blue-collar jobs these days -- auto technicians, for example, must be well versed with computers -- Brown believes that kind of certification is best left for community colleges.

"The notion that you should have a different diploma is a bad deal," Brown says, although she stresses she support having "a variety of offerings" for curriculum that high school students can take that will set them on a path for a career. "I'm highly suspicious of what [Wisconsin] is thinking about. We want kids to have diplomas that count, which means they must meet academic standards."

How a proposed program such as Radcliffe's, which abandons the traditional high school diploma, would mesh with the federal accountability standards is a lingering question. Radcliffe says it isn't an issue that he had considered before proposing the bill, but he believes states should have such flexibility. Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department, tells Governing that students who graduate with a vocational degree could not be counted as part of the state's tally of high school graduates if they didn't meet the same standards of the traditional diploma.

The implications for the proposed vocational program in Wisconsin are difficult to discern, however, as Congress is in the process of revamping federal education policy. Currently, under No Child Left Behind, if a state misses its graduation rate target, it can't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Developing programs with high standards and accountability measures is one of the challenges for policymakers, says Daniela Fairchild, policy analyst at the Fordham Institute, an education reform policy think tank. But she also argues that federal accountability may become less of an issue. Between the No Child Left Behind waivers being proposed by the Obama administration and the various reauthorization bills being floated for the education law, it seems likely the federal government will take less of a central role in education accountability, she says, scrapping the AYP system altogether and allowing states to develop their own accountability measures. That could open the opportunity for more career training programs like Radcliffe's.

Fairchild points to the Harvard findings, as well as career training initiatives being undertaken in countries like South Korea, which is opening Vocational Meister Schools where high school students receive technical education and training, as evidence that such career training programs have a role in building a sound economy.

"There are going to be a lot of other pathways to finding a middle-class lifestyle," Fairchild says. "We need to be a little more open in thinking about what we need to do to prepare students for those pathways."

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