Who's training the technicians? Vocational education provides options for `neglected majority'

THINGS are fine now for David Healy. He recently went free-lance after having worked as a mechanical artist in a prestigious Boston advertising agency. But high school was rough. He and academics didn't mix. ``I thought regular schools were set up for other people and not me. I didn't think I was stupid. I knew what they thought and didn't care.'' His situation turned around when he went to Minuteman Tech (see box). David and students like him have been called ``the neglected majority,'' ``the forgotten ones.'' They're the 50 percent of high school graduates who aren't headed for college; the future mechanics, computer programmers, machinists, nurses, and police. Education analysts say these students are getting short shrift in an academic system geared to meet the needs of the baccalaureate-bound.

Ernest Boyer, former US commissioner of education and author of several influential reports, says the United States tracks students into ``programs for those who `think' and those who `work,' when in fact life for all of us is a blend of both.'' This schism is harming the United States at a time when industry desperately needs workers who can not only keep the country running but also read the manuals. Dr. Boyer gave distressingly low marks to vocational education in his 1983 Carnegie Report on the nation's high schools.

Vocational education has long been thought of as a place to dump poor students and train them in yesterday's skills. To improve the quality of vocational education and ensure that students get strong training in academics, Dale Parnell, author of ``The Neglected Majority'' (Community College Press, 1985), a book about young people who don't go to college, advocates that schools adopt a tech-prep degree program that would link the last two years of high school with two years of community college. Mr. Parnell is president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

The idea is finding wide response: Since his book came out, nine states have either adopted or are in the process of adopting such a program. Rep. William Ford (D) of Michigan recently introduced the Tech-Prep Education Act, which will establish a program of matching grants to consortia of secondary schools and community colleges to encourage them to provide a four-year program of tech-prep education. The program would provide technical preparation in at least one mechanical, industrial, or practical field, as well as a high level of competence in mathematics, science, and communication.

``All the national reform energies have been poured into academic education,'' says Gerald Hayward, deputy director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley. ``But the curricula for the bulk of students [who don't go on to college] have been ignored in reform efforts.''

According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85 percent of jobs do not require a college diploma.

Students who are not college bound have two choices: to enroll in a general education track, or to take vocational courses in either a comprehensive high school or one of the 1,200 regional vocational technical school in the country. ``The general education program doesn't prepare students for work and doesn't prepare them for college,'' says Parnell. General ed students receive less career counseling, are less focused in their aims, and have fewer marketable skills, he says.

``The idea that we just give them a good general education and industry will do it has big holes in it,'' says Robert Taylor, former executive director of the National Center for Vocational Education at Ohio State University. ``To the degree that the schools can give job and learning skills, it tends to make our industries competitive worldwide.''

Vocational programs, because they have to keep up with rapid changes in technology, cost more but often don't get more money. The Department of Education spent $1.2 billion on vocational education in 1987, compared with $8 billion on student financial aid program.

``About twice as many jobs require welding skills ... and experience as jobs which require chemistry,'' says Parnell. ``Yet nearly every high school has a chemistry laboratory and chemistry courses, while relatively few high schools have welding labs or offer welding courses.'' Most training is in industrial arts, home economics, and agriculture, he says, not where the greatest need for workers is.

Parnell says that generally, regional vocational technical schools tend to be better than vocational programs in comprehensive high schools, but the ``record is spotty, it depends on the state.'' In some states, ``the trend is to do away with vocational ed programs, because students have so many more requirements to meet to graduate that there is no time to take vocational classes, which are electives.''

Despite voc-ed's bad reputation, Paul Campbell, recently retired senior research specialist at the National Center for Vocational Education, says some powerful data are emerging from his study, based on an ongoing national survey that has followed 12,686 students for the last eight years through high school into the labor market. ``Compared to students who graduate from general or academic programs, the findings tend to make voc-ed look better than it's typically viewed. [Voc-ed] tends to keep kids in school. They tend to get higher levels of employment, better wages, and they're more likely to be self-employed and entrepreneurial.'' Over 60 percent of voc-ed graduates go on to some form of post-secondary education, and at least half of those go on to four-year colleges, says Campbell.

Some students who would be good candidates for vocational education are steered away by school personnel, who, in a time of declining enrollments, are reluctant to let students transfer out of academic schools because they don't want to lose state aid based on attendance. And because of the low-prestige image, parents balk at sending children who may want to attend, says Beverly Lydiard, assistant superintendent at Minuteman Tech.

``What kids have to go through to get here!'' says Mrs. Lydiard. ``They have to campaign their parents to let them come, and start over with new friends, because their old ones don't want to have anything to do with them.''

``We're now beginning to see state governors, state legislators, and superintendents of public instruction beginning to focus on vocational education so that these students can perform in a rapidly changing job market,'' says Mr. Hayward at Berkeley.

``What is needed is an integration of academic education and vocational education so that students not only come out with a skill, but also have critical and analytical thinking ability so that when things change they can figure out how to adapt. It's a growing movement, and a positive one, but it has a long way to go.''

Minuteman Tech: vocational and technical options

Minuteman Tech, a regional, vocational-technical high school in the western Boston suburb of Lexington, is a far cry from the old image of a vocational high school. Minuteman looks more like a high-tech office park than a school. Here, in a futuristic brick and glass building, is a small city of public real-life businesses providing students with work skills: two student-run restaurants (one serving grilled salmon with hollandaise), hair salon, fully equipped garage, child-care center, gift shop, and bakery. Out on the school grounds, students hammer pink insulation into the state-of-the-art model house. Minuteman is where David Healy (see story) went after his disastrous high school experience. ``It gave me confidence,'' he says. Mr. Healy entered Minuteman as a postgraduate adult student and did a straight two-year vocational program. He's now working on his BA and teaching there two nights a week.

``Many of the students in the neglected majority are just as bright, but they learn in a different way,'' says James Amara, science department head at Minuteman. ``They're hands-on learners, not book learners.'' He says Minuteman presents the same information in different forms - visual, auditory, or hands-on.

The school, which opened its doors in 1974, has 850 students (including adults) who come from 16 towns in the district. Tuition-paying students come from another 15 towns. The school turns out engineers, hotel managers, printers, beauty salon owners, day-care operators, commercial artists, plumbers, and more. Some of the school's tech-prep students have gone on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Purdue University.

In addition to getting state support, the school goes after grants and is promoting links with local industry. And there's an eager world of work out there ready to snatch up grads.

``There are five to six part-time jobs waiting for every student in the culinary field,'' the assistant superintendent saus. And an auto mechanics teacher says, ``One grad started working at a car dealership. It wasn't six months and the boss is having him do all the trouble jobs and asking me, `Got any more like him?'''

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