Vocational Schooling Mixes With the Mainstream

"Voc ed" now includes more academic training and college prep work, and is being integrated into more traditional schools

Brian McKeln is wearing a coat and tie to school today. After classes, the 16-year old junior at Howard High School in Wilmington, Del., will head off to a job at MBNA, one of the country's largest lenders through bank credit cards.

"I work in desktop computing with their networks," Brian explains. "Right now I am setting up user accounts for their servers."

This paid internship is the cornerstone of the vocational school's "quest for quality" that integrates classroom instruction, team projects, and work. And it exemplifies the rapidly changing face of vocational education.

The term used to refer exclusively to schools specializing in trades, from cosmetology to construction. These schools catered to teenagers headed straight for the workplace or to further training. In many cases, vocational education denoted dropout prevention programs.

Today, such schools are the exception. Most secondary vocational schools have changed their curriculum to meet the broader demands of the workplace. They still help at-risk children, but also prepare students for college.

At the same time, vocational programs have cropped up in traditional high schools in a variety of guises, including career academies (occupationally oriented schools-within-schools) and occupational majors known as clusters. Dire reports on the unpreparedness of high school graduates for the job market, high dropout rates, mounting pressures for school reform, and recent Federal legislation have spurred vocational and traditional schools to bridge historic divides.

This explains why 96 percent of 1992 graduates had completed one or more vocational education courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, although only 8 percent had attended vocational schools. Since then, the number of schools that have integrated vocational and academic studies has grown dramatically, although statisticians have yet to tally them.

Dual goals

"The best new vocationalism programs integrate academics and work experience. They also combine two goals: college and career," says W. Norton Grubb, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mayo Tsuzuki Hallinan, a research associate at the National Center for Research in Vocational Education in Berkeley, examined 32 schools that overhauled their curricula in accordance with the requirements of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. The 1994 act provides grants until 2001 for programs that integrate vocational and academic studies and provide work experience.

In several cases, Ms. Hallinan found that restructuring began as a discrete program that stressed hands-on learning, time in the workplace, and the honing of trade skills as well as problem-solving and analytical skills. "The original [career-oriented] program worked so well that they targeted the whole school," she says.

Vocational schools have also broadened their curricula so that students no longer major in a narrowly defined occupation. Many graduates now head off, not to a job, but to college. At Howard High School, 55 percent of the class of 1996 attends college.

College-acceptance rates are even greater elsewhere. At Benson High School, a technical school in Portland, Ore., 35 to 40 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges and an equal percentage to two-year institutions. The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences sends 72 percent of graduates to four-year colleges. In Boston, the Fenway Middle College High School, which has an integrated curriculum, saw 81 percent of graduates go on to college. Boston schools average 60 percent.

Not all schools do as well, and those that do have not made such progress overnight. Benson High School, originally set up to train young men for skilled labor, added college prep in the 1950s.

"Then, about 10 years ago," says principal John Vingelen, "we broadened our majors."

Today, Benson students no longer master a narrow specialty. Manufacturing majors, for example, now study machine, plastics, foundry pattern, and metal fabrication. They write papers and take courses such as world literature and finance.

Similarly, Howard High School built a program over four years, during which faculty worked closely with local businesses. The resulting curriculum demands that freshmen declare and defend their majors; that sophomores join in a job-shadowing program; that juniors, like Brian, complete a job; and that seniors present an in-depth research project.

Real-world application

The mix of workplace experience and classroom instruction has already taught Brian that something as abstract as Algebra II has real-world applications.

"At my job with MBNA, I had to do a lot of reconciliations," he says, "and I was able to work through that with a lot of the math concepts I had from class."

He has also learned to communicate effectively by drafting business proposals and presenting them orally to a panel composed of faculty and executives.

This approach jibes with the recommendations of the 1991 report by the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), which lamented that half of all high-school graduates lacked the problem-solving, communication, and analytical skills needed for entry-level jobs. The SCANS report supported an integrated curriculum with workplace experience.

This does not mean smooth sailing for the new vocational approach. According to Mr. Grubb, the pressure to standardize curricula risks squelching innovative programs that are tailored to a particular student population.

Furthermore, many parents worry about channeling children irrevocably into a single occupational slot. To counter these fears, schools avoid the term "track" in favor of "majors." They point out that children do not always stick to their chosen career path after graduation, and that the structure provided is paramount.

As James Kemple, a senior research associate at Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. who has been studying career academies, stresses: "Some teachers even say that it is not important what the career path is, but that there is one."

* Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, Oct. 18, Nov. 18, 1996; Jan. 7, Jan. 14, Feb. 19, and March 13.

Vocational Ed at a Glance

* Vocational classes have a lower student-to-teacher ratio than nonvocational classes - on average, there were 17 students per vocational class in 1990-1991 compared with 22 in nonvocational classes, according to the US Department of Education.

* By 1991-1992, more than 82 percent of comprehensive schools offering vocational courses integrated vocational and academic education, according to the US Department of Education.

* The four most popular vocational areas are Business & Finance, Engineering & Technology, Communications & Computers, and Health, says the National Center for Education Statistics.

* "Wage and employment outcomes are superior for those whose field of study and occupation match," according to the National Assessment of Vocation Education.

* Comprehensive high schools are the primary providers of vocational education today - only 12 percent of vocational courses are taken in schools designated "vocational," according to the National Assessment of Vocational Education.

* A strong career focus seems to encourage students to attend college, according to the findings of the Institute on Education and the Economy.

* In a study by the Institute on Education and the Economy, computer classes in magnet schools improved reading comprehension in students who started school with low reading scores.

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