By Williams, Kirk H.
Leadership , Vol. 34, No. 4
For decades, educational practitioners and policy makers have debated questions regarding what is "academically best" for students in America's classrooms. As a result of the standards set by our colleges and universities, most school districts have structured their systems to meet or exceed the minimum requirements for entry into college.
But because the workforce is highly differentiated, with workers in different sectors requiring different knowledge and skills, high schools have developed a correspondingly differentiated curriculum. Academic courses aim at preparing students for occupations that require college degrees; more rudimentary classes and vocational programs ready students for careers immediately following high school graduation or for postsecondary technical training.
Today, however, many policymakers are challenging the traditional split between the academic and vocational sides of the curriculum. This challenge stems from the growing perception that, with the profound economic and social shifts currently facing the nation, a curriculum divided into distinct academic and vocational groups is no longer either useful or fair.
On the economic side, employers have become increasingly disenchanted with the extent to which high schools prepare students for work. With rapidly changing work technology and the high cost of keeping equipment up to date, high schools have lost their ability to prepare students for the technical aspects of many jobs.
And, as employers anticipate that more jobs in the future will require sophistication in literacy, numeracy and problem solving (as opposed to simply knowing how to perform a few procedures accurately and efficiently), high schools have come under fire for not providing entry-level workers with sufficient intellectual competence.
For these reasons--many of them beyond the control of schools--the nation's long-held confidence that most students will leave high school ready to work has been shattered.
Moreover, the nation is losing faith in the fairness of the idea that schools should place students with different learning preferences or intellectual capacities into different programs that will lead them to quite different opportunities after high school.
Some recent evidence suggests that the differences in schools' vocational offerings may relate less to local labor market needs than to the social and economic characteristics of students and their neighborhoods. For example, schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students often offer the greatest number of vocational classes. However, these classes are less likely to be part of intensive, well-articulated programs than the classes offered at schools with more advantaged students.
In 1989, the National Assessment of Vocational Education found that only 45 percent of disadvantaged schools had access to area vocational centers, compared with 65 percent of schools with more advantaged students. Additionally, these disadvantaged schools tended to have a restricted range of program offerings (an average of 29 distinct credits offered) and fewer advanced courses (an average of 8 credits) (Goodwin, 1989).
In contrast, schools serving the most advantaged students have far richer vocational programs (e.g., course offerings, on average, of 46 distinct credits, with 15 of those credits in advanced courses). Yet students at those schools, on average, take only half the number of vocational courses as their peers at the most disadvantaged schools.
Over the last decade, NAVE has been reporting that secondary students who participate in vocational programs have increased their academic course-taking and achievement, making them better prepared for both college and careers than their peers. In fact, students who take both a strong academic curriculum and a vocational program of study may have better outcomes that those who pursue one or the other. …