What Do People Think of Us?: A Techniques Survey of Parents Finds Strong Support for Vocational-Technical Education - but Confirms That Some Myths Persist

Article excerpt

Ask a vocational educator to name the most serious issues facing the field today, and most will rank "our image problem" high on the list. For years vocational-technical educators have been saying they're tired of feeling like their program is the poor stepchild of the school system - dissed by the counselors, stiffed by the school board. They tire of the false stereotypes sometimes used to depict their students: Kids who can't cut it academically. The non-college bound. Misfits.

When yet another popular comic strip lampoons vocational education - first Far Side and, more recently, Dilbert - as a refuge for losers and scam artists, it's easy to see why vocational educators feel picked on. Anecdotes abound.

Quantifying the so-called image problem is more difficult. Just how, exactly, does the public view vocational and career education in general? Techniques wasn't able to find the answer in the education literature. There appear to have been no national surveys on this subject in at least a decade, and likely longer.

A search of the ERIC database turned up a few state surveys from the late 1980s that showed ambivalence toward vocational education. People who had direct contact with programs rated them higher then those who had not. A 1994 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappan survey on attitudes toward public school found that three-quarters of Americans favor requiring vocational education - for students not going to college. That's been the most persistent stereotype.

Since there wasn't much to go on, Techniques decided to test the waters with a mini survey of parents across the country. We chose to do a small, but national, phone survey of parents of high-school-age children.

The Techniques staff designed the survey with the guidance of Lewis & Clark Research, an independent firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. The researchers spent about 15 minutes with each of 50 parents selected for geographic representation (from a list of 500 names purchased from a database company).

Fifty people aren't enough to create a scientific sample. Nonetheless, their answers provide an interesting glimpse into the public's perception of career-focused education. And the responses may encourage a more comprehensive survey to come.

Although our survey was not designed to solicit opinions about specific occupation areas of vocational education, respondents clearly acknowledged that vocational education's greatest strength was its emphasis on teaching job skills. More than half said the words "vocational education" brought to mind technical/job skills or preparation for the trades. And while half said vocational education was more appropriate for students who weren't going to college, half disagreed.

Here are the survey highlights.

General Views

Respondents in general associate vocational education with high school and community college programs focused on providing job and technical training. Many respondents said "all students" and "anybody" would benefit from vocational education. Others feel it is best suited to those seeking an alternative to college, or for low achievers such as "children with problems like ADD" (attention deficit disorder). …