A National Report Card for Vo-Tech

Article excerpt

When Congress passed the 1990 Perkins Act, it added an accountability provision to ensure that federal dollars allocated to vocational education were being used appropriately and effectively. The Act required the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a national evaluation of vocational-technical programs. Congress will refer to this National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE) as it considers the reauthorization of the Perkins Act in 1995. What follows is excerpted from the Executive Summary of the 1,039-page report, written by NAVE director David Boesel and Laurel McFarland. It was taken from an advance copy released on July 1. (Some of the material has been paraphrased.)

Observations on the Condition of Vocational Education

Most secondary vocational education occurs in vocational programs in comprehensive high schools. Almost every high school student earns at least some credits in vocational education courses, but only one in four graduates as a vocational student--that is, earns at least three credits within one vocational program area. Business and the trades are by far the most popular program areas.

Secondary vocational districts receive more Perkins money than regular districts, on average. They also tend to receive more support and assistance from state vocational education agencies and to be more active in implementing Perkins reforms such as integration and tech prep. Perkins basic grant funds are associated with greater reform efforts at the local level.

Student participation

Over the last decade there has been a broad shift away from secondary vocational education and toward academics. After a period of growth in the 1960s and 1970s, secondary vocational education has been shrinking. Students are taking fewer vocational courses than in the early 1980s; there are fewer vocational teachers and fewer university programs training them; and fewer state employees work in vocational education.

We do not know how much increased academic requirements for graduation have contributed to decreasing vocational enrollments, but it is clear that factors other than these requirements are involved, as the decline started before the academic reforms occurred.

As vocational enrollments decrease, their composition is changing. Special population students are an increasing proportion of all vocational students, and higher achieving students are a decreasing proportion. The Perkins emphasis on recruiting special population students to vocational education may be among the factors contributing to this tendency.

In some places, area vocational schools have become largely institutions for special needs students. Vocational teachers and administrators are worried about this trend and about the status of vocational programs in the larger education system. Our case studies show evidence of stigmatization where large numbers of special population students are concentrated in vocational programs. These studies suggest that there may be a "tipping point" after which other students avoid vocational programs.

A closely related issue is the "dumping" of problem students into vocational education programs, a practice often encountered in our case study sites. We do not know how widespread the practice is, but 55 percent of vocational teachers in our national survey say that the placement of problem students in vocational programs regardless of appropriateness is a serious problem. Of 13 potential problems listed in the survey, this is the one most often regarded as serious.

The fundamental question in placing students in vocational programs (or any others) is whether the interests of the students are well served. This is a complicated question. Vocational course taking probably reduces dropout rates, enabling some students who would otherwise leave school to graduate. However, if dropout rates are low because courses are easy, the interests of students who are not prone to drop out may be adversely affected. …