Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

New Image: Infusion of Academic Rigor Allays Critics

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

New Image: Infusion of Academic Rigor Allays Critics

Article excerpt

New Image: Infusion of Academic Rigor Allays Critics.

by Charles Dervarics

The future of vocational education will look much different than its past, say education experts. Gone are the days when schools routinely steered low-income students into trade and technical programs rather than college prep courses. At the same time, vocational education is fighting to carve out a new role for itself in the second wave of education reform, particularly for students not expected to earn a four-year college degree.

Technology is also fueling the high demand for technical skills, a trend that is breathing new life into some vocational programs.

"Vocational education is not a dinosaur, at least not in its reformed, reinvigorated state," the National Assessment on Vocational Education (NAVE) said in a recent report to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley. School/business partnerships, applied academics and "relevant" vocational-education programs are hot topics in this reform movement, but data still show vocational programs facing many challenges ahead.

Declining Enrollment

The number of students choosing vocational programs in high school fell sharply from 1980 to 1990, and the trend was even more pronounced for African Americans, who once made up a large share of voced enrollment.

Only 8 percent of all high school sophomores were enrolled in vocational programs in 1990, down from 21 percent a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Rates declined for all ethnic groups, but African Americans students represented the largest drop. In 1980, 34 percent of African-American sophomores were in vocational programs; by 1990, the figure had fallen to 6.2 percent.

During the same period, enrollment of African Americans and Hispanics in college-preparatory programs increased 14 percentage points and 8 percentage points, respectively. Many federal and foundation programs during this period had goals of recruiting more underrepresented students for college prep and, eventually, baccalaureate programs.

Some experts also found vocational programs outdated and ineffective. "The danger is that vocational programs end up as another way of tracking minority students," said Shirley McBay, president of the Quality Education for Minorities network.

"Even with technical skills, students are not prepared for the workforce," McBay said. "They do not have the math and science they should have, and some minority students are not in academically rigorous programs." Some vocational educators agree and are designing programs with higher standards and a vision of integrated academic and vocational study.

New Initiatives

One of the largest projects under way is High Schools That Work, an initiative in 19 southern states led by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). High schools joining the program commit to a five-year goal of producing vocational graduates "who are more like college-prep students" with high achievement in math, science and reading.

More than 400 high schools participate in the program, including Hoke County High School in Raeford, NC, where most career-bound students now take three years of math and science at the college-preparatory level.

Ninety percent of academic and vocational teachers at the schools also work together to design integrated learning approaches. The new curriculum also requires each vocational student to write something every day.

"These schools made tremendous strides in preparing college-bound students," said Gene Bottoms, director of the SREB program. Hoke County and six other high schools recently won awards as outstanding programs from the board. Half of the students at these "outstanding" schools worked in a science lab on a weekly basis, while student assessment scores increased 70 percent in science and 65 percent in reading. Students of color account for 31 percent of all students in the High Schools That Work program and 41 percent of students at the seven award-winning schools. …

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