Across America, nearly half of high school students choose vocational programs—from automotive repair to computer network design—as a major part of their studies, and a quarter of students go further and concentrate on a specific job-focused field, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Now, millions of these students could face major changes in their studies if a Bush administration plan to remake vocational education is approved.

Bush wants to replace the $1.2 billion national program with a trimmer, $1 billion version that would require schools to prove student achievement before they receive federal grant money. And for the first time, states could shift federal vocational education money to programs that strengthen math and reading for low-income students.

The administration says it wants to ensure more young people are prepared for college or greater technical training and able to switch careers smoothly. Bush’s plan would raise the stakes for vocational education, just as his 2002 No Child Left Behind Act heightened expectations and consequences for those who teach general education.

“We can do this much more effectively if we just prepare people adequately so they’ve got options in life,” said Carol D’Amico, ED’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “Just because we’re saying all students should have the same foundation doesn’t mean we’re saying all students need to go to a university and be a professor. What we’re saying is that training for a specific job is shortchanging our students.”

Details about the Bush plan won’t be ready until later this year, when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Perkins Act, the nation’s vocational education law. There probably won’t be a mandated curriculum, D’Amico said, but money will likely be tied to how well students score on tests and advance to the post-high school education needed for most jobs today.

Federal money often determines whether high schools keep their equipment and teacher training up to date. And although Congress contributes just 7 percent of the nation’s vocational education funds, advocates in the field fear cash-strapped states will back off their investment if the federal priority changes.

Vocational educators say the idea that occupational training doesn’t provide much in the way of academics is outdated.

“There are a number of perceptions about career technical education that are not necessarily reflective of what’s happening in schools today,” said Kimberly Green, who leads a consortium of state directors in the vocational education field.

“Can you go out and find schools that are doing old-world voc ed?” she asked. “Sure. But you can find bad English and math programs, too. The Perkins money has helped produce change.”

Most vocational education teachers don’t even use the word “vocational” any more—they don’t believe it represents what they do and know it still carries a second-class stigma for some.

The range of career programs these days is vast, covering such classes as architectural drawing, digital photography, engineering physics, landscape design, and sports marketing. Even the most traditional trades—fixing a car and cutting hair—have become complex.

For example, in Margaret Pilger’s cosmetology class at the Marshall Academy, a popular career-focused high school program in Fairfax County, Va., students use computer imaging to assess the best cuts and styles for their customers. At least twice a week, students immerse themselves in anatomy, physiology, and chemical theory.

“Not every student is Harvard-bound, and ultimately you must be able to earn your living,” Pilger said.

Every Marshall Academy student, college-bound or not, must pass Virginia’s high school exit exams. School leaders say the occupational courses help students meet the requirement by giving context to learning.

For instance: Hotel management students train with Marriott and Sheraton, emerging with experience and credits that transfer to local colleges. Network design students study three volumes of company manuals and finish their courses ready to test for professional certification.

Automotive repair courses used to rely on diagnostic machines that weighed hundreds of pounds, but students now must learn to use high-tech, handheld digital equipment to assess what’s wrong with cars that have twice as many electronic components as older models.

“What we’re trying to do in our classes is show [students] why they need to be strong in science, why they need to be strong in English, why they need to be strong in math,” said Paul Wardinski, the Marshall Academy administrator. “We’re not separate.”

But nationwide, D’Amico said, there aren’t enough vocational education programs that offer rigor and coordinate with colleges.

Her message for the states: If vocational education helps students reach high academic standards, it can continue and thrive. If not? “Then it could be in jeopardy,” she said.

Measuring how well vocational education does the job is complex, researchers say. Statistics run a few years behind, states use different figures, and technological achievement is rarely charted.

Bush’s proposed 2004 budget says existing vocational education programs don’t help students achieve academically, graduate from high school, and move onto training after high school.

A major effort by a regional education group found, in fact, that many vocational education students took a second-tier track of less rigorous courses. The Southern Regional Education Board set up a High Schools That Work program to promote a more demanding academic core curriculum and technical education for those who want it. Over 15 years, the program has grown to 1,100 schools in 27 states.

“The most powerful thing you can do to improve student achievement of career-oriented students is to give them opportunities to take the more demanding courses,” said Gene Bottoms, who directs the effort. “But when you push students into deep water, you better be prepared to give them extra help, and you better be able to connect it to their experiences.”

Some vocational education benefits will never show up on standardized tests, said Jay Diede, the principal of Watford City High School in western North Dakota. In a district that stretches 1,500 square miles, courses in farming, ranching, and vocational business keep many students engaged, he said. They emerge with leadership skills and a community commitment.

“They aren’t going to be taking our advanced math or advanced science,” Diede said. “But on the other hand, we have kids who go through our program who are honor students. I would challenge people to stop in to some of our programs. We have kids coming out of here with technology skills that are second to none.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Marshall Academy
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/marshallacademy

Southern Regional Education Board
http://www.sreb.org