At the secondary school level, a curricular track, program, or course designed to prepare students to enter the workforce immediately after high school in a skilled occupation, as opposed to college preparatory or academic programs..
Vocational education courses have been a distinct part of the public high school system since the Smith Hughes Act of 1917. The height of enrollment in vocational education (voc ed) classes was during the 1970s when approximately 15% of students majored in voc ed. During the 1980s enrollment declined as federal funding was entirely cut off and voc ed programs were downsized or eliminated. In the 1990s most students take at least one voc ed class, about 10% take a voc ed track, 30% a college preparatory track, and 60% follow neither track. There are three types of voc ed courses: consumer and homemaking classes which prepare students for daily living; general labor courses that teach skills valuable across many occupations, for example, word processing; and job-specific classes which may cover any of the following occupational areas: agriculture; business and office; marketing and distribution; health; occupational home economics; trade and industry; and technical and communications
|Source: Vocational Eduation Journal, May 1995, pp. 28-31.|
|Trade and industry||35%|
|Technical and communications||23%|
Vocational education classes tend to be smaller, with an average of 17 students as opposed to 22 in non-vocational classes. During the 1990s the most popular classes in terms of number of credits taken were in the areas of business and office, trade and industry, and technical and communications. The most popular concentrations for a full voc ed major were in the fields of health and technical and communications. A higher than average number of students from special populations tends to enroll in voc ed courses: students with disabilities, with low socioeconomic backgrounds, and low GPAs tend to take voc ed classes. Eighty percent of special education students take a voc ed track in high school. Some studies show that low-achieving students in voc ed programs increase their reading abilities faster and perform higher on standardized math exams than their low-achieving counterparts in regular comprehensive programs.
Vocational education programs vary widely in number, type, and diversity of courses offered, in their access to technical and industrial resources, and in the level of exposure they provide students to real-world work environments. Only about one-third of voc ed programs require students to concentrate in an occupational area, even though studies show that students who concentrate are more likely to obtain jobs matching their training. In 1993 only 40% of voc ed graduates found jobs matching their training. Performance standards by which voc ed programs are measured also vary. Programs are measured by rates of placement and continuing education, rates of enrollment, employer satisfaction, student satisfaction, employability skills attainment, and the cost of the program.
The most comprehensive vocational education programs are coop, youth apprenticeship, and mentoring programs in which students participate in paid employment. These programs declined sharply during the 1980s, but the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act was passed with the goal of reinvigorating such programs. The primary difference between coop and apprenticeship programs is that apprenticeships lead to a certificate of competency in those areas which have defined skill standards. In these school-to-work programs students generally acquire basic skills through a few years of school-based instruction and then spend at least their senior year working half-time in a paid job. Students work part of the week and attend classes during off hours, or else alternate periods of full-time work or school. Supervision is provided by both a voc ed teacher and by a workplace mentor, both of whom monitor and evaluate the student's learning. Ideally, each work placement will demand progressively higher levels of responsibility, and students will have ample opportunities for guided reflection on their experience.
|Student characteristics||Occupation-specific course credits*|
|*Average number of occupation-specific credits for all high school graduates is 2.5.|
|Source: Vocational Education Journal, May 1995, pp. 28-31.|
|Four or more credits in remedial coursework||4.0 credits|
|Household in lowest socioeconomic status quartile||3.2 credits|
|Grade-point average less than 1.6||3.1 credits|
Developments in vocational education
Traditional vocational education programs were organized around manual labor woodshops, metalworking, and machine shops. But in the 1990s as information and communication-oriented fields expanded, many industrial arts classrooms were replaced by computers, televisions, VCRs and other electronic equipment. Furthermore, the average worker today is expected to have some management and presentation skills, in addition to technical skills. In 1965 an auto mechanic could master 500 pages of information and be prepared to fix almost any car. To gain a similar mastery of automobiles in the 1990s would require learning 500,000 pages of material. Thus, auto mechanics, like most productive workers today, also need skills in locating information and in decision-making. In light of the demands of the 20th-century workforce, several pieces of legislation in the 1990s focused on reinvigorating and improving vocational education programs in three major areas:
- establishment of voluntary industry-based skills standards for most occupations;
- integration of academic and vocational education curricula; and
- emphasis on providing quality vocational education to all students, including special populations.
The 1990s legislation required establishment of state-level performance measures for vocational education programs funded by federal monies. One example of a program that addresses all three developments in vocational education is the Tech Prep program. Organized by
Academies and magnet schools also exemplify integration of academic and vocational education coursework, particularly in urban areas. Academies are schools within schools that concentrate on one vocational area and provide a high level of structure. Students take all their voc ed classes from the same teachers for two to three years. Magnet schools such as aviation high schools, fashion high schools, and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences operate independently and offer a less structured program than academies.
Allum, K. F. Finding One's Way: Career Guidance for Disadvantaged Youth. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration, 1993.
Grub, W. N. ed. Education Through Occupations: Integrating Academic and Vocational Education in American High Schools (Vols. 1 & 2). New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.
Levesque, Karen, et al. Vocational Education in the United States: The Early 1990s. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, November 1995.
Levinson, E. M. Transdisciplinary Vocational Assessment: Issues in School Based Programs. Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology Publishing Co., 1993.
National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee (NOICC). National Career Development Guidelines. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1989.
Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. What Work Requires of Schools. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 1991.
Stern, D., et al. Career Academies: Partnerships for Reconstructing American High Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.
National Center for Research in Vocational Education
Address: University of California at Berkeley
1995 University Avenue, Suite 375
Berkeley, CA 94704-1058
Telephone: toll free (800) 762-4093