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State Departments of Education

Vocational Education

Vocational education is a field in transition, undergoing changes prompted by an upward shift in the skill requirements for the workforce and by the call for increased standards and accountability in the education reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Vocational education programs are offered in comprehensive high schools, vocational schools or career centers, adult education centers, community and technical colleges, and proprietary schools.

In 1999 the national organization that represents vocational educators, the American Vocational Association, changed its name to the American Association for Career and Technical Education. Most states have also renamed their divisions and programs to career and technical education, or in some states, career and technology education.


Although the mission of vocational education remains to prepare people to prepare for work, historically the focus was on preparation for entry-level jobs in occupations requiring less than a baccalaureate degree. That mission has changed to a broadened purpose of preparing for work and continued education. Educational reformers and vocational education legislation both called for vocational education programs to maintain college entry as a viable option for students enrolled in career and technical education. The 1998 vocational education legislation explicitly stated that vocational education should contribute to students' academic and technical achievement.

The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium defined five key principles of career technical education.

  1. To draw its curricula, standards, and organizing principles from the workplace.
  2. To be a critical and integral component of the total educational system, offering career-oriented benefits for all students.
  3. To be a critical and integral component of the workforce development system, providing the essential foundation for a thriving economy.
  4. To maintain high levels of excellence supported through identification of academic and workplace standards, measurement of performance (accountability), and high expectations for participant success.
  5. To remain robust and flexible enough to respond to the needs of the multiple educational environments, customers, and levels of specialization.


Issues that are debated in vocational education include: (1) its role in secondary education; (2) the degree of specificity versus generality of occupational focus, that is, whether its focus should be education or training; and (3) whether it is intended for all students, as in career education, or for a subset of students who do not intend to pursue further education.

Legislative Authority

The federal government has supported vocational education programs since 1917 when the Smith-Hughes Act was passed to help schools train workers for the country's rapidly growing economy. The Vocational Education Act of 1963 expanded the role of vocational education and funding was substantially increased. The Vocational Amendments in 1968 addressed the nation's social and economic problems and continued funding for students who were at risk or with disabilities.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 continued a focus on access for special populations, including women, minorities, and special needs, and added a focus on program improvement. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 (Perkins II) called for the integration of academic and technical instruction and introduced Tech Prep. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 (Perkins III) continued the emphasis on academics in career and technical education and added a strong accountability requirement. The purpose of the act is to "develop more fully the academic, vocational, and technical skills of secondary students and postsecondary students who elect to enroll in vocational and technical education programs." Perkins III reflects major policy shifts from the set-asides and line items in earlier legislation that were prescriptive of how funds were to be spent, particularly for special populations and students at risk, to flexibility with increased accountability for results.

Two other legislative acts in the 1990s that influenced vocational education were the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994 (STWOA) and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. The STWOA supplied funding to states to connect education and careers for all students. States could apply for five-year grants. The WIA provided a framework for a national workforce preparation and employment system designed to meet the needs of employers, first-time job seekers, and those looking to further their careers.

Performance Standards

Historically, the primary measure of a program's performance was employment. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 required states to meet four core indicators of performance: (1) student attainment of challenging state-established academic and vocational/technical skill proficiencies; (2) student attainment of a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, a proficiency credential in conjunction with a secondary school diploma, or a postsecondary degree or credential; (3) placement in, retention in, and completion of postsecondary education or advanced training, placement in military service, or placement or retention in employment; and (4) student participation in and completion of vocational and technical education programs that lead to nontraditional training and employment. The act required each state to identify levels of performance for each indicator and report annually on its progress. States also develop additional state measures of performance.

Magnitude of Vocational Education

Almost all high school graduates still complete at least one vocational course. More than half (58%) of public high school graduates take at least three vocational education courses, and virtually all (97%) take at least one vocational education course, according to figures obtained by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000. Sixteen percent of all public high school credits are earned in vocational education. Forty-nine percent of all students seeking sub-baccalaureate degrees major in vocational fields. More than half (55%) of the public high school graduates who take concentrated vocational course-work enroll in a postsecondary institution within two years of high school graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000.

Between 1982 and 1994, there was a nine fold increase in the percentage of students completing both a vocational concentration and a college preparatory curriculum (from 2% to 18%). This trend suggests that students are increasingly integrating vocational and academic learning and that students in the hightech fields of technology/communications and business are particularly likely to follow the broader course of study envisioned by recent federal legislation.

The postsecondary enrollment rates of public high school graduates showed a marked increase between 1982 and 1992. Among all sub-baccalaureate students, about one-half majored in a vocational program area in 1996.

State Role in Vocational Education

State constitutions assign to each state its specific responsibility and legal authority for public education. The state department of education coordinates activities among local school districts and between the federal government and local schools. State departments have shifted from an emphasis on compliance and monitoring of regulations to one of technical assistance to school districts.

Each state has a state board for vocational education. The organization and administration of vocational education varies in states. Thirty-six state directors of career-technical education are located in state departments of education or public instruction. Seven are located with higher education boards, and seven either have their own separate boards or are located with the state's workforce development board, according to Joanna Kister. State directors develop the state plan for vocational education that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education for distribution of federal funds. Local education agencies and postsecondary institutions are eligible recipients for subgrants. In addition, most state directors have responsibility for (1) policy (standards, budget); (2) program design and standards (including labor market data analysis); (3) curriculum frameworks and assessment; (4) professional/staff development and teacher education; (5) evaluation, accountability, and reporting; (6) strategic planning;(7) program and fiscal monitoring; (8) budget and personnel management; and (9) student organizations.


Each year approximately $13 billion (federal, state, and local combined) is spent to support the vocational education system. Federal funding constitutes approximately seven percent of state vocational education spending. The relative cost for vocational education is estimated to be 20 percent to 40 percent greater than that of academic instruction, varying considerably by program area and content level. Most states provide some type of categorical funding for career-technical education. A national survey identified four broad categories for funding vocational education: (1) state foundation grants that are intended to ensure that all students in a state receive a minimum level of basic education services (states in this category do not budget additional supplemental funding for vocational education); (2) unit cost funding in which methods for determining funding formulas are based on unit cost by student participation, instructional unit, or cost reimbursement; (3) weighted funding per student; and (4) performance funding.

Effectiveness of Vocational Education

There is strong evidence that the generic technical skills and occupationally specific skills provided in vocational education increase worker productivity, skill transfer, job access, and job stability when vocational graduates find training-related jobs. Large scale studies show that graduates who took a coherent sequence of vocational courses in high school (and did not enroll in postsecondary education) are likely to obtain more regular employment and higher wages than other non-college-going graduates, provided they are working in the field for which they were trained. Students with both a vocational concentration and a college preparatory curriculum outperformed vocational concentrators only. Performance of students who completed a college preparatory curriculum only was statistically indistinguishable from those with the combined vocational concentration and college preparation.

Contemporary Role and Priorities

The principles for the contemporary careertechnical education called for in legislation and by education reformers are reflected in the educational priorities in states. State directors of career and technical education reported the following as their priorities for change.

  1. Integration of career-technical education in the total mission of education and education reform
  2. Building a strong work force, economic development, and education partnership
  3. Integration of academic and technical education through new delivery strategies, such as career academies, career pathway high schools, magnet schools, and linking of academic with technical curriculum
  4. Development of business/industry certifications for all career-technical programs, at both secondary and postsecondary institutions
  5. Implementation of a reliable and valid accountability system
  6. Expansion of tech prep through secondary/postsecondary articulation
  7. Expansion of career-technical education by providing access to all students
  8. Increase of funding for career-technical education
  9. Increase of use of technology
  10. Addressing issues of teacher and administrator quality
  11. Implementation of quality initiatives
  12. Improvement of the image of career-technical education

State directors of career technical education are responsible for strengthening the relationship between education and work. They connect career and technical education to the larger high school reform movement, participate actively in both policy and practice realms in state workforce development systems, and ultimately contribute to economic development.


BISHOP, JOHN. 1995. Expertise and Excellence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

DELCI, MARIO, and STERN, DAVID. 1999. Who Participates in New Vocational Programs? Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

KISTER, JOANNA. 2001. State Leadership for Career-Technical Education: Role and Nature of State Leadership; Developing Leaders. Washington DC: National Association of State Directors of Career-Technical Education Consortium.

KLEIN, STEVE. 2001. Financing Vocational Education: A State Policymaker's Guide. Berkeley, CA: MPR Associates.

LEVESQUE, KAREN; LAUEN, DOUG; TEITELBAUM, PETER; ALT, MARTHA; and LIBRERA, SALLY.2000. Vocational Education in the United States: Toward the Year 2000. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE Directors of CAREER TECHNICAL EDUCATION CONSORTIUM.2001. Career Technical Education: An Essential Component of the Total Educational System. Washington DC: National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 1999. Issue Brief: Students Who Prepare for College and a Vocation. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. "The Data on Vocational Education (DOVE) System." Education Statistics Quarterly 2:4.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. The Condition of Education 2001. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.


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