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Vocational and Technical Education

Current Trends

The trend in contemporary K–12 vocational education is away from the use of the word vocational to label these programs. Most states have selected a broader term, although a few use vocational technical education. A number of states have followed the lead of the national vocational education organizations and adopted the term career and technical education. Others use variations, such as career and technology education and professional-technical education, and several states include the word workforce in describing these programs. The changes in terminology reflect a changing economy, in which technical careers have become the mainstay.

When the term career education first became popular in the 1970s, it was distinguished from vocational education by its emphasis on general employability and adaptability skills applicable to all occupations, while vocational education was primarily concerned with occupational skill training for specific occupations. That basic definition of career education remains appropriate today.

The purpose of career and technical education is to provide a foundation of skills that enable high school students to be gainfully employed after graduation–either full-time or while continuing their education or training. Nearly two-thirds of all graduates of career and technical programs enter some form of postsecondary program.

Across the United States, career and technical education programs are offered in about 11,000 comprehensive high schools, several hundred vocational-technical high schools, and about 1,400 area vocational-technical centers. Public middle schools typically offer some career and technical education courses, such as family and consumer sciences and technology education. About 9,400 postsecondary institutions offer technical programs, including community colleges, technical institutes, skill centers, and other public and private two-and four-year colleges. In 2001 there were 11 million secondary and postsecondary career and technical education students in the United States, according to the U.S. Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

The subject areas most commonly associated with career and technical education are: business (office administration, entrepreneurship); trade and industrial (e.g., automotive technician, carpenter, computer numerical control technician); health occupations (nursing, dental, and medical technicians); agriculture (food and fiber production, agribusiness); family and consumer sciences (culinary arts, family management and life skills); marketing (merchandising, retail); and technology (computer-based careers).

Career and technical education programs usually are offered as a sequence of courses supplemented by work-based experiences, such as internships or apprenticeships. These work experiences remain a hallmark of career and technical education.

Rethinking the Mission

For the last two decades of the twentieth century, business led the charge for school reform in order to have better prepared students for the workplace. Yet career and technical education programs, which have the mission of readying young people for employment, continue to be pushed aside by courses designed to prepare students for high-stakes academic assessments. All states have testing requirements for high school students in mathematics, science, English language arts, and sometimes social studies. One result of the emphasis on academic testing is a continuing decline in the number of students enrolled in career and technical education.

To reverse declining enrollments, career and technical education faces a twofold challenge: to restructure its programs and to rebuild its image. Traditional vocational programs provided students with job-specific skills that many parents viewed as too narrow for their children.

The trend is for career and technical education programs to rethink their mission by asking how they can prepare students with high-level academic skills and the broad-based transferable skills and technical skills required for participation in the "new economy," where adaptability is key. Programs adopt this dual approach in an effort to make career and technical education a realistic option for large numbers of students to achieve academic success, which will translate into employment for them.

These programs teach broad skills that are applicable to many occupations. This preparation for the world of work is anchored in strong academic skills, which students learn how to apply to real-world situations. These academic skills include the competencies needed in the contemporary workplace as well as the knowledge and skills valued by academic education and measured by state examinations.

The reality is that the academic skills needed for the workplace are often more rigorous than the academic skills required for college. The multidisciplinary approach of most work tasks and the amount of technology and information in the workplace contribute to the heightened expectations of all workers, including entry-level.

For career and technical education programs to flourish in the early twentieth century's test-driven school environment, they must: (1) find ways to continue to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed in the increasingly sophisticated workplace; (2) embed, develop, and reinforce the academic standards/benchmarks that are tested on the state-mandated assessments; and (3) teach the essential skills that all students need for success in life.

Organizing Programs Around Career Clusters

The workplace requires three sets of skills of most workers:

  • Strong academics, especially in English language arts, mathematics, and science, as well as computer skills;
  • Career specific skills for a chosen career cluster;
  • Virtues such as honesty, responsibility, and integrity.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education has identified sixteen broad career clusters that reflect a new direction for education. The clusters were created to assist educators in preparing students for a changing workplace. The intent is for secondary and postsecondary educators, employers, and industry group representatives to work together to formulate cluster standards. The careers in each cluster range from entry level through professional/technical management in a broad industry field. Each cluster includes both the academic and technical skills and knowledge needed for careers and postsecondary education. These clusters provide a way for schools to organize course offerings so students can learn about the whole cluster of occupations in a career field. It is an excellent tool to assist students in identifying their interests and goals for the future. The sixteen career clusters are:

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Architecture and Construction
  • Arts, Audiovisual Technology, and Communications
  • Business and Administration
  • Education and Training
  • Finance
  • Government and Public Administration
  • Health Science
  • Hospitality and Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law and Public Safety
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail/Wholesale Sales and Services
  • Scientific Research/Engineering
  • Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics

The preparation of students in the career clusters must include (1) academic skills, (2) cluster-specific standards, and (3) broad transferable skills. All of these aspects of the curriculum must be organized in a continuum. As students grow and develop through this continuum, they will prepare themselves for broader and higher-level opportunities.

The Academic Issues

The 1983 publication of a government report, A Nation at Risk, sounded an alarm about the competitiveness of U.S. students in comparison to their international counterparts. Education systems responded by raising standards in mathematics, science, English language arts, and, in some states, other disciplines such as social studies as well. States have passed legislation and implemented regulations in hopes of solving the problem.

Because the business community was directly involved in the school reform process, business concepts were applied in schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Examples included Total Quality Management, continuous improvement, and the strategic planning techniques used by senior management to change business organizations.

Many schools also spent a great deal of energy creating vision, mission, and goal statements in their quest for higher student achievement. By the early 1990s, however, it was clear that these endeavors and others, such as site-based management, while well intended, had not improved student performance. Too often, the institutional issues took precedence over the needs of the students.

Schools then made a more aggressive effort to focus instruction on raising achievement, in what became referred to as the "standards movement." Again, this concept was taken directly from business, but industry standards for products and services were not easily transferable to the intellectual development of children. Furthermore, the rules of engagement in education are fundamentally different from the rules of engagement in the business sector. In business, everyone is expendable, whereas in education, nearly everyone is protected. Moreover, education is committed to equity as well as excellence.

Although the standards movement was intended to bring focus and direction to the curriculum, it led instead to a proliferation of content to be taught in the curriculum. This can be seen in research by Dr. Robert Marzano and colleagues in What Americans Believe Students Should Know: A Survey of U.S. Adults (1999). The authors examined standards across all subjects and grade levels and identified 200 distinct standards with 3,093 related benchmarks. From teachers' estimates of how long it would take to teach each benchmark adequately, the researchers calculated that it would require 15,465 hours to cover all of them. Yet, students have only 9,042 hours of instructional time over the course of their K–12 careers.

The International Center for Leadership in Education conducted a survey in 1999 to identify the skills and knowledge graduates need for success in the world beyond school. The survey, reported in The Overcrowded Curriculum (1999), asked respondents to identify the top thirty-five standards–in terms of what a high school senior should know and be able to do–from a list of content topics commonly found in states' exit standards. The top-rated skills in mathematics, science, and English language arts bear a striking resemblance to skills typically covered in career and technical education programs. Many of the lowest-rated topics remain a central focus of instruction in these disciplines.

More School Reform

When the standards movement did not translate into graduates with the skills that corporate America deemed necessary, business leaders pressed elected officials to instill more rigor into the system and to prove that students were mastering what was taught. In response, states initiated or upgraded mandatory statewide testing programs to find out what students know.

Although these testing programs have served some useful purposes, they do not measure a broad scope of knowledge. Schools do not have enough time to teach all the standards, benchmarks, performance objectives, goals, and other subcategories of standards, so states cannot test students on all of them.

While raising academic standards was a central concern of K–12 education for two decades, issues raised by business about students' inability to apply their skills and knowledge on the job did not receive widespread attention. Vocational education was the only area uniformly to embrace the necessity for students to learn how to apply their knowledge in the real world.

The New Workplace

At the conclusion of World War II, the adults in the United States, many of whom grew up during the Great Depression, wanted their children to have a better standard of living than they did. They saw higher education as the ticket to that better life. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia focused more on rebuilding their war-torn countries than on education, thus allowing American colleges and universities to have the highest academic standards in the world for the next several decades.

America's reversal of educational prominence happened at the time when technology began to reshape the workplace. By the early 1990s the academic skills needed in the workplace often surpassed the academic skills required for entry into college. Like the United States, other countries experienced the call for school reform, but they did not need to be convinced of the link between education and work. The United States, with a different value system, retreated to the old ways: raise standards and define excellence through testing. But the reality is that the tests do not measure the skills that underpin the workplace, and U.S. graduates continue to be at a disadvantage in the global and domestic marketplaces.

Another significant event that occurred in the late 1980s was the shift from big business to small business. Companies across the America began to downsize. In small companies, broad skills and the ability to handle multiple tasks are of paramount importance. Even entry-level workers are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades.

The contemporary workplace is dynamic and entrepreneurial. Approximately one-third of jobs is in flux every year, meaning that they have just been added or will be eliminated. The job security once enjoyed in big companies is no sure bet anymore. Employees must continuously reinvent themselves by seeking out the additional training and new skills that will keep them marketable. Skills and adaptability have become the new job security.

The new economy requires that employees be able to apply mathematics, science, and technical reading and writings skills in a variety of job tasks. The trend in career and technical education is to teach transferable skills via the various occupational clusters. These clusters are industry-specific enough to enable students to develop employment skills without being so limited as to track students into narrowly defined or dead-end jobs. To accomplish this, the programs provide a strong academic foundation and teach students the processes of applying this knowledge.

The work environment is always in transition, with changing equipment, tasks, and responsibilities. Technology is progressing too rapidly to train students on the latest equipment, so the trend in career and technical education is to focus on teaching the skills, concepts, and systems that underpin technology rather than how to operate a particular piece of technology.

Use Research about Learning

A growing body of education research supports the efficacy of the methodology used in career and technical education programs. Research documents that the capacity to apply knowledge to practical situations is not only an important ability for students to have, but also an effective way to improve their academic performance. Research also shows that students learn more when they are motivated to do so. In career and technical education, motivation stems from the realization that what they are learning has a practical application to the world of work.

Arnold Packer, Chairman of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) 2000 Center at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, has found that "solving realistic problems motivates students to work on their academics. They have their own answer to the oft-asked question: "Why do I have to learn this?" This blend of academic, career, and computer learning helps them acquire the skills needed for successful careers while they achieve to meet state standards."

The National Research Council has found that when instruction is based on students' interests and aptitudes and is appropriate to their learning styles, students are more motivated to learn. Academic performance generally improves, for example, when students attend magnet schools and theme academies.

The research suggests that the ability to apply knowledge requires experience in using that knowledge in a variety of ways over a period of time, drawing on the same knowledge base. Career and technical education does a good job in this regard. Skill and knowledge are taught and reinforced through hands-on activities and real-world applications.

The National Research Council's comprehensive 1999 report, How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, shared key findings of the research literature on human learning, curriculum design, and the learning environment. One of those findings concerned metacognition. Metacognition occurs when a learner takes a new piece of information, debates its validity in relation to what else he or she knows about the subject, and then considers how it expands his or her understanding of the topic. Most career and technical education programs employ more metacognition activities than traditional programs, in which many students spend the school day listening to teachers disseminate knowledge. Learning by doing is the standard approach in their courses, as students use skills and knowledge to create products and model solutions to problems.

Research shows that students will try to rise to the level of expectation established for them. For career and technical education, this means having as high expectations for students' academic performance as for their performance of job-related skills.

In the technological, information-based economy, workers must be able to apply high-level, integrated academic skills on the job. As career and technical education programs redesign curriculum to embed academic standards, their students have an advantage over other students because career and technical education students also learn how to apply these skills.


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