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Vocational and Technical Education

Current Trends, Preparation Of Teachers, International ContextHISTORY OF

Howard R. D. Gordon

Willard R. Daggett

N. L. McCaslin
Darrel Parks

Claudio de Moura Castro


Vocational education in the United States is the product of an extended evolutionary process. Economic, educational, and societal issues have repeatedly exerted influence on the definition of vocational education, as well as on how, when, where, and to whom it will be provided. There are many legal definitions of vocational education (i.e., how vocational education is defined by law). These legal definitions are critical since they specify how, for what purpose, and to what extent federal monies may be spent for vocational education. All too often this legal definition is interpreted by state and local officials as the only definition of vocational education.

For the purpose of this article, vocational education is defined as a practically illustrated and attempted job or career skill instruction. As such, a variety of components fall under the vocational education umbrella: agricultural education, business education, family and consumer sciences, health occupations education, marketing education, technical education, technology education, and trade and industrial education. The vocational curriculum can be identified as a combination of classroom instruction–hands-on laboratory work and on-the-job training–augmented by an active network of student organizations. Vocational preparation must always be viewed against the backdrop of the needs of society and of the individual. While meeting the demands of the economy, the abilities of individuals must be utilized to the fullest. Meeting the internalized job needs of individuals is a crucial objective of vocational education.

Historical Foundations

The first formalized vocational education system in America can be traced to apprenticeship agreements of colonial times. The first education law passed in America, the Old Deluder Satan Act of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, set specific requirements for masters to teach apprentices academic as well as vocational skills. During the colonial period the colonies frequently cared for orphans, poor children, and delinquents by indenturing them to serve apprenticeships. As apprenticeship declined, other institutions developed to care for these youngsters. By the mid-1880s vocational education in the form of industrial education was synonymous with institutional programs for these youth. The children of defeated Native American leaders were sent to the Carlisle Pennsylvania Indian School, and the curriculum was job training.

After the Civil War Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of Hampton Institute and the ideological father of African-American vocational education, tried to address the racial aspects of the social and economic relations between the former slaves and the white South. His vocational education programs emphasized the need for African Americans to be good, subservient laborers. The prominent educator Booker T. Washington, Armstrong's prize student, took the same values and philosophical views as his former mentor. Washington held firmly to his beliefs that vocational education was the ideal route for most African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, also an influential African-American educator, strongly objected to Washington's educational program. He accused Washington of teaching lessons of work and money, which potentially encouraged African Americans to forget about the highest aims of life.

The first land-grant college provisions, known as the First Morrill Act, were enacted by the U.S. Congress on July 2, 1862. The statute articulated the appointment of public lands to the states based on their representation in Congress in 1860. The Morrill Act was one of the first congressional actions to benefit from the post–Civil War constitutional amendments. By the late 1860s Morrill Act funds were being distributed to the states, with the intention that they would foster educational opportunity for all students. Following the Civil War, the expansion of the land-grant college system continued, with its implied focus on educational opportunities. However, with the close of the army's occupation to the old South, funds from the Morrill Act began to flow systemically to schools offering only all-white education. Congress attempted by various legislation to force racial equality, including equality of educational opportunity. However, the U.S. Supreme Court initiated a series of interpretations of the post—Civil War constitutional amendments that ultimately defeated these various legislative efforts. Culminating with its 1882 decision finding the first Civil Rights Act unconstitutional, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth amendment only protected against direct discriminatory action by a state government. What followed was a period of nearly seventy-five years when only modest gains were made in higher educational opportunity for minorities. Congress did pass a second Morrill Act (1890), which required states with dual systems of education (all-white and nonwhite) to provide landgrand institutions for both systems. Basing their jurisdiction on the 1882 Supreme Court decision, Congress acted to curb direct state-sponsored discrimination. Eventually, nineteen higher education institutions for African Americans were organized as land-grant institutions. These institutions were founded to raise the aspirations of a generation of children of former slaves and to ensure that high quality higher education was provided for Americans of all races. While efforts persisted throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to reduce the funding to these colleges, the schools continued to function based on land-grant funds.

Early in the twentieth century, vocational education was a prominent topic of discussion among American educators as schools struggled to meet the labor force needs consistent with the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economic base. In his 1907 address to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt urged major school reform that would provide industrial education in urban centers and agriculture education in rural areas. A powerful alliance supporting federal funding for vocational education was formed in 1910 when the American Federation of Labor (AFL), who had long opposed such programs as discriminatory, lent its approval to the National Association of Manufacturers' (NAM) promotion of trade instruction in schools. Formed in 1895, one of NAM's first projects was to investigate how education might provide a more effective means to help American manufacturers compete in expanding international markets. The AFL joined the vocational reform movement believing its participation would help protect working-class interests by providing them with a voice at the table on education policy development with the emerging industrial economy. The strength of the combined lobby influenced Congress in 1914 to authorize President Woodrow Wilson to appoint a commission to study whether federal aid to vocational education was warranted. Charles Prosser, a student of social efficiency advocate David Snedden, was principal author of the commission's report to Congress. Prosser considered separately administered, and narrowly focused, vocational training as the best available way to help nonacademic students secure employment after completing high school. In its final report to Congress, the commission chaired by Georgia Senator Hoke Smith declared an urgent social and educational need of vocational training in public schools.

Legislative History and Reforms

Federal support for vocational education began with the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. Two Democratic lawmakers from Georgia, Senator Hoke Smith and Representative Dudley Mays Hughes, were chiefly responsible for this historic bill, which established vocational education, particularly agricultural education, as a federal program. The act reflected the view of reformers who believed that youth should be prepared for entry-level jobs by learning specific occupational skills in separated vocational schools. According to Harvey Kantor and David B. Tyack, this brand of vocationalism had its critics, including the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who believed that such specific skill training was unnecessarily narrow and undermined democracy. The Smith-Hughes Act, however, firmly supported the notion of a separate vocational education system and supported courses offered by vocational schools. The act called for specific skill training, focused on entry-level skills, and helped establish separate state boards for vocational education. The Smith-Hughes Act and its successors until 1963 were largely designed to expand these separate vocational education programs, in an effort to retain more students in secondary education, and to provide trained workers for a growing number of semiskilled occupations. These acts focused on basic support, providing funds for teachers and teacher training, and encouraging state support for vocational education through extensive funds-matching requirements.

By the 1960s, the vocational education system had been firmly established, and Congress recognized the need for a new focus. As a result, the 1963 Vocational Education Act, while still supporting the separate system approach by funding the construction of area vocational schools, broadened the definition of vocational education to include occupational programs in comprehensive high schools, such as business and commerce. The act also included the improvement of vocational education programs and the provision of programs and services for disadvantaged and disabled students.

Faced with initial evidence that localities were not responding to the new focus on improving programs and serving students with special needs, the 1968 Amendments to the Vocational Education Act backed each goal with specific funding. This change set the stage for what has become the distinguishing feature of all such legislation since 1968–the manner in which it seeks a compromise between the demands for improved vocational program quality and for increased vocational education opportunities for students with special needs.

Separate funds set aside for disabled and disadvantaged students seemed an effective strategy, as it resulted in more funds expended on these groups and in increased enrollments. Since there are few other sources of federal assistance for secondary special needs students (other than students with disabilities), it is not surprising that other special populations were added to federal vocational education legislation over time. In 1974, the needs of limited English proficient (LEP) students were addressed through provisions for bilingual vocational training; funds for Native American students were also added. In 1976 LEP students were made eligible for part of the disadvantaged set-aside, and provisions to eliminate sex bias and sex stereotyping in vocational education were added.

Education reforms focusing on secondary education began in the early 1980s, prompted by concern about the nation's declining competitiveness in the international market, the relatively poor performance of American students on tests of educational achievement (both nationally and internationally), and complaints from the business community about the low level of skills and abilities found in high school graduates entering the workforce. This reform came in two waves. The first wave, sometimes characterized as academic reform, called for increased effort from the current education system: more academic course requirements for high school graduation, more stringent college entrance requirements, longer school days and years, and an emphasis on standards and testing for both students and teachers. The basic message might be paraphrased, "work more, try harder, strive for excellence."

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a second wave of school reform arose, based in part on the belief that the first wave did not go far enough to improve education for all students. The second wave, sometimes referred to as restructuring, called for changes in the way schools and the educational process were organized. While restructuring proposals included school choice and site-based management, of particular interest in this report was the emphasis on improving the school-to-work transition for nonbaccalaureate youth by creating closer linkages between vocational and academic education, secondary and postsecondary institutions, and schools and workplaces.

The reform movement, particularly its first phase, received major impetus from the publication in 1983 of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's report A Nation at Risk. This influential report observed that the United States was losing ground in international economic competition and attributed the decline in large part to the relatively low standards and poor performance of the American educational system. The report recommended many of the changes subsequently enacted in first-wave reforms: the strengthening of requirements for high school graduation, including the requirement of a core academic curriculum; the development and use of rigorous educational standards; more time in school or the more efficient use of presently available time; and better preparation of teachers.

The response to this report and related education reform initiatives was rapid and widespread. Marion Asche reported in 1991 that between the early and mid-1980s, more than 275 education task forces had been organized in the United States. By the mid-1980s, forty-three states had increased course requirements for high school graduation; seventeen had developed stronger requirements for admission to state colleges and universities; thirty-seven had created statewide student assessment programs; twenty-nine had developed teacher competency tests; and twenty-eight had increased teacher licensure requirements. Between 1984 and 1986 more than 700 state laws affecting some aspect of the teaching profession had been enacted.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 (Pub. L. 98-524), known as the Perkins Act, continued the affirmation of Congress that effective vocational education programs are essential to the nation's future as a free and democratic society. The act had two interrelated goals, one economic and one social. The economic goal was to improve the skills of the labor force and prepare adults for job opportunities–a long-standing goal traceable to the Smith-Hughes Act. The social goal was to provide equal opportunities for adults in vocational education. In the late summer of 1990, Congress passed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act (Pub. L. 101-392, also known as Perkins II), which amended and extended the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Act of 1984.

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-239) was passed to address the national skills shortage by providing a model to create a highly skilled workforce for the nation's economy through partnerships between educators and employers. The STWOA emphasized preparing students with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and information about occupations and the labor market that would help them make the transition from school to postschool employment through school-based and work-based instructional components supported by a connecting activity's component. Key elements of STWOA included (a) collaborative partnerships, (b) integrated curriculum, (c) technological advances, (d) adaptable workers, (e) comprehensive career guidance, (f) work-based learning, and (g) a step-by-step approach.

On October 31, 1998 President Clinton signed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act (Pub. L. 105-332). Two major focus areas of this legislation were to increase accountability and provide states with more flexibility to use funds.

Trends and Issues

In the United States of the early twenty-first century, vocational education has entered a new era. There is increasing acknowledgement that the traditional educational focus on college-bound youth needs to change. Greater attention is being focused on work-bound youth, particularly those who will require less than baccalaureate education. There is increasing concern that the United States is not adequately preparing a growing pool of new workers–women, minorities, and immigrants–for productive, successful roles in the workforce. Education is being urged to change the way it is preparing youth and adults to function in a global economy. All of these trends are bringing new importance to vocational education.

A U.S. General Accounting Office study examined strategies used to prepare work-bound youth for employment in the United States and four competitor nations–England, Germany, Japan and Sweden. Among the findings:

  1. The four competitor nations expect all students to do well in school, especially in the early years. U.S. schools accept that many will lag behind.
  2. The competitor nations have established competency-based national training standards that are used to certify skill competency. U.S. practice is to certify program completion.
  3. All four competitor nations invest as heavily in the education and training of work-bound youth as they do for each college-bound youth.
  4. To a much greater extent than in the United States, the schools and employment communities in the competitor countries guide students' transition from school to work, helping students learn about job requirements and assisting them in finding employment.
  5. Young adults in the four competitor nations have higher literacy rates than the comparable population segment in the United States.

Generally, research has shown that obtaining workers with a good work ethic and appropriate social behavior has been a priority for employers. Employers complain about the attitude and character of workers–particularly about absenteeism, an inability to adapt, a lack of discipline, and negative work behaviors. In response to criticism about the general employability of the workforce, the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills published in 1991 a range of skills that all workforce participants should have. These include the following:

  • 1. Basic Skills
  • a. Reading
  • b. Writing
  • c. Mathematics
  • d. Listening
  • e. Speaking
  • 2. Thinking Skills
  • a. Creative Thinking
  • b. Decision Making
  • c. Problem Solving
  • d. Knowing How to Learn
  • e. Reasoning
  • 3. Personal Qualities
  • a. Responsibility
  • b. Self-Esteem
  • c. Sociability
  • d. Self-Management
  • e. Integrity/Honesty

If the United States is to remain at the forefront in the high-tech global marketplace, the workforce must posses the requisite technological competencies and academic skills. As technology continues to influence vocational education, new and innovative educational approaches must be established to provide vocational education students with the enhanced skills and knowledge they will need to participate in the international marketplace.

Technology Education

Most people recognize that technology has changed the world, but few people understand the various aspects of technology and how pervasive technology is in U.S. society. Technology is commonly defined as a discipline or body of knowledge and the application of this knowledge combined with resources to produce outcomes in response to human desires and needs. Technology education draws its content from four universal domains: (1) sciences, (2) humanities, (3) technologies, and (4) formal knowledge. The sciences and humanities domains contain all recorded knowledge of the sciences and humanities. The technologies domain likewise contains all recorded knowledge related to the types of technology. The formal knowledge domain consists of language, linguistics, mathematics, and logic.

Technology education programs are available at the elementary, middle/junior high school, and secondary levels. At the elementary school level, the focus is on technological awareness with classroom activities oriented around the development of motor skills and informed attitudes about technology's influence on society. At the middle school level, the focus of technology education programs is on exploring the applications of technology to solve problems and exploring the various technological careers. A wide variety of problem-solving situations are used, giving students opportunities to create and design. Activities are designed to further promote technological awareness and to promote psychomotor development through processes associated with technology. Secondary technology education programs are designed to give students experience related to scientific principles, engineering concepts, and technological systems.

The New Vocationalism

Vocationalism is defined as the method used by schools, particularly high schools, to organize their curricula so the students may develop skills, both vocational and academic, that will give them the strategic labor market advantages needed to compete for good jobs. Overall enrollment in vocational courses has fallen. However, an incoming current has brought a growing number of participants into new programs and curricula. While traditional vocational offerings have been geared toward immediate entry into specific occupations, new programs and course sequences are intended to prepare students for both colleges and careers, by combining a challenging academic curriculum with development of work-related knowledge skill. The new combination aims to keep students' options open after high school. They can go to a two-year or four-year college and then work, go to work full-time and then back to college, or engage in paid employment and further education simultaneously.

The overall decline in high school vocational enrollment is evident from student transcript data. Between 1982 and 1994 the average number of vocational credits completed by high school graduates declined form 4.7 to 4.0, or from 22 percent to 16 percent of total credits earned in all subjects. The number of students who completed three or more courses in a single vocational program area slipped from 34 percent to 25 percent. Furthermore, students with disabilities, or with low grades, accounted for a growing proportion of vocational course-taking in high schools during this period. Combining a vocational sequence with college-prep academic courses seems to yield positive results. Several studies have found that high school students who combine a substantial academic curriculum with a set of vocational courses do better than students who omit either one of these two components.

The idea of combining vocational and academic coursework is also central to High Schools That Work, a network of more of more than 800 schools engaged in raising academic curriculum with modern vocational studies. It is also a key component of the New American High Schools identified by the U.S. Department of Education. Many of these schools are trying to raise academic standards and expectations by structuring the curriculum alignment around students' career-related interests. Charles Benson, in a paper delivered in 1992 and published posthumously in 1997, articulated some of the objectives of the new vocationalism: The first is to enable almost all students, not just the minority, to obtain a thorough working knowledge of mathematics, sciences, and languages. That is, the first objective of the new vocationalism is to help many more students obtain a much higher standard of academic proficiency. The second objective is to help many, many more students gain such a level of occupational proficiency that they enter easily and quickly into productive, rewarding, and interesting careers.

What does the integration of academic and vocational curricula entail? Research has shown that schools bring academic and vocational education together in a number of different ways, which comprise eight different models of integration at the secondary level. These models are summarized as follows:

  1. More academic content is incorporated in vocational courses.
  2. Academic courses are made more vocationally relevant.
  3. Academic and vocational teachers cooperate to incorporate academic content into vocational programs.
  4. Curricular alignment is accomplished by modifying or coordinating both academic and vocational curricula across courses.
  5. Seminar projects are done in lieu of elective courses and require students to complete a project that integrates knowledge and skills learned in both academic and vocational courses.
  6. The academy model is a school-within-a-school that aligns courses with each other and to an occupational focus.
  7. Vocational high schools and magnet schools align courses with each other and to an occupational focus for all students.
  8. Occupational clusters, career paths, and occupational majors feature a coherent sequence of courses and alignment among courses within clusters.

Work-Based Learning

Work experience programs allow students to learn first-hand about the world of work while still in school. These efforts, broadly referred to as work experience programs, include formal work-based training programs outside the school, such as cooperative education, youth apprenticeship, and school-based enterprises. Co-op education is run by individual schools as part of their vocational education programs. Students are provided part-time jobs during the school year in their field of vocational specialization. The job placements are arranged by the classroom vocational instructor or by the school's co-op coordinator. A training plan that clearly states what the student is expected to learn and what the employer is expected to provide is developed. Business and marketing education programs are generally the largest sponsors of co-op education.

The concept of youth apprenticeship includes preparation for postsecondary education as well as employment. Youth apprenticeship, typically designed for high school students who may go on to postsecondary education, are different from traditional apprenticeships run by unions or trade associations, that usually enroll young adults who have graduated from high school. There is a growing consensus about the principles that should guide any youth apprenticeship and about the basic design elements that differentiate youth apprenticeships from other models linking school and work. These principles include active participation of employers; integration of work-based and school-based learning; integration of academic and vocational learning; structured linkages between secondary and postsecondary institutions; and award of a broadly recognized certificate of occupational skill.

The third type of work experience program is school-based enterprises. In these programs, students produce goods or services for sale or use to other people. Such enterprises include school restaurants, construction projects, child care centers, auto repair shops, hair salons, and retail stores.

These programs differ from co-ops and apprenticeships in that they do not place students with employers. Rather, the goal of school-based enterprises is to allow students to apply their classroom knowledge to running real-world businesses. School-based enterprises are a viable option in communities where there are too few employers to provide sufficient jobs and training opportunities in the private sector.

As the evolution toward higher technology in the work place continues, the focus of federal support for vocational education must be on redoubling efforts to increase linkages between academic and occupational skill development, secondary and postsecondary education, and business and education.


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BENSON, CHARLES S. 1997. "New Vocationalism in the United States: Potential Problems and Outlook." Economics of Education Review 16 (3):201–212.

BOESEL, DAVID; RAHN, MIKALA; and DEICH, SHARON. 1994. Program Improvement: Education Reform. Vol. 3: National Assessment of Vocational Education: Final Report to Congress. Washington DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

GORDON, HOWARD R. D. 1999. The History and Growth of Vocational Education in America. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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JOHNSON, KEITH V. 1996. "Some Thoughts on African Americans' Struggle to Participate in Technology Education." The Journal of Technology Studies 22 (1):49–54.

KANTOR, HARVEY, and TYACK, DAVID B. 1982. Work, Youth, and Schooling: Historical Perspectives on Vocationalism in American Education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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SCOTT, JOHN L., and SARKEES, MICHELLE. 1996. Overview of Vocational and Applied Technology Education. Homewood, IL: American Technical Publishers.

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