Educational reform—are we on the wrong track?

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Will we one day look back at the current education reform movements and say, “Why didn’t we see the obvious?” While stressing the standards and the high school exit examination, will we loose a generation that could have been saved through vocational education? Are we running a train on one rail when we need two?

Statistically we know that only about 35 percent of the students go to college or university and only about 22 percent finish. What are we doing to prepare the other 65 percent to become productive citizens in a democratic society?

Granted, standards are needed, but must they be at the exclusion of practical, hands-on, real life experiences? Must vocational education, or career and technical education, and academics be mutually exclusive?

In the past, students in vocational and academic studies often did not mix. Previous federal legislation (Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act) mandated integration of vocational and academic education. The act made funds available “to provide vocational education in programs that integrate academic and vocational education…so that students achieve both academic and occupational competencies.”

A study conducted by the RAND Corporation for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education analyzed the experience of eight schools that had integrated their programs. The research identified four common themes that helped to define integration:

* richer, better sequenced curricula that enhanced academic and generic skills needed by all workers
* facilitative instruction (rather than didactic) that motivates students to learn and provides them with a practical and applied understanding of the world
* increased collaboration and coordination among academic and vocational teachers to create a more unified schooling experience
* more attention to the skills and knowledge students need to transition effectively from school to work and college.

The core of integration is to combine the best practices of academic and vocational education into a single, integrated program that is available to all high school students. With the emphasis today on the standards, many students do not have the opportunity to take what were traditionally called “voc ed” classes—shop, welding, auto mechanics, home economics, secretarial sciences, etc. One wonders if the fact that these are no longer or seldom offered has any correlation with the fact that the high school dropout rate is higher today than in 1983. Is it possible that some of these classes gave relevance to the other classes? Will we continue to see more students dropping out because what they might want to do for a living is no longer offered? Is it not possible that one can learn the standards through the traditional vocational education classes? What better way to learn math and the importance of it than through a carpentry class? How about learning science through a welding class?

It seems clear that the two—academics and vocational (career and technical) are not at the opposite ends of the learning spectrum. Why not bring back voc ed classes to give students hope now and for the future? If we do not attempt to reach students through other, more traditional means our dropout rates will continue to climb. As Mark Twain said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn no other way.”

With more students dropping out, however, fewer students will be taking the high school exit examination. With fewer taking the exam, it will make the passing percentage higher and everyone can pat themselves on the back and say, “Look what a good job we are doing. See how the standards are working.” This praise, while fewer students are prepared for the real world of work, would be misplaced.

Is the price we pay for the standards worth a future for those not prepared to succeed in life and work? I don’t think so. For the “reform” train to be on the right track, we need two rails—academic and vocational.

Larry Wilder, Ed. D., oversees the training of school administrators as director of the administrative services program in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. He is a former assistant superintendent at the Fresno County Office of Education and mayor of Reedley.

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