The term “vocational education,” which means preparing students for a certain trade, such as auto repair or beauty school, initially began in 1917 to reduce unemployment and improve wages, and in the 1940s and 1950s, vocational education expanded to other subjects beyond agriculture and industrial work such as science, math and foreign language education.
At some point, however, vocational education earned a reputation as something reserved for “those students,” experts say. From 1982 to 1994, there was a decline in enrollment in vocational education for most groups of students, but the portion of black, non-Hispanic students and Asian/Pacific Islander students stayed about the same while the percentage of students with disabilities increased, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Since 1990, students enrolled in vocational education has declined from an average 4.2 credits to 3.6 credits in 2009, according to NCES data analyzed by the National Education Association. Meanwhile, enrollment in academic credits increased from 23.5 to 26.9 during the same period.
Hillary Clinton said it is necessary to change attitudes about how we see vocational education and that it is critical to support and develop the nation’s community colleges “and get back to really respecting vocational and technical work.” She also supported the idea of apprentice work, saying at a campaign event in South Carolina last month that there should be a tax credit for businesses that hire and train apprentices.
Vocational education is changing, but many still see it as something only low-income, mostly minority students are pushed into and an option that upper class students and white students wouldn’t be encouraged to take. As academics and authors on national education trends point out, when our society devalues anything that isn’t academic prep work and a pathway to a four-year university, it’s easy to see why people are suspicious of vocational education, which encourages students to gain practical, hands-on skills in a certain industry, versus learning about economic theories in a lecture format.
In many cases, there is good reason for that suspicion. Anthony Greene, assistant professor with the African American studies program at the College of Charleston found that racial-ethnic minority students are disproportionately placed into lower-level academic courses, and subsequently enroll in vocational courses. Even within vocational education, students of color, especially women of color, aren’t tracked into professions that earn as much money over time. Greene wrote a 2014 paper on racial trends in vocational education in the International Journal of Educational Studies.
“Think for a second on the ‘workers’ at colleges and universities across the country. In the vast majority of cases, women, particularly black and Latino, often are regulated to cook and cleaning staffs. Latino men are often regulated to grounds keeping, but white males tend to be in maintenance and heating and lighting and electrical,” Greene said. “Each one of these jobs come with a level of prestige accompanied by a variation of pay. I argue that these pathways in occupations begin in high school vocational programs.”
Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, said he says similar patterns at his school.
“Usually the language is kind of coded like, ‘This kid isn’t really into academics,’ or ‘This kid doesn’t come to class a lot,’ or ‘Based on the way they volunteer, they seem to be very good with their hands,” Vilson said. “Who are we to say they aren’t good with academics? Maybe we haven’t given them the proper environment for them to succeed in an academic setting, and this isn’t just from white teachers. This comes from people who look like the kid.”
Vilson doesn’t oppose vocational training but would rather see more of an effort from educators to make sure they are encouraging students to follow their actual interests and make an informed choice on whether or not they want to take vocational education classes. Part of the problem, Vilson said, is that the professions we associate with vocational training, such as becoming an electrician or a plumber, are often devalued even though they make good money and are perfectly legitimate career options.
“I find there’s another element there too, in terms of what do we see as a professional job. You look at a plumber, for example, and they could be making money hand over fist, and people can denigrate the plumbing profession and make it into something that isn’t a profession in of itself. There just needs to be a certain set of skills that every American is entitled to,” Vilson said. “For the last 13 years, there has been a decline in having those types of skills in academic courses, like home economics and workshop. My focus is always going to be on students and allowing them to make a choice.”
Vocational training may typically lead people to envision beauty school and carpentry, but vocational programs are expanding to new subjects, and some programs, such as Denver Public Schools’ vocational education program, are much more modern. The district offers an engineering and energy pathway, biomedicine, engineering, and advanced manufacturing, said Laurent Trent, manager of strategic partnerships at Denver Public Schools at the school’s office of college and career readiness.
“Often, a student doesn’t realize they’re in a career and technical education class until they get in it and really like it and say, ‘Oh I’m going to take the next one.’ They don’t hold a lot of the stigma that their parents and other adults hold,” Trent said. “So, business partners and parents — in the best-case scenario, they don’t know — and in the worst, they do know and they associate it with vocational education of decades past, so we definitely wanted to signal that this is a new day.”
They’re also trying to reenvision some of the more traditional kinds of vocations, such as automotive work, to be more compatible with the modern workforce, Trent said.
“We’re thinking about that now, to take more old school programs and reimagine them into career pathways, so we’re thinking about how you take traditional construction and woodworking classes and change the structure so it aligns with a high-demand advanced manufacturing pathway. Certainly many of our investments are in other areas. Auto — for instance — does auto have a place in the engineering pathway? We’re still thinking through how that works,” she said.
To decide which programs reflect relevant growing industries, the school partners with the Office of Economic Development in Denver, to analyze data on which fields are developing rapidly. The school also received a “Youth CareerConnect” grant. Students are also doing job shadows and getting connected with mentors in their fields. Trent said the district is currently working with three universities on a preferential admissions agreement for students in the vocational education classes.
Philip Zelikow, co-author of America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age, and White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, said the best way to provide vocational education would be to integrate elements of vocational education into the rest of the academic curricula. He pointed to Camden County High School where you learn the theory in order to use the skills, such as learning how to investigate a crime scene and using instruments and writing up reports for actual hands-on skills.
“You unite theory and practice, which is actually a very interesting way to learn the theory and makes it much more accessible.” Zelikow said.
He argued that a child choosing one vocation early on in their high school career may be too rigid, since students often change their minds sometime in high school, if not college.
“They say, ‘We don’t expect these kids to get these academic subjects,’ and in effect, they’re tracking them since they’re 15. They’ve ended up spending their whole high school career to prepare to be an aircraft repairperson, but that may be too rigid and confining,” Zelikow said. “One of the advantages of the mainstreaming approach is that it builds up soft skills, basic literacy and numeracy, and the context in which you build up that literacy and numeracy isn’t all that important.”
When you separate vocational education from academic work, you emphasize class differences, Zelikow said, instead of helping all students build skills they will need in the future.
“You reinforce the problem of two Americas with this kind of educational system, which is duplicating the kind of class educational system you would have encountered in America in the 1850s, where a small number of students of a particular class would go to certain schools and everyone else was assumed to be good for nothing but farmwork,” Zelikow said. “In the period between 1880 and 1940, there was the universal high school movement and radical changes in college. These changes now look anachronistic, but they were a major overhaul of the system. It’s time for another overhaul.”