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Vo-tech makes a comeback, but is it proving effective?

In touring a rural high school once, a superintendent gestured to the vo-tech wing and explained, “This is the dummy track.”

Today, superintendents are more apt to point to vo-tech — rechristened career and technology education — as bright spots in their districts. In Georgia, career academies have become a strategy to prevent dropouts by connecting the classroom to the workplace.

A Georgia State University conference on career and technical education today provided a more nuanced view of an education trend that has won favor with state legislatures.

The outdated perception is fading of vo-tech as the wing in the school building where kids had packs of cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, said conference keynote speaker James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. But Stone said legacy CTE programs hang on, citing programs that still offer agricultural production in urban settings.

Researchers at the GSU conference agreed CTE now provides students with a richer and more comprehensive education than a generation ago. However, because students are not randomly assigned to CTE and programs vary school to school and state to state, it's been near impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of approaches, said Georgia State University economist Daniel Kreisman.

(Also, we can’t agree on the acronym. In Georgia, we call it CTAE because we include agriculture. It is also true in STEM, which is STEAM in some places to include art, except in Alabama where the “A”stands for agriculture. In some states, STEM is STEMM with the second “M” representing medical.)

Unlike most countries, the United States lacks a national yardstick to assess effectiveness of career education or apprenticeship programs. In other countries, “there is actually coherence. We have chaos,” said Stone. “We have 14,000-plus school districts, all of which have some level of autonomy.”

Without universal measures by which to assess how much CTE students learned, students obtain industry and employer-recognized CTE credentials; there are more than 10,000 such credentialing exams. However, test results are often proprietary, so high schools only know whether their CTE students passed or failed, said GSU researcher Tim Sass, a leading researcher on teacher quality.

“It’s not clear to me what you would have on your list of things to observe about CTE teachers to put in your rubric,” he said. “What do we know about the quality of CTE teachers? Essentially zero.”

Teacher quality is critical because CTE in America remains classroom-based; that's not the case in other countries where CTE students spend most of their time in the workplace as apprentices.

“We don’t have to worry as much about teacher quality when you spend only one out of five days in the schools,” said Ursula Renold of the Swiss Economic Institute.

The Swiss CTE model builds around highly structured apprenticeships in which students are paid for their labor and learn most of their skills on the job rather than in classrooms. So the skills align with the job.

That alignment isn’t always the case here. Stone recounted a CEO who had one job and 200 applicants, all of whom took a qualifying math test. Only 16 passed the test, which reflected fourth grade math skills. Many workers need basic numeracy, but U.S. schools teach an increasingly abstract math curriculum.

Mandating students conquer higher level math sets back kids, especially boys, according to Stone. “Young men are not doing well; 75 percent of the Ds and Fs we hand out in schools go to boys.”

Stone cited research showing CTE keeps boys engaged in high school. Taking three CTE courses in sequence – such as shop 1, 2 and 3 — increases the odds a boy will finish high school, said Stone.

So, why aren’t more boys in CTE classes?

Stone says they’re in math classes.

“Since the mid-1980s, we have added the equivalent of a full year of academics to high school,” said Stone. “Rigor equals more and more of the same stuff with no effect.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.