By Rebecca B. Evers, Ed.D.
This is not your parents' vocational education. Girls are not limited to making aprons in sewing classes, and boys are not making pig-shaped cutting boards in woodworking shop. The major difference in today's school-to-career classes is that students are taught core academic skills, such as math, science, and English, at the same time they're learning the specific skills needed in their chosen career area.
In the past, vocational education was frequently seen as a placement for the students who could not make the grade in academic courses. However, the laws that created current programs require career and technical programs to produce students who can compete in higher education settings, and who will be ready to meet challenges as competent adults in any occupation they choose, in a workforce that participates in a global economy. This article is the first in a two-part series addressing the current state of career and technical education.
Today's career education students are more likely to be in a class that is a student-run business; not just auto shop, but an automotive repair business where they learn very technical computer skills, how to problem solve, how to estimate time and costs for repairs, and finally how to repair the problem. In some areas of the country, career and technical education programs, at both the secondary and community college levels, are being developed to fill the needs of local industries and businesses. For example in the northwest where aeronautics is a major industry one community opened an Aviation High School.1
School-to-career courses at the high school level have additional benefits that promote positive outcomes for students who enroll - namely higher attendance rates and achievement. For example, the attendance rate for school-to-career students in one Philadelphia school district was 87.5% (10% higher that other students) indicating that students are interested in or value these classes enough to be there. Another sign of student interest and engagement is that 30% of the Philadelphia career education students earned a 3.0 or higher grade-point average (GPA), while only 19.8% of non-career education students earn a B-average or better GPA. But perhaps the most convincing evidence of student interest, relevance, and staying power of the school-to-career programs is the dropout rate of 3.4%; less than one-third the rate for non-vocational students in the district.2
Career, technical, and occupational skills programs have used a variety of names during the last two decades, such as "vocational education," "vocational-technical education," "practical arts," and most recently, "career and technical education." Programs are offered across a variety of educational levels and settings including:
Although there are many definitions of career and technical education,3,4,5 they all suggest that these types of programs should prepare students for a chosen career by teaching knowledge and skills in a relevant, sequential program that includes:
The primary legislative act that governs all career and technical programs is the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006. This legislation includes the provision of the "Tech Prep" programs. The primary difference between Tech Prep and other career technical classes is that Tech Prep programs must include the following elements:
Students who successfully complete a high school Tech Prep program can move directly from high school to a community college or four-year college to complete their career and technical education.
The provisions of the Perkins Act ensure that your teen with learning disabilities has equal access to any career or technical program he chooses. Information about career and technical programs in your school district is available from school counselors, special education transition specialists, and on school district or state board of education websites. For additional information about the Perkins Act, state and local career and technical programs, and school-to-work or post-secondary education transition planning, see "Resources."
Other purposes of Tech Prep programs are to provide academic instruction in the classroom with on-the-job learning and training experiences in high-skill, high-wage, or high-demand occupations; for example: health (nursing, dentistry), computing and communications (programmer, personal computer technician), or construction (carpenter, electrician). Finally, the Tech Prep programs should be integrated into career and technical programs when possible.5
Implementation of this act is the responsibility of local public school systems with oversight by the state departments of education who report state efforts and results to the U.S. Department of Education. If you are concerned that your local school is not meeting your teen's needs in regard to offering career and occupational training or Tech Prep programs, contact the local school district office.
Listed below are a number of provisions in the Perkins Act that are important to students with disabilities and apply to high school and community college career and technical programs.
Typically career exploratory classes are offered during the middle school years as training experiences designed to assist students in making career decisions. Students sample occupations by rotating though several classes, usually during seventh and/or eight grade, in order to determine their suitability or preference for a particular job. At the end of the exploratory classes, students may elect to take classes at the high school level in one of the seven major occupational areas listed below, defined by the Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE), a professional organization of teachers in career and technical programs.
When your teen who's participated in career and occupational programs makes the transition from high school, he has a number of options. He can select to enter the workforce in a variety of entry-level positions, or he may enter a two- or four-year post-secondary technical institution, or a four-year college.
In addition to the classroom experiences offered in these education programs, opportunities for learning and training also can occur in business, industrial, or labor settings. The "labor" category includes such occupations as retail sales and entry-level factory work, as well as skilled trades such as carpentry, pipe fitting, and masonry. These experiences are provided by the high school through cooperative education or work experience programs. Most programs offer students both in-school and on-the-job training for high school credits. A high school teacher who is trained to work in these programs selects and develops job sites in the community. Local businesses commit to providing on-the-job training for a student who is ready to go to work in the community while still in high school. This teacher coordinates services between the school and the community, providing site supervision and, when required, job coaching for the student worker.
Student organizations at the high school level, funded through federal legislation, are an established and integral part of vocational education. Ten Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs) are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and charged to provide programs of career and leadership development, including motivation and recognition for students enrolled in career and technical education programs. Each school-based program must have a dedicated instructor who coordinates curriculum-oriented activities to maximize student learning. Generally, participation in a student organization is voluntary and students elect to participate. However, in some instances, teachers may require participation in the student organization as part of class activities.
When your family and/or school are planning transition activities, you should encourage your teen with learning disabilities to participate in the career and technical student organizations (CTSOs). Student organizations can supplement skills learned in the classroom. These CTSOs offer opportunities for your teen to interact with peers and teachers in a less formal and more social atmosphere. Such interactions help him develop important employment skills such as self-confidence, decision making, and problem solving with peers. The clubs offer a less risky environment for trying new challenges and learning generic job-related skills.
During club activities, teachers have additional time and opportunities outside the classroom environment to teach, counsel, guide, and mentor your teen. Support and encouragement from the instructor and peer friends are the key components in building his self-confidence. Finally, CTSOs promote career exploration by allowing your teen to visit and shadow in local business and industry. These opportunities allow him to make more realistic and informed decisions about his career.6
Yet another extracurricular club option available to high school students is a job maintenance club that provides ongoing assistance for students who are working but need additional support in order to keep the job.7 If a high school has career and technical classes, there should be a job maintenance club. These clubs can be seminar-type experiences where students meet to problem-solve and discuss issues that arise during their job experiences (e.g., social skills, co-worker attitudes, accommodations, and employer expectations). Participating in such a club provides opportunities for students who require more support in order to meet workplace demands to work collaboratively with the occupational teacher. All career and technical programs, as well as the student organizations, are required by law to be available to students with disabilities or those who are at risk for school failure. The "at-risk" category is used by schools for students with a variety of risk factors, such as low socioeconomic status (SES), single parent status if combined with low SES, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, substance abuse of a significant family member, low-achieving students, students enrolled in the lowest level classes, and some English language learners. In some cases, schools will consider "at risk" students within an ethnic or racial minority group.
The educational and training options described below are mandated by law, meaning that states must offer educational options for persons ages 14 to 21 who are no longer in a school setting, regardless of whether the student graduated or dropped out. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA: Public Law 105-220) requires that state programs, including employment services, unemployment insurance, vocational rehabilitation, adult education, welfare-to-work, and postsecondary vocational education be coordinated under a one-stop system that provides information about all services at one physical site. (Additional information about services and locations of the Career One-Stop Centers, by state, is available on-line. See "Resources.")
Students with learning disabilities qualify for this program because all youth between the ages of 14 and 21 qualify who are experiencing one or more of the following six barriers to successful workforce entry:
Finally, if you have concerns about the potential downsides of your child not attending college preparatory classes in high school, please consider what Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in a recent Wall Street Journal article.9 In explaining what he considered the benefits of a career-technical education, he commented on the difficulty most of us experience in trying to find a good plumber or electrician. He also noted that incomes for journeymen (beginning) crafts persons are routinely in the top half of U.S. incomes - and their incomes increase as their skills increase. In fact, their incomes can top six figures. (See Job Profiles and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Handbook, under "Resources," for more precise information on average incomes.) Also extremely important in today's global economy, a crafts person's job is far less likely to be outsourced, and job security and satisfaction are based on the individual's skill and ambition. Perhaps most important is the potential for job satisfaction. Crafts persons and others with career and technical training can find reward in seeing firsthand how valuable their final product is to their customers or the people who hire them. And they can take pride in competently performing work that they enjoy doing. Certainly, this is a goal that all parents hold for their kids.