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More aid for vocational education can help reduce U.S. dropout rate

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education

Walt Gardner

taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education

With a reputation as a dumping ground for underperforming students, vocational education for too long lacked the sex appeal that the media love. But things are finally beginning to change as the demands of the new global economy cause a rethinking of the curriculum.

Policymakers are willing to consider the possibility of a connection between the persistent graduation rate of 64 percent to 71 percent across the country and the concurrent marginalization of vocational education. Their belated acknowledgment has led to new interest in the benefits of what is now called "career and technical education."

California, home to 1 in 9 students in the United States, serves as a case in point. Students in the state's public schools are dropping out at the rate of about 150,000 a year, with fewer than 70 percent of ninth graders staying in school long enough to graduate. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, more than 35,000 students vanished from the class of 2005 between the first day of ninth grade and the last day of 12th grade. In Philadelphia, 4 out of 10 drop out. Other large urban districts report similar disheartening numbers.

What is little appreciated about the attrition rate is the counterproductive role that an academic curriculum plays. By requiring all students to take courses designed specifically for the college-bound, we unwittingly exacerbate matters because not all students have the desire or ability to pursue a four-year degree. And when students see no direct connection between their studies and their future, they act out or drop out. In either case, they become statistics that document the failure of schools to design realistic graduation requirements.

Recognizing that the dropout rate poses a clear and present danger to the country, Congress reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act in July 2006. The law takes a step in the right direction by providing about $1.3 billion annually in federal funds to states and local school districts for work-related classes, programs, equipment and training.

To determine if the funds are being used properly, the Government Accountability Office studied their implementation in six states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Although the GAO concluded that federal monies by and large are being appropriately apportioned, it identified a number of problems. In Pennsylvania, for example, economically depressed areas received less Perkins program improvement funding per vocational education student than did other local areas in the state. That's because relatively affluent areas are sometimes designated "economically depressed" in order to get greater per-student funding than truly depressed areas. In addition, students occasionally are identified as disadvantaged when, in fact, they are only academically disadvantaged, rather than poor.

What troubles supporters of career and technical education even more, however, is the Bush administration's proposal to severely cut overall Perkins funding in the 2008 budget. The basic state grant program would include only $600 million, approximately half of its current amount. The exact amounts available to each state have not yet been determined, but Pennsylvania could lose as much as $25.98 million, and New Jersey, $14.96 million, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education.

But what's also needed is a shift in our attitude to grant career and technical education the same recognition, respect and value that we reflexively accord academic education. Other industrialized countries that are our competitors have highly developed systems in place. They have long understood that students possess a wide range of abilities and interests that are not all geared to an academic curriculum.

This is more than a matter of equity. According to Alan S. Blinder, former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the only jobs that will be safe in this country in the next two decades will be those that can't be delivered abroad electronically through a tube. As a result, auto mechanics, plumbers and electricians, for example, will be earning a comfortable living and deriving deep satisfaction from their work, while many graduates from marquee-name colleges will find themselves unemployed when their jobs are offshored.

A renaissance of career and technical education doesn't mean a step back to antiquated shop classes, but a step forward to technology labs. It can take the form of schools within schools or self-standing career academies. For students who don't excel at traditional book learning, these new classes provide the opportunity to acquire marketable skills and at the same time build self-confidence.

Educators have long known that talent comes in many forms and that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. If we heed these axioms, dropout rates will do a U-turn.