What Happened to Vocational Educational?

A friend who is not involved in education recently asked me, "Whatever happened to vocational educational?" He was thinking about when he was a kid in school back in the 1960s and there came a point before high school where he was presented with a choice. That choice was to go on to high school and prepare for college or go to a vocational school and prepare for a job. That choice is not so evident today in America.

Vocational education in the United States varies from state to state, but vocational schools (AKA trade schools) are both seen as an alternative high school experience and as post-secondary schools. In both cases, they teach the skills necessary to help students acquire jobs in specific industries. Both types of schools still exist.

The breadth of offerings has certainly increased since my friend's options almost 60 years ago, but some industries still are options, such as cooking, business courses, drafting, construction, auto repair, and some healthcare careers.

If we are talking about the postsecondary vocational training, much of that training is now provided by proprietary (privately-owned) career schools.

About 30 percent of all credentials in career training is provided by two-year community colleges.

We should also consider military technical training or government-operated adult education centers as part of this area.

I taught at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and quickly discovered that many people unfamiliar with that university interpreted the name (especially the "institute" part) to mean we were a vocational school. (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, doesn't seem to have this issue.)

The biggest difference between vocational schools and traditional colleges is the amount of time students need to complete their education. Most vocational schools offer programs that students can complete in about one or two years. Students attending traditional colleges often take four to five years to complete their education. Traditional colleges also require students to complete a liberal arts education. Students must enroll in a broad range of courses that are not necessarily related to their area of study. Vocational schools require students to enroll only in classes that pertain to their particular trades.

Manhattan trade school for girls

Manhattan trade school for girls, 1916

In the U.S., vocational education really moved forward in the early 1900s with an effort to introduce German-style industrial education. Educators were looking at the apprenticeship and continuation school models in Germany and were determining how they could be applied in an American context.

The industrial education system evolved more rapidly after World War I into what we call vocational education. On the timeline, the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 was meant to reduce reliance on foreign trade schools, improve domestic wage-earning capacity, reduce unemployment, and protect national security.

The George-Barden Act after WWII expanded federal support of vocational education to support vocations beyond the 4 most common subject areas (agriculture, trade, home economics, and industrial subjects).

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was focused on improving education in science, mathematics, foreign languages and other areas with a particular focus on topics related to national defense.

In the next decade, the Vocational Education Act (1963) was designed to give support for work-study programs and research. The Vocational Education Amendments (1968) was a modification that created the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education.

In 1984, the Vocational Education Act was renamed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act and amended six years later created the Tech-Prep Program to coordinate educational activities into a coherent sequence of courses.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, vocation ed and "trade schools" acquired a stigma of being below the quality of college and just slightly better than high school. In fact, many vocational programs were in high schools and had become standalone vocational high schools during that time period. 

This stigma even carried over to the 2-year colleges who were not aided by the use of the term "Junior College" that was once used before community and county colleges became the preferred terms.

Still, the "Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College" persists, as that title from an article in The Atlantic notes. 
"When college is held up as the one true path to success, parents—especially highly educated ones—might worry when their children opt for vocational school instead." 


Vocational education in other countries https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocational_education#By_country   

https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/other/vocational-education-training/

EdTech 1994

Apple IIeIn 1994, I was teaching at a suburban middle school. The first computer I had in my classroom was an Apple IIe (sometimes stylized as ][e) with its 128k floppy disk versions of word processing, database and spreadsheet (bundled as AppleWorks). It worked well and I am still amazed at what it could do without a hard drive and with those floppy disks. I used it to create lesson plans and handouts with my dot-matrix Apple printer, and students in my homeroom loved to play the many MECC games that we received as a subscription, like Oregon Trail and Odell Lake on it.

The Apple ][e wasn't the first computer students had access to in school. Our first computer class and lab was built using the Radio Shack Tandy TRS-80 computers. I didn't have on in my classroom, but I learned to write programs using BASIC and made a vocabulary flashcard game using the vocabulary lists I was having students study in my English classes. It was a very basic BASIC game but students loved it because it was personalized to their school life.

But videogame consoles were also entering their suburban homes and my TRS-80 and Apple floppy disk games soon became crude or quaint to students who had better systems at home. 

The next computers in school and the one in my classroom were IBM or IBM-clones and in the 1994-95 school year. They were running Windows NT 3.5, an operating system developed by Microsoft that was released on September 21, 1994. It was a not-user-friendly operating system and students didn't like it or really use it with me.

Windows 95It wouldn't be until the summer of 1995 and the next academic year that Windows 95 would be released. That much more friendly and consumer-oriented operating system made a significant change in computer use. The biggest change was its graphical user interface (GUI) and its simplified "plug-and-play" features. There were also major changes made to the core components of the operating system, such a 32-bit preemptive multitasking architecture.

The Today Show’s Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel didn't have a clue about the Internet in January 1994. It is amusing to hear them ponder what the heck that @ symbol means Gumbel isn't even sure how you pronounce it and Katie suggests “about.”  No one wants to have to say “dot” when they read “.com”.

They have many questions: Do you write to it like mail but it travels like a phone call? Is it just colleges that have it? Gumbel bemoans that anyone can send him email - somehow forgetting that anyone could send him snail mail too.

It would only be ten years later that Google would make its IPO and it was only another few years before this Internet would go from obscurity to mainstream.

Macintosh 1984You might think that after using the Apple IIe in school we would have "upgraded" to Apple's Macintosh computer which was introduced in 1984 with a memorable Orwellian-themed commercial (see below). The original Macintosh is usually credited as being the first mass-market personal computer that featured a graphical user interface and a built-in screen and using a mouse. More obscure was the Sinclair QL which actually beat the Mac to market by a month but didn't capture a market. Apple sold the Macintosh alongside the Apple II family of computers for almost ten years before they were discontinued in 1993.

Of course, there was other "technology" in classrooms at that time. For example, VHS videotapes were wiping out the 16mm films and projectors and recording video was big. I was teaching a freshman "film and video" course in those days. But it was the personal computer and then the Internet that really changed educational technology in the mid-1990s.

Kindergarten Comes to America

In 1873, the St. Louis, Missouri, school board authorized the first public kindergarten in the United States. We take the idea of kindergarten and pre-school education for granted today, but the concept was not only foreign but radical then.

Friedrich Froebel had developed what he called a “kindergarten” (garden of children) in Germany in which teachers acted as the “gardeners.” Teachers would provide the environment and the resources to nourish the minds of the children and stand back and let them grow.

I consider this an early effort in learning space design. The classrooms were bright and colorful with "stations" around the room for different activities. Some schools also provided easy access to outdoor play areas. The classroom had kid-sized tables and benches - an idea that seems so logical but had not been used earlier. 

Of course, the kindergarten concept included more than just the physical space, but the learning space was considered a far more important part of the learning process than it was in the other grades.

In the U.S., Susan Blow was the driving force behind the kindergarten movement. She visited Germany after the American Civil War and was impressed by Froebel’s kindergartens. The idea that children were learning language, math, and science concepts through play was a radical idea.

When she returned home, she made a study of the kindergarten concept. She wrote that “If we can make children love intellectual effort, we shall prolong habits of study beyond school years.” Her father was able to get the St. Louis school superintendent to open an experimental kindergarten. He agreed and sent Susan Blow to New York to study for a year.

Susan offered to direct the kindergarten for free if the school board would provide her with classroom space and a teacher.  She ended up being the director for eleven years, at her own expense. She retired in 1884 when the St. Louis schools had 9,000 kindergartners. She died in 1916 at which point the success of the kindergarten experiment had led it to be introduced in more than 400 American cities.

kindergarten
   The colorful "chaos" of a kindergarten and preschool classroom - Image via Flickr

Credit Hours and Personalized Learning

classroomCredit hours are something that still wield a lot of power in education. It plays a role in high schools, but it really rules in higher education.

Credit hours were once known as Carnegie Units. It goes back to 1906, but it was not designed as a way of measuring learning. It was meant as a method to calculate faculty workloads in order to formulate pensions.

Earlier, admission to colleges was by examinations which varied greatly among colleges, but the method was unreliable. Charles W. Eliot at Harvard University devised a contact-hour standard for secondary education, and also the original credit-hour collegiate post-secondary standard. This is where we get our 3 credit course based on 3 contact hours per week. But the widespread adoption of the 120-hour secondary standard did not occur until the Carnegie Foundation began to provide retirement pensions (now known as TIAA-CREF) for university professors. A stipulation of the pensions was that the universities needed to enforce the 120-hour secondary standard in their admissions.

It only took four years for nearly all secondary institutions in the United States to use the "Carnegie Unit" as a measure of secondary course work. 

The Carnegie Foundation also established that both high school preparation and college "work" would include a minimum of four years of study. But the Carnegie Foundation did not intend the Units to "measure, inform or improve the quality of teaching or learning."

Unfortunately, the credit hour became the standard way to measure the student's workload and progress through those four years in secondary and higher education. Should these credit units be revised or abandoned?

The Carnegie Foundation said in 2012 that "technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning," and that "it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities."

Personalized learning is sometimes suggested as a way to replace the Carnegie Unit and credit hours because it could be based on competency rather than time

But what personalized learning means seems to vary by practitioner. Even the term used to describe the practice varies. Personalized learning is sometimes called individualized instruction, differentiated instruction, direct instruction or a personal learning environment. Though they are not all the same things, they are all used to describe education that is adjusted to meet the needs of different students.

Edutopia published an article on several "myths" about personalized learning that are worth considering in any discussion of changing the way we measure workload and progress.

Because many efforts in personalized learning in the 21st century involved computers and software that allowed students to work at their own pace, personalized learning is associated with technology-based instruction.

The "personalized" part of learning is often thought to mean that students work independently. In a class of 25 students it is unlikely that there will need to be 25 distinct learning paths. Students will often work on collaborative competencies along with individual competencies focused on content and skills. Student interests shared with others in the classroom will form affinity groups for group projects and learning experiences.

Personalized learning is about learners moving at their own pace which is why students demonstrating mastery of content fits into a competency-based system.

Truly personalized learning also involves learners in setting goals and being involved in the planning and learning process. This may be the most radically different aspect of personalized learning. It is very "student-centered" so learners can select their resources and explore different ways to learn in flexible learning spaces. They may also connect their learning to their interests and passions, and even have a voice in how their learning will be assessed.

What has not changed in most personalized learning settings today are the competencies that must be met.

Personalized learning allows for self-pacing, but when students move through competencies at different speeds "credit hours" are irrelevant. If one student moves through a course set of competencies in half the "normal" time should they receive all or half the credit. Obviously, they should receive all the credit. What if they move through all the competencies in a program (degree) in two years? Do they graduate?

Personalized learning is an approach to learning — not a set program. And it is still being formulated and experimented with at different grade levels. But our learning experiments should be combined with experimentation in how we measure movement through learning.