A few years ago, Marco Martinez was attending
William E. Grady High School in Brooklyn, running
track, working as a waiter -- and wondering what to do
next. He stopped wondering when he decided to spend a fifth year in high school, enrolling in a one-year program at Lafayette High School to train dental assistants, where he learned to take
x-rays, question patients about their
medical histories, make dental models.
Now, wearing navy blue scrubs covered by a yellow smock to ward off infection, he works as a dental assistant at Kings County
Hospital. "I enjoy knowing what procedures need to be
done and explaining them to the patients," he says.Martinez has found his vocation.
The Lafayette program does not meet the traditional
model of vocational education. Classes are held in a
hospital, not a high school. Students help provide
the program is selective; of 40 students who apply,
only about 10 are admitted.
But vocational education in general -- which received renewed attention last month thanks to a new initiative announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- is trying to move on from its past. Educators no longer want it viewed, as one puts it, as "shop
class for boys with cigarettes rolled up in their
sleeves" â€“- a lesser diploma aimed at failing students.
It is not even called vocational education anymore;
now the official term is career and technical
education, or CTE for short. The curriculum focuses on newer careers, such as computers and “information technology.” Students
must get hands-on experience and pass certification
exams devised at least partly by the industries that will employ them.
Today’s career education faces a challenge that
never confronted the old-fashioned vocational
education programs of the 1950s and 1960s. At the same
time that they help students learn a career, the schools
must give students the academic background they need
to pass the five Regents exams now required for graduation
in New York State.
How is there enough time in the day
for both? And how can schools set strict academic
standards and still serve the very students most
likely to be attracted to vocational programs in the
OUT OF SCHOOL, OUT OF WORK
The interest in career education springs from a
reality sometimes ignored in the drive for higher
standards: Academic high schools do not meet the needs
of thousands of students who leave the school system
unprepared for either work or higher education.
The numbers tell the story. Of the students who
entered New York City public high schools in 1999,
only 53.4 graduated four years later, and about
one-fifth had dropped out, according to a Department
of Education study
(in pdf format). The remainder stayed in school hoping
to graduate in five or six years instead of the usual
graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics (in pdf format) were even
lower, with less than a third graduating on time.
This leaves many young people with literally
nothing to do. About one in six of all New Yorkers
aged 16 through 24 do not attend school and do not
work, according to a recent report
the Community Service Society.
Among the young people who are not in school, more
than half the blacks and 40 percent of the Hispanics
do not have jobs either.
Faced with such figures, many experts have looked to
career education. The idea is to give students “an
option after high school,” said Jean Claude Brizard, a former chemist and former principal of George Westinghouse, a career and technical high school, who is now in charge of city high schools. While many students
continue their educations, Brizard said, “if they are in an approved
CTE program many of them will come out of high school
prepared to get a job if that’s what they want to do.”
THE RISE AND FALL OF VOCATIONAL EDUCATION
Vocational education in New York City had its roots in
the early 20th century as the city struggled to
educate students with widely varying abilities,
many of whom did not speak English. With almost half of
all students leaving school by age 14, some educators
called for more job training in the schools.
Eventually, New York would be a pioneer in developing
high schools organized around specific trades, such as
aviation, auto mechanics and printing.
Students taking vocational courses would get a
vocational or commercial diploma, without the Regents
test requirement of the academic diploma.
But by the 1980s, the vocational schools had lost much
of their appeal and prestige, saddled with outmoded
equipment and teachers who lacked proper training. The
education in these schools “was not great,” Brizard
said. “If you have a student sitting in class for
three periods a day, five days a week for two or three
years and coming out not being prepared for a skill or
jobs and not having good academic preparation, you’re
doing a disservice to this particular student. So
[vocational schools] became unpopular places.”
The school system began filling seats at the schools
with any available students â€“ whether or not they had
any interest in the program â€“ and the prestige of
vocational education declined even further.
But even during this dismal era, said Frank Carucci,
the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for
vocational and technical high schools, these schools
“served as a safety net for kids who couldn’t cut it
academically or who couldn’t go to college.”
CAREER EDUCATION TODAY
Today, more than 130,000 public school students are
enrolled in some kind of vocational program. The city
has 18 career and technical education high schools
that offer a Regents diploma and certification
approved by such industries as computer
technology, health care, auto mechanics and
cosmetology. These programs must provide specially
trained teachers, up-to-date equipment, and
opportunities for hand-on professional experience.
More than 120 other schools provide career programs.
Those approved by the state Department of Education
award students some kind of certification upon
graduation if the students successfully pass a career-oriented exam.
The city also offers one-year CTE programs for
fifth-year students, like the Lafayette dental
assistant program. These classes are open to
students under 21 who have completed their course
work or earned a graduate equivalency degree (GED) --
but not a Regents diploma.
These vocationally-oriented schools should not be confused with the theme-based small schools that the city has launched in the past few years, schools with themes that range from law to sports management to firefighting. The difference is that those small schools aim to pique students' interest in school, and perhaps whet their appetite for further course work in the area; most of them do not offer specific career training and certification.
But even many students in the certified career
education programs do not seek jobs in the field after graduation.
According to Brizard, about two thirds of career
education graduates go on for further education, some
in their original fields, some in other areas.
Educators see this as a positive development. Students coming out of vocational programs can get
jobs with decent salaries, but those who go on after high school for two or more years of technical training in the same field can get jobs with salaries as high as $60,000 a year.
Even if a student goes into another field entirely, says
Carucci, their vocational work still had value. “If
kids are doing something they’re interested in, then
attendance is going to get better, their attitude is
going to get better, their academic outcomes are going
to get better."
1. Dual Requirements
When New York State announced the five-Regents exams
requirement for all students, some predicted
that would spell the end of vocational education. Indeed, some students, fearing they will not be able to meet both sets of requirements, have passed up the vocational program or left school entirely. And some of the vocational schools have become more reluctant to accept students with poor reading and math scores (students they once would readily have accepted) because they worry that those students will be unable to pass the regents.
It is true that those students who can pass both vocational and academic requirements do better than either purely academic or purely vocational students, according to Jim Stone, director of
the National Resource Center for Career and Technical
Education at the University of Minnesota.
For the less capable students, some advocates
have suggested that students learn
their basic academic skills through their vocational coursework.
After all, said Carucci, figuring the pitch of a roof
involves the same skills as figuring the slope of a
line on a graph.
So far, it is hard to know how the students are coping
with the additional pressures. The Department of
Education has released statistics saying that 95
percent of students in New York City career and
technical programs passed their Regents exams in
2002-03. The high rate â€“- only 59 percent of members of
the class of 2004 overall in the city passed their
math Regents -- prompted Eva Moskowitz, chair of the
City Council education committee, to question the
2. Uneven Quality Of Schools
The quality and success of
vocational programs vary widely. ABC’s Nightline recently
the culinary arts program
at Long Island City High
where students learn to concoct such dishes as milk
chocolate ganache. The program attracts almost 20
times as many students as it can accommodate and its
graduates include Amar Santana, who at 22, became the
youngest sous chef ever at highly regarded Aureole.
But other programs falter. At Automotive High School
in Brooklyn, for example, slightly less than half the
students graduate on time â€“ or pass their math
Three years ago, several groups launched an effort
reform Harry Van Arsdale High School in Brooklyn,
which offered several career programs. The school
began providing more support services to students, was
divided into “small learning communities,” and began
offering training in new fields, such as information
technology. But, according to Inside Schools,
despite some advances â€“- including the addition of a
Duane Reade drug store to train students --
remained a problem, with vandals damaging newly
renovated science labs. Last year, the Department of
Education announced that the school would be phased
Clearly the best solution for this is to improve the
programs â€“ a move Brizard believes is well underway.
Today’s certified career classes, he said, are "rigorous
programs approved by the state."
3. No More Plumbers?
For today’s high school students, computer related
fields are hot â€“ about 22,660 students are enrolled in
CTE computer courses, while less than 70
are preparing to be plumbers.
“A lot of the old trade skills are viewed as old
fashioned and obsolete,” says Carucci. “But they’re
things we all need to survive and we need to do to
keep the city going.”
Vocational programs fall prey to many problems of
the work world -- including, some advocates charge,
discrimination. In 2001, the National Women’s’ Law
Center found that girls attended programs in traditionally
-- cosmetology, health care work,
office assistant -- while boys tended to go to
programs teaching traditionally male, and better
paid occupations, such as mechanic and computer
repair. They also said that vocational schools with a
higher concentration of boys offered more rigorous
The center has worked with the school system to
address these problems. The effort, said Jocelyn
Samuels of the center, “has resulted in concrete improvementâ€¦ but
does not seem to have transformed the process of
IMPROVING CAREER EDUCATION
Policy makers in the city and state have presented a
variety of proposals to improve career education.
In the city, the main initiative came in Mayor
Michael Bloomberg’s recent State of the City speech when he announced a new $14 million “Learning to Work”
program aimed at young people who have already dropped out of school, or are about to. It will help them get a high school
equivalency diploma or a standard diploma while
learning a trade. While some praised the idea, others
see it as a return to the old days of vocational ed â€“
when job-training programs provided a second-class
diploma to failing students.
New York State, meanwhile, is reportedly working on a
so-called work readiness credential, a voluntary test that students could take to indicate
to potential employers that they have the skills for
"This is something that business has wanted for a long
time," one member of the state Board of Regents, Harry
Phillips, told the New York Times. But others question
why yet another test is needed. "If the diploma now
provided after a student takes five Regents exams . .
. is not enough for a student to be ready for the
rigors of life, then one has to question the worth of
that assessment," Steven Sanders, chair of the
Assembly Education Committee, has said.
On the national level, the Bush administration has
proposed that career training high schools become more
academically rigorous and work more closely with both
employers and colleges, However, in his budget
released earlier this month, the president eliminated
funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical
Education Act that had provided $1.3 billion a year in
funding for high school career and technical education
Instead, much of the money would go to No Child Left
Behind, the national program that requires more
academic standards. And so the dispute over funding
for the Perkins Act symbolizes the key issue in
vocational education in 2005. Can career training
survive â€“ and even thrive â€“ in an increasingly
complicated and academically demanding world?
For More Information
Career and Technical Education Organizations
New York City Department of Education
Association for Career and Technical Education
The largest national education association dedicated
to the advancement of career-training education. The
site includes legislative updates and information on
For profiles of individual schools
National Association of State Directors of Career
Technical Education Consortium
The professional society of the state and territory
agency heads responsible for career technical
U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and
United Federation of Teachers
The web site for the New York City teachers' union includes information on vocational and career and technical education.
Vocational Information Center
Links to articles about and groups working on career
Articles on Career Education
Hammer Away (5/18/00)
The New Republic: High schools should train carpenters as well as
Is High School Career and Technical Education
Obsolete? (November 2004)
Phi Delta Kappan
New York City Offers Firefighting 101 at New High
Vocational School Aims for Mechanics Who Can Write
New York Times
Vocational Students Lag in Achievement, Report Says
Who Graduates? Who Doesn't?: A Statistical Portrait of
Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001 (in pdf
The Urban Institute
The Class of 2003 Four-Year Longitudinal Report and
2002-2003 Event Dropout Rates
New York City Department of Education (in pdf format)
Out of School, Out of Work... Out of Luck? New York City's Disconnected Youth
Community Service Society (in pdf format)
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