Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Vocational Education

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 care. And 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" –- 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 first place?


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 four. The 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 by 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.”


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 – whether or not they had any interest in the program – 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.”


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 –- 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 number.

2. Uneven Quality Of Schools

The quality and success of vocational programs vary widely. ABC’s Nightline recently profiled the culinary arts program at Long Island City High School 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 – or pass their math regents.

Three years ago, several groups launched an effort to 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 –- including the addition of a Duane Reade drug store to train students -- discipline remained a problem, with vandals damaging newly renovated science labs. Last year, the Department of Education announced that the school would be phased out entirely.

Clearly the best solution for this is to improve the programs – 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 – 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.”

4. Discrimination

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 female occupations -- 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 academic classes.

The center has worked with the school system to address these problems. The effort, said Jocelyn Samuels of the center, “has resulted in concrete improvement… but does not seem to have transformed the process of enrollment.”


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 – 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 entry-level jobs.

"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 programs.

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 – and even thrive – 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 policy issues.

Inside Schools
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 education.

U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education

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 education.

Articles on Career Education

Hammer Away (5/18/00)
The New Republic: High schools should train carpenters as well as computer technicians.

Is High School Career and Technical Education Obsolete? (November 2004)
Phi Delta Kappan

New York City Offers Firefighting 101 at New High School (1/12/05)
Education Week

Vocational School Aims for Mechanics Who Can Write (2/7/05)
New York Times

Vocational Students Lag in Achievement, Report Says (2/14/04)
Education Week


Who Graduates? Who Doesn't?: A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001 (in pdf format)
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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