George Lucas Educational Foundation

Vocational Programs: Labor Relations

School-to-career education prepares students for collars of all colors.
By Denise Kersten Wills
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PREDICTION: Vocational-education academies will energize the American workforce.

"I love career tech, love it," Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in his 2007 State of the State address. The California governor, who proposed allocating $52 million of the state's 2007-08 budget to expand career and technical course offerings, may be among the more ardent supporters of hands-on, job-themed learning, but he is far from alone in his enthusiasm.

Compared to the vocational programs of years past, which largely focused on equipping low-performing students with blue-collar skills, today's career and technical education aims at a larger goal. By combining traditional academics with career preparation, many such programs have managed to accommodate both college-bound achievers and would-be dropouts.

In the year ahead, career academies in particular will be seen as key to energizing the American workforce. These small learning communities, which filter academic and technical coursework through the lens of a career theme and operate in partnership with local employers, now number about 2,500 nationwide and are spreading rapidly.

Proponents say academies help students see the relevance of academic work, focus thinking about their careers, and develop broadly applicable skills such as teamwork and imaginative problem solving. "Those skills come to life in career academies in ways that are more difficult in traditional academic settings," says J.D. Hoye, president of the National Academy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports a network of academies.

Research suggests there's an even more tangible benefit. A 2004 study coauthored by James J. Kemple, director of K-12 policy for MDRC, a research organization, found that young men who attended career academies earned 18 percent more than their counterparts four years after high school graduation. (The study found no impact on young women's earnings, possibly because they were more likely to attend postsecondary programs or care for children.) Kemple and collaborator Judith Scott-Clayton also found that attending a career academy boosted the employment rate of students who were at risk of dropping out and did not discourage other students from going on to college.

"It's a new day for career and tech education," Hoye says. "If we're moving toward 100 percent high school graduation, the question is, 'Graduation to what?' If college is not the natural next step, one would hope that you're preparing them for something."

Denise Kersten Wills is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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Mike Kolstad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These are essential. Although it is very nice to have lots of students move into college and professional professions, the fact is that most people "work" for a living.

Most of my students are ones who fix your air conditioning on the 100 degree day, and pull your car from the snow bank at 2 below.

I believe that we need more than "low functioning" students in the vocational areas.

Denise Harman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach Advertising Design in a Dallas suburban school district at a Career Center that pulls students from five large high school campuses. I am proud to say that approximately 90 percent of the kids I teach end up going to college, and they major in some field related to what I teach. That is because our center offers those design students a place to go and to find other kindred spirits. That really seems to light a fire under them, academically speaking. Their enthusiasm for education in general is increased by the increased motivation to stay in attendance at the Career Center. I can definitely see the importance of these programs and have been around enough to see the many successes.

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