Ernest Houle grew up in Leominster, a working-class city in central Massachusetts. His two older brothers had gone to the local vocational high school, so he did too. He thought he would do better there than at the traditional academic high school.
“I’m not one to be stationary,” says. “I like to be up and moving.”
Houle studied welding, just like his brothers. He got a job as a welder during his junior year of high school and, after graduating in 1988, stayed on with the same company. For the next eight years, Houle worked on “nuclear submarine engine casings, stuff for satellites, x-ray machines.” He says he made a good living.
But welding is tough work. It’s “not kind to your knees and your back,” says Houle. He started to think about the fact that his body would give out someday. Then what would he do?
He’d always been interested in teaching welding, partly because of the close relationship he had with his welding teacher from high school. But to do that, Houle needed a teaching license. That meant going to college. And that’s when he realized that, when it came to academics, he hadn’t learned nearly enough in high school.
“The highest-level math I ever had in high school was Algebra 1,” he says. “And that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule.”
Academics weren’t a priority at his vocational high school. The goal was to “get people to work,” says Houle.
College was a struggle, says Houle.
The origins of vocational ed
Vocational education wasn’t designed to prepare students for college. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools, explicitly described vocational ed as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree.
“The early vocational education was driven by a philosophy of fitting people to their probable destinies,” says Jim Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. “Kids from poor families were tracked off into becoming the worker bees. Others were tracked off to go to universities and be the intelligentsia. We would today call that tracking.”
The interest in vocational education in the early 20th century was prompted in part by big economic and social changes. Factory owners were facing a shortage of skilled labor in a rapidly industrializing society. And public schools were seeing an influx of immigrants and farm kids.
Many of those kids would have learned farming or skilled trades from their parents in an earlier era. But with the rise of factories, it was no longer safe for kids to learn to work alongside their parents. So they went to high school instead.
“And secondary schools didn’t know what to do with them,” says Jeannie Oakes, author of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.
High schools “were used to dealing with this very small group of mostly quite privileged children of educated families and they gave them this nice liberal arts education in preparation for the university,” she says. “Well that didn’t seem to be fitting at all for these kids who’d come in from the farms, or these new immigrants. So the idea was, let’s put vocational training into public education and we can solve all of these problems.”
Vocational education had its critics from the start, chief among them John Dewey, the educational philosopher and social progressive.
“Dewey opposed [vocational ed] because he thought it was building a class distinction right into the design” of public education, says David Stern, whose research focuses on the relationship between education and work. “And I think history proved him right.”
From the beginning, vocational education was designed to teach kids the specific skills for one job or career. To be a welder or a cosmetologist, for example, “with the idea that, once you become a welder, you’ll always be a welder. Or once you become a cosmetologist, you’ll always be a cosmetologist,” says Stone. The idea was, get kids really skilled at one thing, “and life will be good,” he says.
The idea that people could be trained in one area and rely on an industry to employ them for life was a reasonable one for much of the 20th century. There were lots of jobs — good union jobs — for people with just a high school education. Back in the early 1970s, only 26 percent of middle-class workers had any kind of education beyond high school.
Still, civil rights activists and advocates for low-income kids were disturbed by who was being steered into vocational education. Studies in the 1960s and 70s showed that students in vocational programs were much more likely to be from lower-income families with lower levels of education. In her book Keeping Track, Jeannie Oakes writes, “[M]any educational scholars agree that an underlying function of vocational education has been to segregate poor and minority students into occupational training programs in order to preserve the academic curriculum for middle- and upper-class students.”
It’s not clear that vocational ed was preparing students well for work either. Two studies from the 1960s showed that graduates of some vocational programs were no more likely to be employed than high school dropouts. Other research found that few graduates of high school vocational programs had an advantage over graduates of academic programs in terms of income or employment.
And, by the 1970s, the good jobs that required just a high school education were beginning to disappear. Technology and globalization were increasing the skill levels required for most occupations, and making the labor market more volatile. Entire sectors of the economy were being wiped out, and new kinds of jobs were being created.
To be successful in this kind of economy, experts say workers have to be multi-skilled and able to retrain for new jobs throughout their careers. Everyone needs a good academic foundation in order to do that, experts say, and most kids in vocational programs were not getting that foundation.
Improving vocational ed
By the late 1990s, vocational education had a major image problem. Vocational programs had become a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t succeeding in the traditional academic environment. That included a lot of students with behavior problems, and a lot of students with learning disabilities. In many school districts, vocational education wasn’t much more than a “second-tier special ed program,” says Jim Stone.
At the same time, the standards and accountability movement was taking hold in public education. States had begun to write academic standards, or goals, for what students should learn. In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. That law required states, in exchange for federal education funding, to test their students every year and to insure that all students would eventually be proficient in math and reading.
All students meant the kids in vocational programs too. And once states starting testing their students, it became clear that many students in vocational programs were at the bottom in terms of math and reading skills. Under No Child Left Behind, those programs could eventually be shut down for poor performance. If they were going to survive, vocational schools had to up their game in terms of academics.
“The early 2000s was a time of significant change in voc ed,” says Dave Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.
“What we wanted to do was create a student who was able to go out” and get a job, he says, but also able to “get accepted into a four-year college or university.” The idea was to make sure all students were both “career and college ready.”
Massachusetts stands out as a state that devoted significant time and resources to overhauling its vocational education programs, according to experts.
“It was a slow process,” says Ferreira.
The key was to convince vocational teachers to put aside “the old philosophy of saying, ‘It’s all about the trades. I don’t teach academics,'” says Ferreira, and to help them learn how they could integrate academic instruction into career training. For example, show teachers how to teach writing skills when students were writing up materials lists and job estimates.
And it wasn’t all about integrating academics into career classes, says Ferreira. It was also about adding academic classes to the vocational curriculum.
Massachusetts has largely succeeded in bringing the academic quality at its vocational high schools up to par with its traditional high schools. In 2013, students at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts did as well on the state English tests (92 percent proficient) as students at traditional high schools (93 percent proficient). On the math tests, they did nearly as well: 78 percent of students at regional vocational high schools were proficient in math compared to 82 percent at traditional high schools.
And when it comes to graduation rates, vocational high schools in Massachusetts do better than traditional schools. In 2013, the graduation rate at regional vocational high schools was 95 percent. At traditional high schools, the graduation rate was 86 percent.
Career and college readiness
Ernest Houle, the former welder, is now the principal of Minuteman Regional High School, a vocational school in Lexington, Massachusetts. Houle started as a teacher’s aide in the metal fabrication and welding shop. It was 1996, and he says things were already different from when he went to vocational school a decade earlier.
“The students [at Minuteman] had advanced math classes, they had the opportunity to enroll in [foreign] language classes,” he says.
And they could study more than just the traditional industrial trades. There was a bio-technology program and an engineering program.
“It was kind of like a Cadillac” version of vocational ed, says Houle, compared to what he’d had in high school. (Read more about Minuteman High School.)
Houle worked his way up to school principal, earning a Bachelor of Science in occupational and vocational education and a Master of Science in educational leadership along the way. To get his college degree, Houle had to pass a college calculus class, a tall order having had only Algebra 1 in high school.
“It was a lot of hard work and staying after class, working with the professor,” says Houle. But he did it.
“I am probably the poster child for the importance of career and college readiness,” he says with a chuckle. Kids who graduate from vocational schools shouldn’t have to go through what he did in college, he says. They should be ready for whatever comes after high school.“We don’t push students to go the college route,” he says. But the goal is to make sure that anyone who wants to go to college is prepared to succeed there.
The most recent data show that 60 percent of Minuteman’s 2013 graduates went on to college after high school, either for a two-year or four-year degree. That’s slightly lower than the national average of 66 percent for all high school graduates in 2013.
“Students get the same kind of college prep here that they’d get at any high school,” says Houle. “And they get career skills too.” That’s a bonus they don’t get at most traditional schools.
Federal data show that a lot has changed across the country in terms of who takes vocational classes in high school and what kind of academic preparation they get.
In 1990, only 10 percent of students who took four or more occupational course credits in high school also completed the courses they needed to be prepared for a four-year college. The most recent data show 37 percent of those students also took a four-year college prep curriculum; 60 percent completed courses that would prepare them for a community college. And when it comes to race and ethnicity, data show black and Hispanic students are no more likely than white students to concentrate in occupational coursework while in high school.
But nationwide, students who go to vocational high schools are more likely to come from poor families than students who go to traditional high schools. Some advocates for low-income students say this is a problem. They worry that vocational education is still being used to segregate low-income kids and put them on a track that’s less likely to result in a college education.
Getting a bachelor’s degree does, on average, result in higher earnings over a lifetime than anything less, such as an associate’s degree or a license or certificate. However, some associate’s degrees and certificates result in higher earnings than the average earnings of a college graduate.
Ed Bouquillon, superintendent of the Massachusetts school district where Minuteman High School is located, says Minuteman does tend to attract kids from poor and working class families. But he doesn’t see that as a problem.
“I’ve seen what [vocational education] can do for kids and families,” he says. “It can take them out of poverty, it can move them to a place where they never envisioned themselves being.”
He says too many kids are graduating from traditional high schools only prepared for college. But kids who graduate from Minuteman have both job skills and college preparation.
“Kids who go to vocational schools have more options,” says Bouquillon.