Souls or Dollars?

How Wisconsin’s Voc-Ed Program Will Change Our Schools

By David Levine

On July 3, 1991, with not a whisper of controversy, the Wisconsin Legislature approved a new vocational program that, if implemented as planned, will fundamentally alter the curriculum and structure of the state’s high schools.

Boosted by substantial federal grants, the blessings of the governor, and the prestige of corporate supporters, this “Tech-Prep” program puts Wisconsin in the forefront of a nationwide trend to foster vocational education as the key answer to both individual and national economic problems.

Tech-Prep enthusiasts claim it will improve education for non-college bound students, meet critical skilled-labor shortages, and increase educational equity. While these goals are laudable, Tech-Prep is highly unlikely to fulfill such hopes. Instead, it will almost surely bolster — albeit with a more elaborate rationalization — the class and racial tracking which characterizes nearly all schools.

Just as disturbing, Tech-Prep tends to narrow the purpose of education to merely meeting the workforce needs of the economy. Under a Tech-Prep approach, educators are encouraged to reduce school to a sophisticated form of industrial training.

Learning for its own sake, or to prepare students to critically participate in a democratic society, takes a back seat. Yet as African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois noted almost a century ago: “The ideals of education, whether men are taught to teach or to plow, to weave or to write, must not be allowed to sink to a sordid utilitarianism.

Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars.”

Although there has been little debate on the merits of Tech-Prep — and the history of vocational education in this country has been all but synonymous with rigid tracking key educational bureaucracies in Wisconsin are moving to implement the legislation. The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the Wisconsin Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education (WBVTAE) are nourishing Tech-Prep through an elaborate web of committees, pilot programs, state-wide conferences, and curriculum development projects. According to DPI officials, by fall of 1995 these major elements will be in place:

  1. At the end of tenth grade, all Wisconsin students will take a “Gateway Assessment” exam which will include sections on math, science, and communication skills.
  2. Aided by the results of this exam, students and their parents will choose between a traditional college prep track, a new Tech-Prep track, and a new Youth Apprenticeship track. General education tracks will no longer exist.
  3. Students who have elected the Tech-Prep track will encounter a new curriculum of “applied academics” in math, science, and communication skills, and re-furbished vocational courses in a number of career areas. The goal of the Tech-Prep track will be to prepare students to enter specific career programs in technical colleges.
  4. Students who choose the Youth Apprenticeship track will be provided with general and technical education and on-the-job training designed to help them begin mastering a trade.

The Roots of Tech-Prep

A number of states are developing Tech-Prep plans, at least 20 of them with the guidance of the prestigious Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (whose co-chairs include Hillary Clinton and Clinton economic adviser Ira Magaziner). Proponents say that Tech-Prep is designed to redress the historic neglect of students who are not in a college prep track. During the past several years, they claim, this neglect has helped engender an economic crisis. As the economy has demanded increasingly sophisticated skills, many employers claim they have had difficulty finding qualified young people. Tech Prep advocates further argue that, even if our education system were meeting the needs of today’s employers, more sophisticated technical training is essential to prepare a workforce that can compete in the 21st century.

In his book The Neglected Majority, prominent Tech-Prep advocate Dale Parnell explains that our society produces “an increasing number of individuals who are uneducated, unskilled, and unable to cope with…technological changes.” The results of this educational failure, it is maintained, include increased vulnerability of the U.S. economy to foreign competition, inefficient workers bewildered by sophisticated technology, and high school graduates whose poor education keeps them locked out of rewarding careers.

The solution offered by Tech-Prep is better high school training for technical careers. According to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, “80% of all future jobs will require more than high school education but less than a (four year) college degree.” Wisconsin’s Tech-Prep seeks to prepare an increased proportion of high school students for these jobs by replacing the general education track with a Tech-Prep track and a Youth Apprenticeship track which both have highly focused career goals. A Wisconsin DPI publication entitled Technical Preparation notes that only a minority of young people graduate from four-year colleges and states, “Just as preparation for college provides motivation and sense of purpose for some students, other equally viable pathways need to be created for other students who are wandering aimlessly through high school.”

Why Isn’t This a Great Idea?

At first glance, the Tech-Prep approach has some plausibility. Scholars such as Jeannie Oakes, an expert on tracking, offer convincing evidence that students in college prep tracks often reap the rewards of class and race privilege. Students succeeding in college prep programs are gaining a high status ticket which can lead to a comfortable and rewarding future. Students in a “general” track are prone to drift among less desirable options, dazed prisoners of the shopping mall high school. Tech-Prep supporters, meanwhile, contend that a properly implemented Tech-Prep offers “the neglected majority” a program just as rigorous as the best college prep programs. Their arguments are buttressed by the specter of international competition and the inability of traditional academics to engage many students.

Because Tech-Prep is a relatively newphenomenon, it is difficult to evaluate its potential efficacy. We can, however, assess its assumptions. A good place to start is the assertion that poor schooling has helped incubate a critical skills shortage.

On this point the evidence is far from clear. Although some experts and employers cite skilled worker shortages, a number of researchers have challenged the generalization that we are on the brink of an expertise meltdown. For example, an influential report entitled America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! conducted a survey in 1990 in which only 5% of the employers polled cited the scarcity of skilled workers as a problem. Similarly, a 1991 report by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, entitled, The Myth of the Coming Labor Shortage, says: “Far from an explosive growth of job-skill requirements, the effect of occupational upgrading on job skills is actually projected to slow down in the future to one-third to one-fourth of its rate in the recent past.”

In Milwaukee County, which lost 32,000 manufacturing jobs between 1979 and 1987, not only do new jobs tend to be grouped in low-paying occupations, but there is a growing gap between the number of unemployed and available jobs. According to a new report by Milwaukee’s Social Development Commission, there are an estimated 12 potential workers for every available job. Two years ago, there were only nine potential workers for every job.

The new report “confirms what many people looking for work already know — job prospects are bleak,” said Robert Odom, executive director of the commission. “So even if a person wants to work, the jobs are not there.”

Although secondary education needs to be improved, Tech-Prep proponents also err when they blame U.S. economic woes primarily on schools. Some social scientists who favor technical education, such as the University of Wisconsin’s Joel Rogers, insist that educational reform won’t bring prosperity unless the business sector restructures itself to create more high skill, high wage jobs. Other analysts contend that corporate inefficiency, rather than poor schooling, is the source of many corporate problems. Stanford University economics professor Henry Levin, an expert on work-force skill needs, has argued that top corporate executives often use schools as a scapegoat. In a recent Washington Post article he is quoted as saying: “The easiest way to take pressure off themselves for producing a lousy product with too many middle managers, too high executive salaries and too little creativity is to say, ‘How can we do it? We have a lousy work force, this is basically a (rotten) excuse for a lousy management process.”

Tech-Prep also assumes that its “applied academics” or its improved relationships with technical colleges will help students get jobs. But such claims are not backed up by convincing evidence. Throughout its history, vocational education has had an unimpressive track record in linking school to future employment. Oakes cites several studies which indicate that vocational courses of study have had negligible impact on employability. Similarly, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson argue in their article, “Education and the Labor Market: Recycling the Youth Problem,” that the multitude of vocational programs generated in the 1960s and 1970s had “small impact” on youth unemployment. Yet supporters of Tech-Prep have not really explained why their program will be any more successful in terms of helping students get jobs.

Tech-Prep as Reform

Tech-Prep intermingles ideas that hold some promise with proposals which are recipes for inequality. Most teachers would agree that “hands on” learning, career exploration, and a meaningful sequence of technical courses can benefit students.

Unfortunately, Tech-Prep weds these features to a system of three tracks which is likely to result in:

  • the perpetuation within schools of inequality based on class and race;
  • the narrowing of a student’s aspirations and self-concept;
  • the segregation of students in a way which hinders learning.

It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at these likely results.

The perpetuation of inequality based on class and race. Because tracking is an explosive topic, some Tech-Prep champions attempt to avoid trouble by using verbal camouflage. In the DPI document Wisconsin Tech Prep, the three tracks which are scheduled to be in place by 1995 are labeled “student options (pathways or concentrations).” In Oregon, where a pioneering program has students choosing between a college and a vocational track at the beginning of 11th grade, state Department of Vocational Education official Richard Schmidt says, “It [the Oregon Tech-Prep program] isn’t tracking. Students are choosing some very distinct paths. They are working at the business of being what they want to become.” Officials at Wisconsin’s voc-ed governing body, the WBVTAE, claim: “Tech-Prep does not close off options for students the way a rigid tracking system would.”

Another response has been that students will be able to switch tracks between Tech-Prep and college prep. This reassurance will provide cold comfort to any parent who realizes how rarely students presently change from a lower to a higher track.

On occasion, DPI head Herbert Grover and others have handled the tracking question in a more honest fashion. They have admitted that Tech-Prep is tracking, and then have argued that present practices track non-baccalaureate students into dead end programs and Tech-Prep offers them a good track which puts them on the road to a good career.

Although this tack has the virtue of honesty, it does not address the likelihood that Tech-Prep will simply perpetuate the class and racial stratification of high schools, albeit within a new set of curricular shells. Given the history of high stakes testing and tracking, it is highly likely that the “Gateway Assessment” in 10th grade and the counseling which accompanies it will produce college bound tracks which are predominantly white and middle class, and Tech-Prep tracks composed mostly of working class and/or students of color.

But the heart of the problem is not the fairness of the proposed Gateway Assessment. It lies within the whole set of assumptions which allow policy makers to argue that it is a good idea to divide high school students into three separate tracks. These assumptions place Tech-Prep solidly within a historical tradition which, under the guise of meeting the needs of students as individuals, structures schools to perpetuate the class and racial hierarchies of the larger society.

Statements made by some Tech-Prep advocates, in fact, are hauntingly similar to statements made in previous generations to justify why some students are encouraged to choose voc-ed programs.

In 1908, for example, the superintendent of Boston’s public schools said: “Until recently [the schools] have offered equal opportunity for all to receive one kind (italics in original) of education, but what will make them democratic is to provide opportunity for all to receive education as will fit them equally well (italics in original) for their particular life work.”

Parnell, a contemporary supporter of Tech-Prep, argues: “One of the pressing dilemmas for educators is how to meet the great range of individual differences among students while seeking the best in all people, whether rich or poor, able or disabled, destined [my italics] for the university, community college, apprenticeship, military, or a specific job, including homemaking.”

Though separated by 84 years, these two statements express a common conviction that students start high school already predestined for a specific role in life.

This theme of predestination is evident when the Center for Occupational Research and Design (CORD), producer of the most widely disseminated “applied academics” textbooks, defines the “target population” for applied academics as students “in the middle two quartiles of the average high school population” Given the enthusiasm manifested by educational policy makers in Wisconsin for the CORD approach, it is easy to imagine a re-configuration of state high schools which deposits the top 25% of students in traditional college prep, the middle 50% in Tech-Prep, and the bottom 25% in Youth Apprenticeship programs.

The narrowing of a student’s aspirations and self-concepts. A carefully designed sequence of technical electives or a challenging work experience can be helpful components of a student’s junior and senior years. If the Tech-Prep planning process produces new variants of these kinds of experiences, they deserve to be judged on their own merits. However, the Tech-Prep plan will do more than update vocational and academic curricula. Under the new approach, students and parents (presumably with the help of a guidance counselor) will evaluate the student’s performance on the 10th grade Gateway Assessment and then choose the college prep, Tech-Prep, or Youth Apprenticeship track. It is possible that students from different tracks will have some courses in common. It is more likely, however that the distinct curricular features of each track, their strong definition as distinct entities, and scheduling patterns will mean that, for the most part, students in each of the three tracks will be academically segregated from students in the other tracks.

This likely segregation is especially disturbing given Tech-Prep’s great emphasis on focusing students on specific careers. For example, a 16-year-old in the Tech-Prep track will find himself scheduled into classes with students who are all focused on two-year technical colleges, with few opportunities to rub shoulders (or compare career aspirations) with college-bound students. He will be immersed in a school culture which emphasizes that his learning style and vocational destiny are different from those of college bound students. In his English classes he is likely to receive strong doses of “applied communications” — which emphasize functional, job-related oral and written skills and neglect literature and writing units which remain in the college prep English curriculum. The cumulative effect of these experiences is likely to be a premature narrowing of this student’s self-concept and aspirations.

Just as disturbingly, there is strong evidence that the Gateway Assessment process could actually extend tracking downward to earlier grades. Dan Hull, president of CORD and a key figure in the Tech-Prep movement, argues that to be really effective, Tech-Prep programs should schedule students into applied math and science courses in ninth grade. This means that students and their parents would have to make a commitment to Tech-Prep at the end of 8th grade. Given the enthusiasm displayed by DPI officials for Dan Hull and the CORD applied textbooks, we may see educational officials arguing that a serious implementation of the Tech-Prep model necessitates tracking students at the start of 9th grade.

The segregation of students in a way which hinders learning. Along with the idea that high school students can be rather neatly divided up into a three-tiered hierarchy based on “ability” and probable destiny is the related premise that there are big differences in learning styles and educational needs between college prep students and other students. This premise manifests itself in a number of ways: references to the notion that most people are concrete learners, the clear distinction made between the “applied” academics appropriate for Tech-Prep students and the more abstract approach of traditional college prep, and the conviction that formulaic systems of teaching such as “mastery learning” and “competency-based education” are suited for students who are not bound for college.

There is no convincing body of research which justifies dividing students in this manner and offering them significantly different kinds of instruction. In reality, the instructional needs of “college prep” and “Prep Tech” students are likely to be rather similar. Middle-class and working-class students from all ethnic or racial groups benefit from “applied” instruction, if it means connecting concepts to practical examples and real world applications.

Similarly, all students need “abstraction,” defined as teaching which challenges them to exercise a wide range of analytical abilities.

Ironically, one convincing place to look for arguments against separate tracks is within the Tech-Prep literature. There we find frequent assurances that Tech-Prep is every bit as rigorous as college prep; it’s just more oriented toward “hands on” experiences and the needs of “concrete learners.” If this is the case, there is no reason to deprive college bound students of the advantages of hands on learning, or TechPrep students of the challenge of connecting concrete learning to more abstract theorizing. And, as a growing body of literature indicates, students with different strengths have plenty to learn from each other. This intermingling of students should be viewed as an advantage, not a deficit.

Given the central role that Tech-Prep planners give to homogeneous grouping, they are notably silent concerning research on tracking. Their silence is especially striking in light of Oakes summary of 60 years of studies in this area. In her 1985 book, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, she writes, “The results differ in certain specifics, but one conclusion emerges clearly: no group of students has been found to benefit consistently from being in a homogeneous group (italics in original) … We can be fairly confident that bright students are not held back when they are in mixed classrooms. And we can be quite certain that the deficiencies of slower students are not more easily remediated when they are grouped together. And, given the evidence, we are unable to support the general belief that students learn best when they are grouped together with others like themselves.”

Defenders of Tech-Prep argue that their programs are rigorous, meet four-year as well as two-year college entrance requirements, and allow students to transfer into a traditional college prep track. These assurances ring hollow, given the historic failure of homogeneous grouping to promote equity, the infrequency of students transferring to college bound tracks, and the class and racial bias likely to emerge within a three-tiered system of tracking based on the high stakes “Gateway Assessment” test.

Tech-Prep is more likely to emerge as a new system of sorting which justifies the class and racial stratification endemic to most high schools.

Souls or Dollars?

Tech-Prep advocates correctly identify two serious problems within high schools: lack of direction for general track students, and the abstract quality of many academic classes. They advocate solving these problems through improved career exploration, hands on learning, and technology-oriented education, all potentially constructive curricular initiatives. They also justifiably assert that skilled trades and technical colleges should be presented to students as destinations just as valid as four-year colleges. Unfortunately, these worthwhile perspectives are tightly tied to a new form of tracking which will perpetuate inequality. As documented by several educators and researchers, there is a rich and growing body of high school practices which both engage students in deep learning and, simultaneously, strike blows against tracking. Exploring these alternatives will better serve students than Tech-Prep.

Effective marketing by state officials has earned Tech-Prep a groundswell of support. Educators and policymakers need to ask, however, if the Tech-Prep bandwagon has had a healthy effect on public discussion about education. I would argue that it has not.

Few voices have challenged Tech-Prep’s disturbingly unabashed commitment to class and racial tracking. And if W.E.B. DuBois were alive to witness the Tech-Prep campaign, he would hear plenty of concern about Dollars, but not much about Souls.

Tech-Prep is an eloquent tribute to the “sordid utilitarianism” that he warned us of. It posits the prime function of schools as vocational training to meet needs which are specified by businessmen and the demands of the economy. There will be little room in such schools for teaching children how to run a democracy, or love learning, or ask critical questions about the power relationships they will encounter in the Tech-Prep jobs which may or may not be out there.

Before uncritically accepting Tech-Prep, we should ask ourselves: are these the kind of schools we want for our children?

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David Levine is an editor of Rethinking Schools  and a graduate student in educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.