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The role of technical education.

At last year's Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, one of the governors observed that it was likely that somewhere in this great country someone had already found the answer to virtually every challenge we face in education.

I tend to agree with that observation, especially after seeing so many creative, innovative, and effective programs, such as those that won the Secretary's Award in 1990. In recognizing these programs, therefore, we are not only rewarding outstanding educational performances, we are also saying to other States and school districts: "Look here, this is an effective program. You should follow their example."

I would like to talk a little about the role of vocational-technical education in achieving our national education goals, describe some recent developments in the field, and discuss the likely impact of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act.

Developing a work force for the future is a key objective of the current education reform movement in the United States. It is also one of the educational outcomes that our national education goals are designed to achieve by the year 2000.

As you may recall, the national goals call on us to --

* ensure that all children start school ready to learn,

* increase the high school completion rate to at least 90 percent,

* improve the achievement of all Americans in basic subjects,

* make American students first in the world in math and science,

* ensure that all adults are literate and have access to lifelong learning opportunities,

* and make all schools safe, disciplined, and drug-free.

While much of the current debate over improving education focuses on strengthening academic programs, there is a growing appreciation for the role of vocational-technical education in meeting America's need for "an educated workforce, second to none."

In other words, the growing population and expanding labor force that have been the engine of America's economic development for so many decades are slowing dramatically. Future economic growht will depend largely on increasing productivity by improving the skills of the American worker.

In addition, the jobs filled by these workers are likely to be very different from the jobs available today. Technology will continue to transform the workplace, eliminating the least skilled jobs and demanding ever higher levels of communications, mathematical, and analytical skills. In fact, more than half of the new jobs created between now and the end of the century will require education beyond high school.

Education beyond high school, however, doesn't necessarily mean a 4-year college degree. As a result, too many of our students who do not plan to attend college graduate from high school not only without marketable job skills but also without a solid grounding in basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills.

This failure to provide an effective education to what has been called "the forgotten half"--Americans who do not attend college--has led to what we can only call a crisis in adult literacy. A staggering number of adult Americans are functionally illiterate, or lack the basic skills needed for economic self-sufficiency.

Our system of education--with Federal support--must ensure that noncollege-bound students are given the opportunity to acquire the skills they need, as the national goals statement put it, for "responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy."

Furthermore, the rapid pace of technological change and economic restructuring means that we must provide lifelong learning opportunities for adults to retrain for new job opportunities.

For many Americans--perhaps even most Americans--it is vocational-technical and adult education programs that will provide these opportunities, that will serve as the bridge from school to work, that will offer a path to economic self-sufficiency and responsible citizenship.

While vocational-technical education was not at the forefront of the school reform debate during the 1980's, it nevertheless benefited from overall efforts to expand access, improve programs, and increase accountability in our system of education. In addition, we learned that vocational-technical education might have a greater role to play in the regular academic programs of the 1990's.

Let me briefly mention three promising strategies that are currently being used to strengthen vocational-technical programs:

* One is to encourage closer links between education and business by forging partnerships designed to meet local work force needs. These partnerships improve the school-to-work transition by helping vocational-technical schools respond to changes in the labor market, and by ensuring that students get the skills they need for available jobs.

* Second, voc-tech programs are focusing on at-risk students by offering applied, experience-based learning opportunities. Courses such as "Principles of Technology," which is now taught in 1,200 schools in 47 States, combine academic concepts with hands-on instruction to make school work relevant and help keep young people in school. This approach can make an important contribution to increasing the high school graduation rate--one of our national education goals.

* The third and perhaps the most promising strategy is the new "tech-prep" curriculum, which coordinates the last 2 years of high school with 2 years of postsecondary occupational instruction, leading to an Associate's Degree or other certification.

Tech-prep programs are the latest effort by vocational-technical schools to integrate academic subjects into the occupational curriculum.

During the 1980's, vocational-technical education programs began to strengthen the teaching of basic skills through the application of math, science, communications, and problem-solving skills in occupational coursework. Early results suggest that job training and academics can be mutually reinforcing.

In fact, there is some evidence that the best approach to achieving the goal of universal competency in basic skills may be to integrate academic and vocational teaching methods into new applied curricula for all students.

The recently completed National Assessment of Vocational Education showed that vocational courses in applied mathematics were associated with significant gains in math learning. These results are particularly important for noncollege-bound youth, who tend to avoid traditional math or science courses.

An example of integrated curricula is "technology education," which is replacing industrial arts, or "shop" classes, in many middle and secondary schools. Technology education provides important content and contextual information about technology while using teaching methods that emphasize integrated, multidisciplinary, multisensory, hands-on learning.

Technology education, tech-prep, and other curricula integrating academic and vocational instruction may prove successful in serving students with nontraditional learning styles. Moreover, such curricula could spark renewed student interest in critical mathematic and scientific disciplines.

These innovations place vocational-technical education on the cutting edge of education reform, and will help to firmly establish vocational-technical schools as essential to the education and development of America's human resources.

By providing high-quality programs closely coordinated with the needs of public and private sector employers, vocational-technical education stands ready to become a full partner in our efforts to expand . . . opportunities for all our citizens.

Lauro F. Cavazos is a former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. This article is excerpted from remarks he delivered when presenting the Secretary's Award for Outstanding Vocational Technical Education to the Greater Lowell Regional Vocational Technical School.
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Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Article Type:transcript
Date:Mar 22, 1991
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