American education » Vocational education

Published: 9-11-2011, 13:37

Vocational education

Instruction and training in preparation for entry into crafts and trades not requiring a college degree for entrylevel positions and ultimate career advancement. Vocational education in U.S. public schools begins as early as the first year of high school and includes instruction and training in a wide variety of fields, including agriculture, business, office jobs, health-related occupations, home economics, trade and industrial education, technical education and education in various skills and crafts related to construction and mechanics.

Until the mid-19th century, vocational education was conducted through the apprenticeship system under which children were indentured to master craftsmen. The master served as a surrogate parent for five or more years, teaching the apprentice to read, write 1188 vocational counseling and calculate, to know Scripture and to practice a craft with which to earn an independent living. In exchange, the apprentice served as the master’s assistant.

Vocational education, as a mass instructional process away from the shop floor, became a necessity as the Industrial Revolution progressed during the 19th century. As mass production developed, the individual craftsman became obsolete. Production of goods shifted from the small shop to huge factories, where hundreds of workers shared the task of production, each performing only one small task and none learning the entire spectrum of skills required to make a finished product. For a while, children learned from older workers, but as factories grew larger, production became too complex and dangerous to permit novice workers roaming around plant floors. Some companies established vocational schools— some of them astoundingly elaborate—in or near their own plants. Called “vestibule schools,” the first such schools offered future workers formal classroom training before they actually assumed their duties. Although vestibule schools taught new workers basic skills, they did little to overcome high rates of worker illiteracy that resulted from the lack of compulsory education in the United States. At the time, worker errors stemming from illiteracy and innumeracy were deemed a major factor in the decline in quality and sales of American products on world markets.

In 1882, the Hoe Company, a pioneer manufacturer of printing machinery, became the first company to establish a formal school to train new employees in job-related skills. In 1892, department store magnate John Wanamaker went a step further by organizing the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute in Philadelphia, to give his workers “a working education in the arts and sciences of commerce and trade.” The curriculum included “reading, writing, arithmetic, English, spelling, stenography, commercial geography, commercial law, and business methods and administration.” New employees attended two mornings a week, while advanced employees spent two evenings a week in school. Wanamaker’s success encouraged other major companies to set up similar schools for workers at all levels. In 1900, General Electric Research Laboratory set up an educational program for its scientific and technical workers. Westinghouse Research Laboratory followed suit in 1903, as did American Telephone and Telegraph Co. in 1907. Bell Telephone Company, meanwhile, sponsored a host of vestibule schools to train telephone installers and operators in what was then the radically new telephone technology.

The first public vocational education schools offered manual training in skilled trades such as carpentry
The first public vocational education schools offered manual training in skilled trades such as carpentry. (Library of Congress)

In 1908, International Harvester Company, the big farm equipment manufacturer (now Navistar), started a school for apprentices that soon included courses ranging from mechanical drawing to shopwork. The school willingly taught any course for which five or more employees enrolled. By 1913, there were enough corporation-operated schools to form a National Association of Corporation Schools. Although their growth was halted by World War I, they proliferated in the 1920s. Bell Laboratories, the research arm of American Telephone & Telegraph, expanded its vestibule schools into a mammoth, company-wide human resources department, with an annual budget in the billions of dollars and facilities that ranged from individual classrooms in local telephone company offices to a university-style campus in Lisle, Illinois.

After World War II, General Motors Corporation carried the corporation school concept a step further by building the degree-granting General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan. Now the independent Kettering University, the former institute enrolls more than 2,500 students in its five-year programs leading to bachelor of science degrees in engineering, with specialties in manufacturing, mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and electronic engineering. Students alternate 12 weeks on campus and 12 weeks on the job. About 17% of the students are women. (See KETTERING FOUNDATION.)

Although corporation schools provided exceptional vocational education to hundreds of thousands of workers, such education was limited to employees of the largest, most elite members of American industry. Smaller firms could hardly afford to establish similar educational facilities, and it became clear to academicians and industrialists alike that schools would be needed to educate workers in various trades and skills. The first such school was established in 1868—in Russia. Called the Moscow Imperial Technical School, it was headed by Victor Della Vos, who had developed an entirely new pedagogical approach to industrial education. He and his colleagues had analyzed the skills required for each basic craft and trade and organized them in order of ascending difficulty so that they could then be taught to students in that order. Using drawings, models and tools, teachers at the institute taught each trade, step by step, putting students through a series of graded exercises until they arrived at a basic skill level that would allow them to enter apprenticeships.

The Della Vos method of manual training, as vocational education was called, was first displayed abroad in the Russian exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. At the time, American educators had been searching for ways to introduce vocational education into the school curriculum to help prepare students for the industrial age. The two leaders of the vocational education movement were Massachusetts Institute of Technology president John D. Runkle and Washington University professor Calvin M. Woodward. Both found in the Della Vos exhibit “the philosophical key to all industrial education,” and they became the chief proponents of the new branch of education called “manual training.” Urging its introduction into every high school curriculum, they envisioned the Della Vos system as a means of making schools meet the changing needs of an industrial society. They also saw it as a way of making schools more attractive to the huge number of children of immigrant laborers arriving in the United States, whose educational ambitions pointed them toward skilled trades and immediate, paying jobs rather than long, extended periods of study in academies and universities.

In 1880, St. Louis public high schools were first to respond, and the first schools devoted exclusively to manual training appeared four years later. The term manual training began to disappear in the 1930s, as vocational schools extended their curricula beyond individual crafts, such as woodwork and metalwork, to industrial instruction requiring multiple skills, as in the aviation and automotive trades. Although enrollment in secondary school vocational education climbed during the economic depression of the 1930s, it began declining after World War II. In 1982, nearly 16,000 public high schools offered vocational education, but only 26.9% of high school students were enrolled in vocational education programs. And by 1992 the figure had plunged to less than 12%.

Ironically, the decline in enrollment rates came at a time when the market for skilled workers—precision, production, craft and repair workers—was expanding. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor forecast creation of 5 million new jobs for skilled workers by 2005. With acute shortages of skilled workers appearing across the United States, the Department of Education established a Commission of Secondary Vocational Education, which urged abandonment of the traditional vocational education track that isolated vocational education students from students in the academic track. The commission found that most industrial trades and crafts had become so complex that skilled craftsmen required the full complement of high school academic courses in the language arts, mathematics, computer science and the natural sciences.

The net result was a total reform of vocational education programs. Instead of enrolling in vocational education in ninth grade, students intent on learning a craft or trade enrolled in traditional academic courses with college-bound students during the first two years of high school. Helping spur reforms was the High Schools That Work initiative in Atlanta, Georgia, which launched a nationwide program to help vocational schools strengthen their academic curricula and instructional standards. By 2000, more than 1,000 schools in half the states had adopted the program and watched their vocational education students begin to exceed the national averages in reading, mathematics and science on tests administered by the NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS. Then, in their last two years, they may enroll in intensive vocational education curricula called TWOPLUS- TWO or TECH-PREP PROGRAMS. Usually tied to a local community college, such programs are, in fact, four-year programs that lead to both a high school diploma and an associate degree or certificate in a particular field. In a variation on two-plus-two, many high schools have established cooperative vocational education programs that tie vocational education during the last two years of high school to training or apprenticeship programs at local industries, some of them federally financed. In some cases, companies set up vocational training programs at nearby community colleges, thus making two-plus-two training a three-way partnership among vocational high schools, community colleges and industry. By 2005, nearly 6,000 U.S. institutions of higher education had established thriving cooperative education programs in conjunction with an equal number of major American corporations. About 1,000 of those institutions also were operating tech-prep, or two-plus-two programs in 21 states for more than 1.25 million high school students, or 9.4% of the public high school student population in the United States.

In addition to school- and college-sponsored vocational education, more than 2,000 private, for-profit, proprietary or entrepreneurial schools offer vocational training—usually in a single field, for jobs such as barbering or bartending that require several weeks of intensive study to prepare for the workplace. And, despite the growth of formal instruction in schools, vocational education still goes on in thousands of in-plant, employer- and unionsponsored apprenticeship and industrial training programs. Most require about 2,000 hours of on-the-job training plus related study in classrooms, by correspondence or through selfinstruction. More than 800 categories of apprenticeship programs are officially recognized and accredited by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training and by the 50 states.

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