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Volume 40, Number 3
Spring 2003


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A Comparative Study of the Trends In Career and Technical Education Among European Countries, The United States, and the Republic of China

Robert T. Y. Wu
National Changhua University of Education

In the past decade, career and technical education has experienced many vigorous reform activities, especially in European countries, the United States, and the Republic of China in Taiwan. The purpose of this paper is to compare the backgrounds of the trends in career and technical education in these countries and to delineate new directions and strategies for improving the quality of career and technical education.

European countries started out with "the Post-16 Strategies Project" in 1996-1997 and continued to follow up the effects of this project with the "Sharpening Post-16 Education Strategies by Horizontal and Vertical Networking (SPES-NET) Project" involving 14 institutions and 13 countries from the European continent. The 13 countries included England, France, Austria, Germany, Scotland, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Demark, and Estonia (Stenström, 2000). The results indicated that the idea of social organization of innovation could modernize industrial production and the service industry by adopting the shaping principle as a guideline for vocational education (Heidegger, 2000). Thus, career and technical education needed to respond to the lifelong learning theory and select core occupations and occupational profiles.

In the United States, career and technical education is seen to be education for the 21st century (Castalda, Schray, & Lyons, 2000). According to the goals of globalization and high technological economic development, high skills or low wages are the key. Career and technical education must follow economic trends in order to develop its own directions and strategies for fostering technical manpower.

Similar to the American economic model of developing human resources for strong economic growth, the Taiwan government has established a vocational and technological education system, articulated vocational and technical curricula, and designed lifelong career and technical education programs to cultivate competitive world-class workers with flexible high-tech skills (Hwang, 2000).

Although the trends in career and technical education vary from country to country, the directions and strategies of educational development are quite similar. This paper compares the similarities and differences in the trends in career and technical education in terms of theories, directions, and strategies, with an aim toward enhancing the quality of the education.

Comparisons of the Theories Relating to the Trends

European Countries

The main objective of the SPES-NET project in Europe was to improve the status of vocational education and training in different European countries through four reform strategies identified by the SPES-NET project (Stenström, 2000). The strategies were vocational enhancement, mutual enrichment, linkages, and unification. In fact, appropriate strategies were designed in each European country. Despite different approaches taken by these countries, the European people still maintained their socially oriented cultural traditions (Rauner & Ruth, 1991).

Due to traditions, human resource development is even more important than technological development in the process of economic growth. Therefore, for the purpose of human resource development and career and technical education, the shaping principle became dominant in Europe. Such an approach was in contrast to the adaptation approach, which included the boundary conditions and specific features of the work process, but not the fundamental direction. However, according to the shaping principle, workers can decide their own goals, and have broader visions of direction in regard to work. As a result, the following main directions evolved: (1) engaging workers in shaping the working conditions, the work organization, and the content of their work, and (2) using competencies, especially creativity, to promote initiatives that contribute to the creation of new jobs. The influence of the principle could be strengthened if people had the competencies to design their future work, private life, technological and economic priorities, and societal conditions (Heidegger, 2000). Career and technical education plays an important role in fostering the ability of workers to perform self-reliantly, independently, and creatively in their jobs, and to use communication skills effectively. Traditional education and training methods of apprenticeships fail to fulfill such tasks, and only multi-skill education and lifelong learning could help individuals achieve these goals.

The United States

In the United States, career and technical education has historically been viewed as vocational training and education with a perspective on the nation's manpower needs, gainful employment, and individual dignity (Lerwick, 1974). However, in the past century, college-bound preparatory education has long been considered the mainstream of high school education, while career and technical education has been considered a low-level, narrow scope of learning. Not until a recent report, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!" (National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990), was published did career and technical education become an important method of cultivating needed high-skilled workers for enterprises. According to this report, there was a shift in production orientation; and large companies were replacing the Taylor methods, characterized by bureaucracy, mass production, and automation, with high- performance teams (Hogg, 1999). The shift required career and technical education to train front-line workers in new, flexible capabilities in order to assume multiple tasks.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the American workforce structure showed that 60% of technical workers are required to have a postsecondary educational diploma or certification (Lynch, 2000; Murnane & Levy, 1996). Therefore, in the competitive global economy, community colleges have the task of supplying the needed workers. One effective way to strengthen students' work capabilities was to develop tech prep programs to integrate secondary and postsecondary educational programs. The purpose of tech prep programs, as described in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Act, was to integrate academic and vocational programs, and at the same time to articulate secondary and postsecondary educational curricula (Castalda, Schray, & Lyons, 2000). There are three types of curriculum integration: academic and vocational programs, school- and job-oriented learning, and secondary and postsecondary programs. Results of a longitudinal study showed that tech prep programs facilitated a smooth transition from secondary to postsecondary education (Bragg, 1995). Subsequently, new American high schools, middle colleges, and other reform initiatives emerged.

In addition to the tech prep movement, change and learners' growth are considered essential elements of career and technical education. Some contemporary scholars have embraced Dewey's (1938) pragmatic position whereby the overarching purpose of career and technical education is to cultivate learners as problem solvers, collaborators, makers of meaning, lifelong learners, worker-citizens, and practitioners of democratic processes from a proactive viewpoint toward the future (Miller & Gregson, 1999). Although there are some competing thoughts about the future of the trends in career and technical education, the economic model and the pragmatic principle are still two important dominating schools of thoughts in career and technical education.

The Republic of China

Confucianism and utilitarianism are two major factors influencing career and technical education in Taiwan, R. O. C. While Confucianism emphasizes the humanity and equality of education, utilitarianism holds career and technical education as a means to educate and train people for gainful employment from an economic development perspective.

After nearly 50 years of providing the manpower needed for national economic development, the government began to shift its emphasis from quantity to quality in career and technical education because of social, political, and economic changes. As such, the system and quality of career and technical education have recently become the top priority in reform. Hwang (2000), the Director of the Vocational and Technological Education Department, established a coherent career and technical education system encompassing three levels of education: vocational high schools, junior colleges of technology, and colleges/universities of technology. Since more than half of the students are enrolled in upper secondary and postsecondary career and technical schools, the increasingly important requirement for accountability necessitated the improvement of career and technical education (Ministry of Education, 2002).

With regard to the quality of career and technical education, it is necessary for the curriculum to be job oriented. Based on task analysis and competencies, teachers could decide on curricular objectives, contents, learning activities, and teaching and evaluation methods. Moreover, collaboration between schools and enterprises and the project methods would greatly enhance the quality of career and technical education. Eventually, students of career and technical education should have employable skills and knowledge, professional certification, and occupational abilities for present and future work needs and lifelong learning (Ministry of Education, 2002).

In the past 50 years, career and technical education has produced a competent workforce for the needs of economic development (Ministry of Education, 2002). However, the educational objective of solely providing skilled workers soon became inadequate; and the other objective of meeting individual career needs became prevalent. Hence, comprehensive high schools and articulated vocational curricula could facilitate the process of meeting individual career needs (Wu, 2000, 2001).

Implications

Socially oriented cultural traditions could fundamentally shape the working conditions, the work organization, and the content of work, and possibly create new jobs. European countries adopted the social organization of innovation and the shaping principle so that career and technical education could foster the ability of workers to perform self-reliantly, independently, and creatively in their jobs, and to communicate skills effectively. Specifically, education should train people with the competencies required for designing new work, personal lives, technological and economic priorities, and societal conditions in order to shape the future.

On the other hand, under the concepts of high technology, flexibility, and high productivity, educators of career and technical education in the United States promoted the integration of academic and vocational programs in the tech prep programs and articulated secondary and postsecondary curriculum. The main purpose of tech prep programs is to strengthen the American workforce by preparing workers with secondary and postsecondary education to work effectively and innovatively. The efforts to educate adequately qualified workers are similar to the European countries.

The development of career and technical education in Taiwan is very similar to that in the United States. The career and technical education system not only encompasses vocational high schools and two-year junior colleges, but also four-year colleges and universities, in order to meet students' needs for higher education and lifelong learning. Furthermore, coherent career and technical curricula are designed for better articulation among different levels in the system. Although the basic evolving theories for the trends in career and technical education vary among different countries, some similarities exist, such as the integration of academic and vocational programs, the stress on work-based education, and the cultivation of high-productivity workers.

New Directions and Strategies for the Trends in Career and Technical Education

Through discussion and comparisons of the theories relating to the trends in career and technical education among European countries, the United States, and the Republic of China, some new directions and strategies for career and technical education have evolved. The newly developed directions and strategies are delineated in this section, followed by the comparisons among them.

European Countries

In view of the context and status of career and technical education, each European country varies in the analysis of its national reforms in terms of the four post-16 strategies: the national enhancement strategy (enhancement of vocational education programs), the linkage strategy (developing linkages between academic and vocational programs), the mutual enrichment strategy (encouraging mutual enrichment between academic and vocational programs), and the unification strategy (developing a unified educational provision to replace educational systems based on academic/vocational division). By comparing the reforms of career and technical education against these four strategies, the results showed that although the development of education varied greatly among European countries, some similarities exist. The basic similarities were the concepts of social organization of innovation and the shaping principle. These concepts could be achieved through education in which workers are trained to perform self-reliantly, independently, and creatively in their jobs; to use communication skills; and, in addition, to shape their working conditions, work organization, and the content of their work. In order to respond to the reform in career and technical education, there are some common directions and strategies.

  • Clearly define the structure of occupation based on specific work tasks. A clearly defined occupational structure of specific work makes the labor market transparent to both employers and employees and forms a fair pay structure. Thus, career and technical education should cultivate students in a way that prepares them for a certain level of performance in a certain occupation. Furthermore, the occupational profiles must be described in a more open and dynamic way than in the past (Heidegger, 2000).
  • Establish a system of alternative training. Modular vocational education is inadequate in preparing students for flexible work tasks. Therefore, a combined system of alternate education between schools and companies is necessary. This involves an integrated vocational curriculum shared by schools and companies as a means of meeting the occupational requirements of companies (Young, 2000).
  • Initiate core occupations. One of the important issues facing European industries is establishing a balance between the stabilizing function of occupational profiles and the demands for mobility or flexibility in occupations. First, a drastic reduction in the number of occupational profiles is necessary for new combined occupations linking different fields because occupational skills in various fields are required in order to function well in some jobs. Core occupations with open and dynamic activities necessitate changes in career and technical education programs in order to attain the goal of transferring occupational identities to new fields of activities (Heidegger & Rauner, 1997).

From the above directions and strategies, some reform measures evolved, such as the occupational structure relating to the programs offered by vocational education, the contents of instruction, cooperation between education and work, and the establishment of core occupations. Flexible curriculum contents and the selection of core occupations can enable educational contents to be congruent with the skill requirements of industries, and also enable high school graduates to be competent for their tasks. Cooperation between education and work mandates an alternative training system that is conducive to a combined learning environment in which students can acquire technical skills and knowledge and at the same time adjust themselves to the work environment. These reform measures can facilitate the students' transfer of occupational skills and are opportunities for realizing the social organization of innovation and the shaping principle. The final goal is to establish individual standardized occupational contents for each field and to gain public recognition of career and technical education as a profession.

The United States

In 1990, due to the demands for workers with high skills and high productivity, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act described the tech prep program as another form of vocational education. Until 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunity Act provided a framework to address economic needs through education and business partnership by introducing three types of integration: integration of academic and vocational education programs, integration of school- and work-based learning, and integration of secondary and postsecondary vocational education programs (Hogg, 1999). In 1998, to further remove the boundary between academic and vocational education, the Carl D. Perkins Act directly defined vocational education as tech prep education. It was hoped that the goal of improving the effectiveness of secondary and postsecondary vocational education would be achieved through seamless curriculum articulation.

Related directions and strategies include the establishment of career clusters and the implementation of career academies, new American high schools, and middle colleges. The categories of career clusters are divided into 16 areas: agriculture and natural resources; architecture and construction; arts, A/V technology, and communication; business and administration; education and training; finance; government and public administration; health science; hospitality and tourism; human services; information technology; law and public safety; manufacturing; retail/wholesales sales and service; scientific research and engineering; and transportation, distribution, and logistics (Castalda, Schray, & Lyons, 2000). The classification of career clusters could facilitate students in their career awareness, exploration, and preparation, and would serve as a guideline to help career and technical schools in program-to-program articulation (Hoachlander & Rahn, 1994).

Another direction and strategy is the collaboration between high schools and community colleges. Policy makers recently placed a high priority on creating K-16 partnerships aligning curricula, matching student progression from one grade to the next through demonstrated mastery of skills or knowledge, and coordinating testing requirements from elementary schools through colleges. Additionally, other major collaborations include tech prep and middle colleges. In practice, tech prep offers high school students an articulated course of study from the last two years of high school through a two-year or four-year college degree toward a technologically focused career (Schuetz, 2000). The tech prep initiatives are being carried out by new American high schools, career academies, and magnet schools. Concomitantly, in order to facilitate the collaboration between high schools and community colleges, middle colleges are designed to house high schools on community colleges or university campuses. In fact, the development of the middle college's mission, curriculum, and learning frameworks involves representatives from high schools, community colleges, and the community (Schuetz, 2000).

Furthermore, Lynch (2000) pointed out some directions for high school career and technical education in the 21st century. He reviewed recent research and literature and concluded that the purposes of high school career and technical education should be to (1) provide career exploration and planning, (2) enhance academic achievement and motivation to learn more, (3) acquire generic work competencies and skills useful for employment, and (4) establish pathways for continuing education and lifelong learning.

In summary, although different authorities propose commingling directions and strategies, several important developments undergird the trends in career and technical education. These developments include changes in the global economy that affect educational reform and the new skills of the future workforce; parents' and public expectation for children and schools to better prepare children for college and work; and public and students' demands for changes in learning, teaching, and evaluation in schools.

The Republic of China

In Taiwan, a well-designed career and technical education system was established with three levels of education: vocational high schools, junior colleges, and colleges/universities of technology. In the system, students not only freely choose schools based on their interests and aptitudes, but could also shift to a regular academic education pathway. After the system has operated successfully, the need for planning and implementing coherent career and technical curricula became imperative. To set up a framework of career clusters, 17 clusters were identified for the purpose of further developing occupational curriculum for each cluster (Lee, 2001).

To make the curriculum work based, task analysis and curriculum standards were adopted to determine the instructional content for the career and technical education programs. Moreover, a flexible school entrance method for students to progress up the educational ladder and collaboration between schools and companies (including cooperative education, cooperation between schools and enterprises, and the establishment of incubation centers) are among the current strategies to cope with the needs of a competitive global economy.

Implications

From the perspective of curriculum planning and integration, current directions and strategies for developing career and technical education in different countries are similar in that occupational standards for designing curriculum contents and teaching methods are developed to meet the needs of lifelong learning and enterprises. The United States and Taiwan adopted the occupational cluster approach, while European countries stressed flexible occupational profiles.

In the United States, federal legislations play an important role in promoting tech prep programs, and community colleges provide students with technical skills required by companies. Thus, in the 21st century, the nation could sustain its economy by maintaining a highly skilled and productive workforce.

In most of the European countries, flexible occupational profiles and core occupations provided career and technical education with necessary occupational contents. In-company training also augmented school-based instruction by combining work and education.

In summary, using career clusters as a means for curriculum development in career and technical education is a common practice in the U. S. and Taiwan. However, in the United States, the flexibility and creativity of American career and technical schools in developing a new curriculum exemplify the strength of a decentralized educational system, while in Taiwan, career and technical schools must avoid the weakness of a centralized educational system in curriculum development. Additionally, from a socially oriented perspective, career clusters, flexible occupational profiles, and core occupations in European countries could serve as effective ways for improving the quality of career and technical education.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The reform movement in career and technical education continues from the past century. Career and technical education development in the United States, European countries, and the Republic of China has especially generated abundant exemplary theories and strategies. Comparisons of the developmental trends in theories and strategies in career and technical education in these countries reveal similarities and differences that could enhance the reform processes in other countries (see Table 1). From the preceding discussions, some conclusions and recommendations were drawn.

Table 1
Summary of Comparisons
Philosophical Theories Directions and
perspective   strategies

Europe    
Socialism Social organization Clearly defined structure
    of innovation   of occupation
  Shaping principle A system of alternative
      training
    Core competencies

United States    
Utilitarianism Economic manpower Industry-based standards
Essentialism   training model Inclination for workers
Pragmatism Workforce education   with high skills
    Integration between
      academic and CTE

Taiwan    
Confucianism Economic manpower Career clusters and
Pragmatism   training model   occupational standards
  Seamless CTE Flexible school entrance
    curriculum Seamless CTE curriculum


  1. The European model is a form of social action and reform of the workplace to benefit the worker. On the other hand, approaches in the U.S. and Taiwan tend toward the development of human resources for strong economic growth (Castalda, Schray, & Lyons, 2000; Heidegger, 2000; Hwang, 2000).
  2. In view of economic development or sustainability, career and technical education in the U.S. and Taiwan has emphasized a workforce with high skills, flexibility, and productivity to compete in the global economy. In European countries, in addition to economic development, social organization of innovation from a human resource viewpoint has influenced the directions and strategies of career and technical education in fostering competent workers. Despite the theoretical differences, the aim of improving the quality of career and technical education is the focus in these countries.
  3. The planning and integration of career and technical education stresses work-based education to augment school-based instruction. Task analysis, the establishment of career clusters, occupational profiles, and the selection of core occupations assisted in career and technical education by constructing a framework for future curriculum development.
  4. The American tech prep program and collaboration between between schools and enterprises (Lynch, 2000); a clearly defined structure of occupations, core occupations, and in-company training in European countries (Heidegger, 2000); a coherent career and technical curriculum design; and multiple school entrance channels for easy access to further education in Taiwan (Ministry of Education, 2000) are contemporary directions and strategies to meet the need to cultivate a competent workforce.

The following recommendations were based on the previous discussions and conclusions.

  1. The contents of the curriculum in career and technical education should include both technical skills and human and social factors to provide students with the competencies to design future work, private life, technological, and economic priorities, as well as societal conditions. Hence, in career and technical education, humanity and technology are equally important in the curriculum contents. Flexible programs and school-based and work-based instruction with occupational standards are crucial factors affecting the success of the education.
  2. Collaboration between schools and enterprises can keep career and technical education on par with industrial progression. Work-based education programs such as cooperative education, in-company training, school-to-work education, and incubation centers are effective ways to improve both career and technical education and the competency of the workforce.
  3. Tech prep programs should involve the integration of academic and vocational education programs, the integration of school-based and work-based learning, and the integration of secondary and postsecondary education programs. The triple integrations can eliminate the boundary between academic and vocational education, and combine practice and theory to better educate students in obtaining necessary skills and knowledge.
  4. Career clusters as a framework for designing occupational programs and the establishment of occupational structure, occupational profiles, and core occupations are potential considerations in the processes of curriculum development. Flexibility and creativity should be key elements in the programs.
  5. Career and technical education should provide education for all of the people, including regular career preparatory education, special vocational education, adult education, and lifelong learning education. The comparisons of theories, directions, and strategies in the different countries can facilitate the development of new initiatives or approaches for the betterment of career and technical education and the quality of life.

References

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Stenström, M. L. (2000). Impacts of and experience from the SPES-NET project. In Marja-Leena Stenström and Johanna Lasonen (Eds.), Strategies for reforming initial vocational education and training in Europe (pp. 253-257). Jyväskyla, Finland: University of Jyväskyla, Institute for Educational Research.

Wu, R. T. Y. (2000). Trends in technological and vocational education in Taiwan, Republic of Chain. Workforce Education Forum, 27(1), 1-14.

Wu, R. T. Y. (2001, December). School-based curriculum development in career and technical education in Taiwan, Republic of China. Paper presented at the 2000 Association for Career and Technical Education Convention, New Orleans, LA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 463 431)

Young, M. (2000). Improving vocational education: Trans-European comparisons of developments in the late 1990s. In Marja-Leena Stenström and Johanna Lasonen (Eds.), Strategies for reforming initial vocational education and training in Europe (pp. 147-164). Jyväskyla, Finland: University of Jyväskyla, Institute for Educational Research.


Wu is Professor of Industrial Education at the National Changhua University of Education in Changhua, Taiwan, R.O.C. Wu can be reached at robertwu@cc.ncue.edu.tw.


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