JITE v33n2 - Comments - Vocationalism and the American High School: Past, Present, and Future?

Volume 33, Number 2
Winter 1996

FROM THE EDITOR: This "Comments" section contains an essay by Kenneth Gray that describes the emergence of a new vocationalism. Although this movement is proposed by policy makers and educators, Gray contends that its success depends primarily on support from parents and students. Responses to this or previous "Comments" essays are encouraged. Instructions for authors are provided in the "Bits & Pieces" section of each issue of the Journal.

Vocationalism and the American High School: Past, Present, and Future?

Kenneth Gray
The Pennsylvania State University

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the possible emergence of a new vocationalism in the nation's high schools. It will be argued that while a new vocationalism (integrated tech prep, school to work transition programs or some combination thereof) may be a priority of federal policy makers and growing numbers of educators, its ultimate success depends on the degree to which parents and students share the vision of future employment opportunities implicit in these initiatives. To develop this argument, the historical evolution of vocationalism in the American high school will be explored, with particular attention paid to the role played by students and their parents. Further, it will be argued that there are or have been three distinct periods of vocationalism in the American high school, that vocational education (the first form of vocationalism developed at the turn of the 20th century) has been declining and a new form of vocationalism emphasizing baccalaureate education for everyone has taken its place by default; and that a third form of vocationalism, typified by integrated tech prep , may be emerging.

Vocationalism is defined in this essay as the practice of organizing curriculum in such a way as to provide students with the opportunity to develop skills, both vocational and academic, that will give them the strategic labor market advantages needed to compete for good jobs. Vocationalism is a fascinating concept because of its remarkable comeback or rehabilitation in the last five years. The question of whether high schools should be involved in vocationalism at all had been a matter of considerable debate throughout the history of public education in America, but in the last ten years the notion that one role of the schools is to make the country economically competitive by making individuals productive workers has been accepted with little opposition.

The widespread and unquestioned endorsement by policy makers of the conclusions published in the Nation At Risk report in the early 1980s suggests that at this point in the nation's history the public definitely believes that the schools' responsibilities include preparing graduates to become something called "world class workers." Those seeking to reform the schools in this direction are in fact attempting to redefine and or redesign vocationalism in the American high school. Thus, for those seeking such reforms the historical development of the original manifestation of Vocationalism--vocational education--provides important prologue for their efforts.

The Original Vocationalism: Vocational Education

Most educational historians trace vocationalism in American schools to the turn of the century movement to differentiation in the high school curriculum to include vocational education courses. This development took place in times much like these. Rationalizing the inclusion of vocational education in the American high school, influential educational historian Ellwood Cubberley wrote in 1909 that "The Great Battles of the Future will be Commercial not Military" (pp. 49-50). As we find today, world economic competition was viewed as the best strategy for national economic growth; the schools were accused of doing little to help the cause, particularly with regard to the education of children from working-class families who were beginning to go to high school in large numbers. The solution was to differentiate the curriculum of the American high school, first by adding commercial education and later industrial education, home economics, and vocational agriculture.

The addition of four occupational programs of study to the high school curriculum was a concept developed by educators with significant input from social reform groups. These courses of study reflected this group's vision of the future world of work. The model was pretty simple; students would select a course of study depending on the type of occupation or role they aspired to and were suited for. For individuals entering the work force, the curriculum was vocationalized to include commercial education for those aspiring to clerical occupations, industrial education for those interested in skilled craft trades, and agriculture for those who would remain on the farm. Those few who would enroll in higher education institutions and prepare for professional careers stayed in the classical curriculum, the predecessor of today's college preparatory program.

The form of vocational education that developed at the turn of the century persisted and prospered for eighty years. It survived virtually unchanged because sufficient numbers of students and their parents believed it led to good employment opportunities. The vocational education form of vocationalism only began to decline in popularity when, in the early eighties, students and parents lost faith that it would lead to careers that would insure economic security. The essential point is that students and parents ultimately decided the fate of the vocational education form of vocationalism when they made decisions to enroll in alternative curricula--primarily college prep--and they will decide the fate of efforts to establish future models of vocationalism in the same manner.

The New Vocationalism: College Mania

Beginning in the early 1980s, the old vocationalism began to unravel as students' enrollment in vocational education suddenly, and dramatically, began to decline. Students and parents concluded that jobs in traditionally high-paying manufacturing industries and other industrial sectors they associated with traditional vocational education were disappearing. The world of work implicit in the old vocationalism became suspect. In the eyes of the public the only thing that seemed to be at all certain was the increasingly publicized idea that college graduates made more money than high school graduates.

Faced with uncertainty about economic opportunities in the future and misinformation about career opportunities for future college graduates, and aided by an oversupply of college seats and thus open admissions at many colleges, students ushered in a new vocationalism by rejecting traditional vocational education offerings and enrolling in college preparatory programs. The nation concluded that there is only "one way to win" for the present generation of high school students--to get a four year baccalaureate degree ( Gray & Herr, 1995 ).

Numerous data support this argument. Between 1982 and 1990, the national percentage of students enrolled in college preparatory programs increased by 10%. During the same period, enrollment in vocational education programs declined in 32 states. In a national survey of 1992 high school seniors, 85% indicated they planned to obtained a baccalaureate degree and 30% had already decided to go on to graduate school. Less than one percent of all students who take the college boards plan to pursue anything other than a four year college degree. Correspondingly, the percentage of high school graduates who go directly on to higher education has grown significantly since the late 1970s. Nationally, 63% of the 1991 graduates went on to higher education, compared to 49% in 1980 and 46% in 1973 ( U.S. Department of Education, 1993 ).

A new vocationalism has emerged in the nation's high schools, manifested in the form of growing percentages of academically average students enrolling in traditional college preparatory programs. Their enrollment is not motivated by some newly found thirst for knowledge, but for vocational reasons. The Higher Education Research Institute (1995) reports that the single most important reason college freshman give for going to college is "to be able to get a good job." They and their parents believe that future jobs with the potential for a decent standard of living require this course of action. It is vocationalism in the form of a mania for baccalaureate level higher education. Illustrating the dimensions of this development, in June 1993 alone, the number of students graduating with baccalaureate degrees from this country's colleges and universities was greater than the total population of New Hampshire.

Problems with the Present Vocationalism

In the old vocationalism, approximately one-third or more of the nation's high school students prepared for careers through school-run vocational education programs. Now, the majority are enrolling in college preparatory programs in reaction to the new economic uncertainty; less than 10% of high school graduates indicate that vocational education was their primary program of study in high school. This dramatic increase in four year college attendance would seem, at first glance, to be a rather positive development, but celebrations may be premature. Among those from the academic middle who try a four year college program, losers outnumber winners. For example, in a study of seven suburban high schools ( Gray, Wang, & Malizia, 1993 ), where virtually all students were in the college preparatory program, 46% failed to compile an academic record that would even remotely suggest preparation for college-level academic work; this record included failure to obtain a combined SAT score of at least 800, or take a minimal preparatory sequence of courses, or earn at least a C average. Yet a majority (56%) of this group did go on to higher education (almost one-half [47%] went to four-year colleges), but 46% had to take one or more remedial courses and 48% failed to earn sophomore status after one year. Meanwhile, of those who had not taken vocational education but went to work, most were employed in minimum wage jobs and had not received formal training from their employers.

These findings suggest that some very serious problems have emerged in the current form of vocationalism. When students with average academic ability--the traditional consumers of the old form of vocationalism--enroll in the traditional college preparatory course, many finish high school prepared neither for college nor work. This group of students is the potential consumer of the emerging vocationalism.

Meanwhile the costs of the present form of vocationalism for students, parents, and the taxpayers are mind-boggling. Between 1980-81 and 1990-91, tuition and room and board increased 66% at private institutions and 32% at public institutions, while family income actually fell 2%. Students and parents spent $80 billion annually on higher education, much of it borrowed. Today, the typical four year college graduate accumulates $9,800 in student loan debt; many graduate with three or four times that amount. Of course only about half the students who begin a four year degree program graduate, and many who do not also accumulate student loan debt. Not surprisingly, these students are much more likely to default; one of the reasons why the dollar value of federally backed student loans in default now equals the amount awarded annually.

Finally, there is the reality that the economy will not generate sufficient college-level employment for the hordes graduating with baccalaureate degrees. According to Department of Labor projections ( Eck, 1993 ), while in the 1960s and 1970s only one in five college graduates failed to find commensurate employment, today, the ratio is one in three and growing.

There has to be a better way--and there is ( Gray & Herr, 1995 ). The nation needs technicians, not a flock of discontented young adults who hold worthless baccalaureate degrees and have no job prospects. A new form of vocationalism, such as integrated tech prep, needs to be implemented in the nation's high schools. The question is will it be?

The Emerging Vocationalism? Integrated Tech Prep

A new form of vocationalism is being advocated, piloted, and adopted in growing numbers of high schools across the nation--Integrated Tech Prep (ITP). ITP is a high school program of study designed to prepare and motivate students to attend two-year post-secondary technical education institutions. Its elements include both technical and academic curricula, especially contextualized mathematics and science. Whereas the traditional college preparatory program is articulated with colleges, this curriculum is articulated with two-year post-secondary technical education institutions.

Like the vocationalism of old, ITP is a reaction to demands that the schools do a better job educating the nation's work force. ITP's design is based on a vision of a future economy that will offer significant amounts of high-skill/high-wage, non-professional technical work. The rationale is that low-skill/high-wage work has gone abroad and will not return. The future for industrialized nations lies in developing an economy that produces goods and services that require high technical skills and therefore will generate professional and non-professional high skills/high wage employment. While there is an oversupply of individuals preparing for high skills/high wage professional work at four year colleges, there is a shortage of individuals preparing for high skills/high wage non-professional occupations at two-year technical and community colleges. This is a shame, because a recent study by the Department of Labor found that the wages of workers in high skills/high wage non-professional occupations in precision manufacturing, the crafts, and specialized repair were exceeded only by those college graduates who were employed in the managerial and specialized professional occupations ( Eck, 1993 ).

Unfortunately, however, although the ITP form of vocationalism makes both educational and economic sense, particularly for those from the academic middle of their high school class, there is no guarantee that ITP will catch on in the nation's high schools. The future is, at best, tenuous. The 1994 federal School to Work Opportunity Act, while incorporating many elements of ITP, may actually serve to sidetrack integrated tech prep efforts. More importantly, even though the ITP concept seems to be enjoying growing popularity among high school educators, its success lies in the degree to which academically average students and their parents believe it will lead to high skill/high wage careers and thus see the advantage of a technology associate degree over a baccalaureate degree. It will not be an easy sell. Those involved in attempting to create the new vocationalism need to focus first and foremost on students and parents, especially their hopes and fears and their belief that there is only "one way to win."


Gray is Associate Professor and Coordinator, Workforce Education & Development, The Pennsylvania State University, Universtity Park, Pennsylvania.


Cubberley , E. (1909). Changing concepts of education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Eck , A. (1993, October). Job-related education and training: Their impact on earnings. Monthly Labor Review, pp. 21-38.

Gray , K., & Herr, E. (1995). Other ways to win: Creating alternatives for high school graduates. San Francisco: Corwin Press.

Gray , K., Wang, W., & Malizia, S. (1993). The class of 1991: One year later (Report to the Sponsor). University Park: The Pennsylvania State University.

Higher Education Research Institute. (1994). The American freshman national norms for fall 1993. Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1993). The condition of education, 1993 . Washington, DC: Author.

Reference Citation: Gray, K. (1996). Vocationalism and the American high school: Past, present, and future?. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 33(2), 86-92.