JVER v25n4 - Vocational Education and the Dilemma of Education

Volume 25, Number 4

Vocational Education and the Dilemma of Education

Morgan V. Lewis
The Ohio State University


The thesis of this paper is that secondary vocational education at the beginning of the 20th century and the community college in the middle of the century were our society's attempts to deal with education's basic dilemma: its conflicting functions of assisting each student to realize his or her maximum potential while selecting and socializing all students for their future occupational roles. In a modern industrialized society, adolescents are not developmentally ready to make informed career decisions. Secondary vocational education should return to the principles of manual training and use occupational contexts to improve academic skills and teach SCANS competencies.

The week I began to put down these thoughts two journals crossed my desk with discussions of issues that go to the heart of the continuing debate about secondary vocational education. I shall use the old terminology, because it is the "old" vocational education, namely occupationally specific preparation for jobs requiring specialized skills and knowledge, that the continuing debate over role and purpose is about. One journal contained an article, "Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development from the Late Teens through the Twenties" ( Arnett, 2000 ). The other journal had reviews of two books on tracking and its effect on students ( Welner and Mickelson, 2000 ). The implications of both would cause anyone seriously concerned about education to wonder why vocational education continues as a viable curriculum alternative at the secondary level.

In this article I present my assessment of the broad societal function that vocational education plays that has resulted in its continuation. I shall return to the two journals, but first I would like to be as explicit as possible about the perspective I bring to this discussion. Let me set forth five axioms that I believe to be true about our society:

  1. The most basic of our values is that every child should have the opportunity to become all that he or she is capable of becoming. This value is held despite the huge differences in opportunities that children face because of the circumstances of their birth.
  2. Every society must select and prepare young people for the occupations that are essential to the economy of that society.
  3. There are fewer desirable occupations (as defined by socioeconomic status and earnings) than there are young people who would like to enter those occupations.
  4. It is essential to the stability of a society that those who do not obtain the more desirable occupations feel that they had a reasonable chance to prepare for and enter them. Individuals must internalize a sense that the reasons they did not obtain preferred occupations lie in their own lack of ability or commitment and not because of an unfair opportunity structure.
  5. Students differ in their performance in academic classes, and it is these differences that are used to select young people for the more desirable occupations. Young people who do well are encouraged to continue their education and prepare for college, the primary entry point for access to the more desirable occupations.

If the reader does not accept these axioms, there is no point in proceeding further. All of the following builds upon them. I state them as self-evident truths, but if the reader wishes to review a good summary of what evidence there is that underlies them, see, Inoue ( 1999 ).

The basic thesis of this paper is that secondary vocational education at the beginning of the 20th century and the community college in the middle of the century were our society's attempts to deal with the dilemma raised by the conflict between the first and the remaining four axioms.

Everyone agrees that the purpose of education is to facilitate the development of the individual. While attempting to encourage individual potential, however, education plays a critical role in selecting and socializing young people for the future positions they will assume in the workforce. Students who perform well in traditional school activities--reading, writing, and computing--are encouraged to continue their education beyond high school. Those who do so obtain degrees that provide access to jobs unavailable to those without degrees.

Because of the critical role education plays in providing access to desirable jobs, there is concern that if an occupational choice is made at too early an age, future options will be foreclosed. In response to these concerns, advocates of occupational education at the secondary level have always stressed its potential to help achieve general educational goals by providing learning experiences that have more relevance and utility than the typical academic subject.

Woodward ( 1883 ) was one of the primary spokespersons for a more relevant curriculum. To test his approaches, he founded the Manual Training School at Washington University in 1880 where traditional language, mathematics, science, and history were combined with shop instruction in wood and metal work. He was convinced by the response of his students that his approach was correct. He continually stressed, however, that his intent was not to prepare students for work, but to achieve general educational goals.

The Commission on National Aid to Vocational Education ( 1914 ) desired stronger ties to the labor market than manual training provided. Nevertheless, the Commission stressed the broadening effect of vocational education:

Vocational education will indirectly but positively affect the aims and methods of general education: (1) By developing a better teaching process through which the children who do not respond to book instruction alone may be reached and educated through learning by doing; (2) by introducing into our educational system the aim of utility, to take its place in dignity by the side of culture and to connect education with life by making it purposeful and useful. ( p.117 )

The report of this Commission laid the foundation for the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 that established the structure for vocational education that persists to this day. Vocational education is part of public education, conducted primarily in schools under the direction of governing bodies responsible for all of education. This in the judgment of some has resulted in vocational education always being the "second-choice" education for those who cannot meet the requirements of the college preparatory curriculum. But it has allowed educators to blur the dilemma caused by the dual functions that they perform: maximizing individual potential while selecting for future occupational roles.

The introduction of vocational education into public education was in large part a response to the increasing numbers of young people who were continuing from elementary to high school. In a similar manner, the growth of the community college in the years after World War II was a response to the increased demand for access to higher education. Society needed another institution to deal with the dilemma of education and the outcome was the community college.

Grubb ( 1989 ) has examined the participation patterns of graduates from the high school classes of 1972 and 1980 in postsecondary institutions. About 60 percent of the graduates from both cohorts began programs, but only about half continued to obtain degrees. Dropout rates from community colleges were higher than from four-year institutions, and most of the dropouts had relatively short-periods of attendance. The results that Grubb obtained describe occupational exploration much more than occupational preparation. Grubb used the term "milling around" to describe the course taking patterns of the dropouts.

Many of the students whose experiences Grubb described--representative sample of high school graduates--seemed to be trying to find some career direction for their lives, and postsecondary institutions are socially approved settings for such exploration. These students were told throughout their prior schooling that if they wanted to obtain good jobs they had to continue their education. Many were testing whether they could satisfy the requirements of postsecondary study. Community colleges admit students with poor academic records. Enrollment is for many of them one final trial to see if they can succeed in an educational setting. If they have difficulty, they are required to take remedial courses, counseled to set "realistic" goals, notified of inadequate performance, and finally, placed on probation. This process has been labeled the "cooling out" of marginal students who enroll with the intention to transfer to four-year colleges ( Clark, 1960 ).

Krabel ( 1972 ) extended Clark's analysis explicitly to address the dilemma that is the focus of this paper:

Community colleges, which are located at the very point in the structure of education and social stratification where cultural aspirations clash head on with the realities of the class system, developed cooling out as a means not only of allocation people to slots in the occupational structure, but also of legitimating the process by which people are sorted. One of the main features is that it caused people to blame themselves rather than the system for their 'failure.' This process was an organic rather than a conscious one; cooling out was not designed by anyone but rather grew out of the conflict between cultural aspirations and economic reality ( p. 539 ).

A more recent examination of the cooling-out process ( Hellmich, 1994 ) found it still in operation in a Florida community college, but unrelated to socioeconomic status, race, or gender of students.

In describing what I see as the broad societal functions of secondary vocational education and community colleges, I am not being pejorative. I believe both institutions perform functions that are vital to our society and economy. Education, inherently, sorts and socializes for future occupational roles and vocational education and the community college play key roles in this process. The key question, it seems to me, is not whether education should perform this function, but how can it be carried out as fairly and independent of circumstances of birth as possible. One could argue that most of federal education legislation, including vocational education legislation, since the 1960s has attempted to increase the equity of the sorting process.

If one accepts my thesis, what are the implications for the structure and conduct of secondary vocational education? To consider this question, I turn to two key questions raised by the journals I cited in my introduction.

Are adolescents (defined as from puberty to 18 years of age) developmentally ready to make informed decisions concerning their future careers?

Arnett's ( 2000 ) answer would be an emphatic "No." Arnett proposes that in modern, postindustrial countries there is a new stage in the developmental sequence: emerging adulthood. He thinks this typically starts around 18 when children complete high school and begin living away from their parents, and continues until individuals have made career commitments and taken on responsibilities for others. He cites evidence that emerging adulthood is a time of exploration and identity formation at least as critical as the adolescent stage.

From my 35 years of studying vocational education, I find Arnett's argument convincing. As much as educators would like to believe that counseling and guidance can lay a foundation for informed, realistic career decisions in the high school years, I see little evidence that it does so. My experience persuades me that most young people choose vocational courses because of broad, self-perceptions about themselves and their futures rather than to achieve specific career objectives.

In my judgment, Gottfredson ( 1981 ) has the most accurate theory of how career choices are made: circumscription and compromise. Circumscription refers to the increasing differentiation of self-perceptions that eliminates unacceptable occupational alternatives. She posits that this takes place during a developmental sequence that first rejects jobs viewed as inappropriate for one's sex and then eliminates those of unacceptable low status or high difficulty. Within the limits set by these self-perceptions, individuals seek the best match for their interest and abilities among the possibilities open to them in their circumstances. Final decisions are compromises between what is desired and what is available.

High school students who choose vocational education have developed self-perceptions that exclude occupations requiring college degrees because they do not like academic subjects, have done poorly in them, or see very little likelihood that they can afford to go to college. Very few have made firm commitment to prepare for and enter specific occupations.

Does vocational education inherently track students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and depress their educational and occupational aspirations?

I am afraid it does. The evidence that I am familiar with indicates that students from lower SES families are disproportionately enrolled in vocational classes ( Oakes, 1985 ; Campbell and Laughlin, 1988; Rojewski and Yang, 1997). Selection of vocational education at the high school level is the result of nine to ten years of prior educational experiences that persuade some young people that they should not aspire to college. Participation in vocational education tends to reinforce these prior experiences.

To sum up, secondary vocational education plays a key societal function by muting the dilemma of all of education: facilitating maximum individual development while sorting young people for future occupations. Vocational classes provide learning environments that for many students are more comfortable that the typical academic classroom. And vocational courses teach skills that some students use to obtain their first regular jobs after high school. Because of its utility to society, I believe it would be a major mistake to eliminate secondary vocational education.

If secondary vocational education is to continue, what changes are needed to make it more aligned with the reality of adolescent development, and to the extent possible, independent of the backgrounds of the students it serves? My recommendation: return to the principles of Woodward's manual training. The focus of vocational courses should be on reinforcing basic skills and teaching the SCANS ( Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991 ) skills that are needed in all occupations. Improvement of basic skills, to which vocational instruction may contribute, will enhance postsecondary options. Attainment of SCANS skills will contribute to success in any option that is pursued.

Teaching such skills requires an occupational context, and students will need to select a career cluster to provide that context. Instructors should not delude themselves, however, that they are preparing most of their students for occupations in the chosen cluster. Instructors should use the context as a medium to achieve broad education goals while providing opportunities for career exploration.

If what I am recommending looks like technology rather than vocational education, so be it. Technology education is the successor to industrial arts, which is the direct descendent of manual training. It provides a model that is consistent with the developmental stage of high school students and stresses general principles more than specific skills. Sorting and socializing for future occupations in some form, overt or covert, will remain whether or not there is something called vocational education. They are essential functions of all of education.


Arnett , J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist , 55(5), 469-480

Campbell , P. B., & Laughlin, S. (1988). Participation in vocational education. An overview of patterns and their outcomes. Columbus, OH: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University.

Clark , B. R. (1960). The open door college. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Commission on National Aid to Vocational Education, (1914). Report. In M. Lazerson & W. N. Grubb (Eds.). American education and vocationalism: A documentary history 1870-1970 (pp. 116-132). New York: Teachers College Press, 1974.

Gottfredson , L. S. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology Monograph , 28(6), 545-579.

Grubb , W. N. (1989). Dropouts, spells of time, and credits in postsecondary education: Evidence from longitudinal surveys. Economics of Education Review , 8(1), 49-67.

Hellmich , D. M. (1994). Pedagogic implications of a meritocratic analsyis of Burton Clark's Cooling-Out Process . Proceedings of the National Conference on Successful College Teaching. (18th, Orlando, Florida, February 26-28, 1994). ERIC ED 390 465.

Inoue , Y. (1999). The educational and occupational attainment process. The role of adolescent status aspirations . Blue Ridge Summit, PA: University Press of America.

Krabel , J. (1972). Community colleges and social stratification. Harvard Educational Review , 42(4), 521-562.

Oakes , J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rojewski , J. W., & Yang. B. (1997). Longitudinal analysis of select influences on adolescent occupational aspirations. Journal of Vocational Behavior , 51(3) 375-410.

Secretary 's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (1991). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Welner , K. G., & Mickelson, R. A. (2000). School reform, politics, and tracking: Should we pursue virtue? Educational Researcher , 29(4), 22-26.

Woodward , C. M. (1883). The fruits of manual training. In M. Lazerson & W. N. Grubb (Eds.). American education and vocationalism: A documentary history 1870-1970 (pp. 60-66). New York: Teachers College Press, 1974.


MORGAN V. LEWIS is Coordinator, Need Sensing & Technical Assistance at the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education, The Ohio State University, 1900 Kenny Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1090, telephone: 614-292-8796, [E-Mail: lewis.1@osu.edu ]. His research interests are evaluation, policy analysis, and planning.