JVER v26n2 - Editor's Notes

Volume 26, Number 2

Editor's Notes

James R. Stone III
University of Minnesota


This issue arrives at a time of change for vocational education, or career and technical education (CTE) as it is now called. The robust economy that we enjoyed for most of the last decade has declined into recession. Layoffs are increasing unemployment rates. With the economy's decline, so too goes the force that brought the "hard to employ" into the American economic community.

These changes increase the importance of workforce education. Economists argue that the relative demand for more highly educated workers is rising, the relative demand for more experienced workers is rising, and the relative demand for highly skilled workers is rising ( Bresnahan, Brynjolfsson, & Hitt, 1999 ). But does this increased demand translate to a dramatic increase in the need for a baccalaureate-trained workforce? Current Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show that by the Year 2006, approximately 20.6% of the projected job openings will require a bachelor's degree or more, a figure that has remained relatively constant over the past two decades ( Silvestri, 1997 ). Data from the Department of Commerce show that approximately 31% the classes of 1996 and 1997 are completing four-year degrees. This oversupply of baccalaureate prepared individuals might explain the reported rise in degreed students in two-year college occupational programs and in over-educated taxi drivers.

This ought to be good news for the CTE community - suppliers of workforce education -but the data suggest otherwise. Between 1982 and 1998, major shifts in secondary school course taking have occurred in general education (down 16%) and college preparatory (up 30%), with a relatively small decline in vocational concentrators.. Similar declines in post-secondary CTE enrollment are reported by Levesque, et. al., 2000.

Changes in CTE Research Direction

In this time of change, what is the direction of vocational educaton, especially at the secondary level? A major influence on the direction of CTE is the U.S. Congress through the Perkins vocational education legislation. Not only does Congress influence the direction of secondary and postsecondary programs, but it also influences the vocational education research agenda through its funding of a national research center. While federal funding for vocational education was increased to $1.3 billion in the current congress, support for research was not increased.

Congress invests only $2,225,000 in CTE R&D through vocational funding (Perkins III) or approximately 0.00017 of the total budget. This is down from approximately $4,000,000 invested in R&D in the previous national research center. The National Science Foundation reports that the U.S. spends an average of 2.6% of GDP annually on R & D. Industry spends between 2.8% and 7.8% of its annual budget on R&D, depending on industry sector. Based on these comparisons, one could build a strong argument that vocational education R&D is greatly underfunded.

What is the research direction Congress supports? The previous R&D center, the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), was born at a time of concern over America's declining economic fortunes. The NCRVE agenda was driven by a belief that the presumed failure of our public schools would threaten the U.S. ability to compete globally. (The 1990s suggest that either the schools were not as bad as claimed or that there is little direct relationship between the quality of public education and national economic performance: it was the "nation at risk" children who gave us the economic boom of the 1990s.)

Thus framed, the research agenda of the NCRVE focused on broad policy questions around new concepts. The NCRVE research uncovered ways in which high schools and technical colleges implemented tech prep, curriculum integration, contextualized learning, career academies, career magnets, and the like. The NCRVE left a rich legacy of developmental research on the process of vocational education and how vocational studies can be connected to high-level academic studies, especially as part of broader school reform efforts. This gave rise to the concept of the "new vocationalism" or what Stone ( 2001 ) called "education through work." This new purpose for vocational education complemented the historic roles of education about work and education for work.

The 1998 reauthorization of vocational education legislation gave Congress an opportunity to reshape the focus of vocational education research. Congress funded research to:

  1. develop a knowledge base that would identify academic knowledge and vocational and technical skills required for employment;
  2. explore the effect of integration of Vocational-Technical and Academic Instruction;
  3. identify effective uses of educational technology to deliver vocational and technical instruction;
  4. validate models of pre-service and in-service professional development; and
  5. determine effective use of accountability data and to improve local programs and enhance student achievement.

This was the first time that CTE programs were to be held accountable for student academic performance.

Now we have a new federal administration that comes with its own K-12 education agenda. The mantra "leave no child behind" has been operationalized by the new Assistant Secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education as a set of four pillars ( D'Amico, 2001 ). These are:

  1. Closing (decreasing) the achievement gap among ethnic groups, among income groups, and between males and females.
  2. Focusing on what works. Identifying research-based education strategies.
  3. Increasing flexibility and decreasing bureaucracy.
  4. Increasing options and choices for students and parents such as dual enrollment, tech prep, internships/coop programs.

These are laudable goals for America's K-12 education system. But is this the purpose of secondary vocational education? Some might argue that expecting a business education or welding class to improve algebra or reading scores is a bit like expecting social studies or art classes to improve algebra or reading scores. Despite the ancillary benefit of providing a context in which to apply academic skills, most vocational programs do not include mathematics competencies in their curriculum. If they do, they are limited in scope.

That is not to suggest that vocational classes cannot provide a context for enhancing academic skills. If this is the new purpose of secondary vocational education, teachers will need to be prepared and curriculum will need to be developed for this explicit purpose.

What do these four pillars mean for the vocational education research agenda?

Some in the current federal administration point to the research on how best to teach reading as an example of scientific approaches to improving education, including vocational education. The debate between the "phonics" camp and the "whole language" camp has raged for years. Only recently, after more than 1,900 studies, a government panel has declared that "phonics" works ( National Reading Panel, 2000 ). The research upon which this conclusion was reached included fewer than 50 experimental and quasi-experimental studies culled from the original 1,900. While many educational scholars debate this conclusion, the current federal administration has declared phonics the scientific way to teach reading ( New York Times, January 9, 2002 ).

Applying this model to secondary vocational education assumes vocational education is a pedagogy or, perhaps, a context for teaching academic subjects such as algebra or developing reading skills especially for those who do not prosper in traditional academic settings. The research agenda, it has been suggested, should thus focus on demonstrating how vocational education improves algebra or reading skills and then identify which vocational methods work best to achieve this end.

This is an intriguing notion It is certainly a change of agenda both for vocational education programs and for vocational education research.

In This Issue

We have three studies that examine vocational education issues in a university, a two-year college, and a secondary system. Conroy and Sipple examine the issues confronting a department that integrates academic and vocational faculty in a major university. Ruhland and Brewer followed a two-year college faculty in their efforts to align assessment with student learning outcomes. Hutchinson and her colleagues studied the link between vocational education policy and the implementation of those policies in secondary education. Gordon offers an analysis of the use and misuse of statistical significance testing and the importance of effect size analysis. Finally, we conclude this issue with the last invited paper on the future of vocational education. In it, Jacobs identifies core issues that must be considered when reinventing vocational education at the post-secondary level.


Bresnahan , T., Brynjolfsson, E. & Hitt, L. (1999). Information technology, workplace organization and the demand for skilled labor: Firm-level evidence . Working Paper No. W7136. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

D'Amico (2001). President Bush and the U.S. Department of Education's Education Agenda . Improving America's schools. San Antonio, TX.

Levesque , K., Lauen, D., Teitelbaum, P., Alt, M., Librera, S., & Nelson, D. (2000). Vocational education in the United States: Toward the year 2000 . Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Reading Panel (2000). Summary report . Retrived January 4, 2002 from the National Reading Panel web site: http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org/

Silvestri , G. (1997, November). Occupational employment projections to 2006. Monthly Labor Review , 120 (11), 58-83.

Stone , J.R. III. (2001) Editor's Notes. Journal of Vocational Education Research , 25 (2).

U.S. Department of Labor. (1998). BLS releases new 1996-2006 employment projections . Retrieved November 15, 2001 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site: http://stats.bls.gov/news.release/ecopro.table.htm