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The Quality of Vocational Education, June 1998

Implications and Conclusions

Reviews of grouping and tracking research seldom give vocational education the attention it deserves. Some of the reviews focus on differences between upper- and lower-track academic courses and ignore vocational classes entirely.  Other reviews lump general and vocational students together into a single track-the non-academic track-and contrast this track to an academic one. The academic bias of the reviews thus comes through. The reviewers use the academic track or the upper tier of academic classes as a yardstick against which to measure everything else and sometimes forget to mention vocational education.

The neglect of vocational education in research reviews is distressing because important questions are being raised today about the effectiveness of vocational education. Are disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor children shunted into the vocational track? Do these students receive an inferior education there? Are they taught low-status subjects from low-status teachers? Would everyones needs be better met in one-track schools? These questions need to be answered, and the answers to the questions need to be based on careful analyses of evidence not hearsay and stereotyping.

To provide some answers, I reviewed 25 years of research findings on vocational education. I first systematically searched the literature for studies of educational outcomes of vocational education, and I examined hundreds of studies that emerged from my computer searches of library data bases.  I then statistically described and analyzed the results of the studies that systematically compared outcomes in vocational and other school programs. I found ample support in the studies for several important conclusions about vocational education.

Conclusion I: Participation in vocational programs increases the likelihood that non-college bound youngsters will complete high school.

Analyses of survey data suggest that participation in a vocational program decreases the dropout rate by about 6 percent for youngsters who are not college-bound. Some studies suggest that the dropout-preventing effects of vocational programs may be even higher under certain circumstances.The dropout-preventing effects of vocational education are probably larger in high dropout areas, and the effects of concentration in a vocational program are probably more dramatic than the effects of mere participation.

There should be no question that the dropout-preventing effect of vocational education is an important one, however.  About 450,000 students in non-academic programs drop out of high school each year. If vocational education were not an option for high school students, the number of dropouts would undoubtedly be higher. The dropout rate for youngsters currently in vocational programs might go up by 6 percent if these youngsters had to pursue other programs in high school. The total number of dropouts from those not in college-prep programs would therefore increase from 450,000 to 500,000.

Although other factors might contribute to these differences in dropout rates, the most likely explanation for the low dropout from vocational programs is that a vocational curriculum appeals to students who are not college-bound. We know, for example, that vocational courses are among those that students like best in high school. It seems likely therefore that high-risk students stick with vocational education because they find it interesting, relevant, and rewarding. They drop out of general programs because they find them less interesting, relevant, and rewarding.

Conclusion II. Students from vocational programs score at about the same level on standardized tests in core subjects as they would if they pursued general programs, but vocational students might score slightly higher if they completed a full program of academic courses.

Test scores of high school students completing academic and vocational programs are clearly different. Academic students usually score at the 71st percentile on standardized achievement tests given at the end of high school (or about 0.56 standard deviations above the mean); vocational students usually score at the 34th percentile (or about 0.41 standard deviations below the mean). The achievement gap at high school graduation is therefore large. The question is, What causes it?

Regression results suggest that the most important cause of the achievement gap is self-selection. If the same students enrolled in academic and vocational programs, graduates of the two programs would differ very little in test scores at the end of high school. A second factor contributing to the achievement gap is the different number of advanced courses in core subjects taken by academic and vocational students. Academic students take more of these advanced courses. If vocational students were as academically strong as college-prep students at the beginning of high school and they took as many advanced courses in core areas as college-prep students do, their test scores would be nearly indistinguishable from those of college-prep students at the end of high school.

It is possible to quantify these results. The difference in test scores of academic and vocational students on standardized tests at the end of high school is equal to about 1.0 standard deviation. If similar students enrolled in academic and vocational programs, the gap would be about 0.2 standard deviations. Thus, 80 percent of the difference in test scores of academic and vocational students at the end of high school is due to the difference in aptitude of the students who enter the programs. If vocational students were similar to academic students in aptitude and took the same number of advanced courses in core subjects, the achievement gap between academic and vocational students would be no more than 0.1 standard deviations. Thus, an additional 10 percent of the achievement gap is due to the different number of advanced courses taken by academic and vocational students. The remaining 10 percent of the gap is due to other curricular and program factors.

Statistical analysis shows that general and vocational programs have roughly the same effects on student achievement. General and vocational students score at nearly identical levels on standardized achievement tests given both at the beginning and at the end of high school. General students score on the average at the 34th percentile (or about 0.41 standard deviations below the mean); vocational students score on the average at the 32nd percentile (or about 0.47 standard deviations below the mean). Regression analyses suggest that program effects are trivial. If the same students enrolled in general and vocational programs, their test scores would differ by less than 0.1 standard deviation, a trivial amount, at the end of high school.

I draw two implications from these regression analyses of test-score data. First, test-score performance would go up slightly if vocational students were to switch to academic programs or if they were to increase their load of advanced courses in basic subject areas. Second, shifting vocational students to general programs would have no effect on test scores. Their performance on standardized tests in core subjects would not go up or down.

Conclusion III. Students from vocational programs would be only slightly more likely to pursue postsecondary education if they pursued other curricular programs in high school.

The educational attainments of young people who complete academic and vocational programs while in high school are clearly different. About 75 percent of students from academic programs and about 20 percent of students from vocational programs enroll in college. The average student from a high school academic program completes about two years of college; the average student from a vocational program completes only a few months. The difference between academic and vocational students is therefore substantial, and regression results suggest that even if similar students enrolled in academic and vocational programs, they would still differ in their likelihood of college enrollment.

The regression analyses that produce these results are seriously flawed, however, and the results themselves are misleading. It is important to note that students who pursue academic and vocational programs differ greatly in educational aspirations at the start of high school.  Students follow college-prep programs because they intend to go to college; students follow vocational programs because they do not intend to go to college. Their goals seem by definition to be non-overlapping. No statistician on earth could ever successfully equate the aspirations of students with fundamentally different goals, and so regression comparisons of educational attainments of statistically equated academic and non-academic students must be treated with skepticism.

Regression comparisons of educational attainments of vocational and general students are less problematic. The immediate educational aspirations of students in vocational and general programs are not totally different, and the students who select the two programs are similar in many respects. Regression results show that the educational attainments of high school students who complete vocational and general programs are also similar. About 20 percent of students from vocational programs and about 30 percent of general students go on to college. The average student from a vocational program completes several months of college, and the average student from a general program completes only a few months more.  Regression results suggest that these differences cannot be explained entirely by differences in background, aptitude, and aspirations of vocational and general students. If the same students took vocational and general programs in high school, they would still differ somewhat in their educational attainments.

Participation in vocational programs thus seems to have a small effect on a student's educational attainment.  Students who participate in vocational programs are slightly less likely than comparable general students to go on to college; on the average they complete 2 or 3 months less of schooling than comparable students in general programs. With a greater emphasis on vocational education in high school, we would expect a slight decline in the number of students going on to college, and we would expect students on the average to attend college for a few months less. Some policymakers might find this decline in college attendance unsettling.  Others might not find it troubling. They might argue that vocational programs are not meant to increase the likelihood of college enrollment and that their success should be measured by other standards.

Conclusion IV. Graduates of vocational programs are more satisfied than other high school students with their jobs.

Vocational graduates express more satisfaction with their jobs than other high school graduates do. Although this difference in job satisfaction appears in five out of six studies, it is a fairly small difference. In a typical study, 44 percent of vocational students and 37 percent of comparable general students indicated high levels of job satisfaction.  In addition, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn from the study findings because most studies of job satisfaction are limited in goals and methodology. The studies are single-variable investigations that do not probe beneath surface appearances. They show that there is a relationship between high school curricular program and job satisfaction, but they do not show what lies behind it. Differences in satisfaction might be attributable to high school curricula or to the characteristics of the students who opt for the different curricula. More powerful research methods must be used to disentangle the influence of such factors.


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