Archived Information

The Quality of Vocational Education, June 1998

Introduction and Purpose

High school reformers used to encourage school systems to develop comprehensive high schools with an academic track for college-bound students, a vocational track for students headed for jobs, and a general track for students with less definite goals. But many school reformers see things differently today. They view tracking as a major problem in modern education and some advocate the complete de-tracking of American high schools.

Adler and his colleagues, for example, termed a multi-track system of schooling an abominable discrimination (Adler, 1982). Their Padeia proposal recommended the replacement of multi-track schooling with a system in which all students would follow the same course of study and pursue the same goals, no matter what their native ability, individual temperament, or conscious preference. Boyer (1983) also recommended abolition of the three-track system of academic, general, and vocational courses and endorsed the notion of a single track that provided a general education for all. Goodlad (1984) concurred with these proposals. He recommended that schools provide a common core of courses for students and randomly assign students to classes.

The reformers have been especially concerned about what goes on in the lower, or vocational, track in high schools, and they have singled out this track for special criticism.  Boyer (1983) concluded that vocational education shortchanges students academically and does not prepare them adequately for careers. Goodlad (1984) wrote that vocational education is anachronistic since it prepares students for the mechanical age of the past rather than the technological era of the future. Oakes (1985) concluded that vocational education restricts access of minority students to future opportunities. She believes that vocational programs do not serve the democratic ends most Americans want their schools to achieve.

The de-tracking movement has gathered influential supporters in recent years. Oakes (1992) noted that the National Governors' Association (1990), the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989), and the College Board support de-tracking. She also noted that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Children's Defense Fund have been examining possible segregative effects of tracking and that school systems in many parts of the country are revising their educational programs to eliminate curricular tracks.

The questions raised by the reformers are too important for vocational educators to ignore. Are disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor children shunted into the vocational track? Do they receive an inferior education there? Are they taught low-status subjects from inadequately prepared teachers? Would everyones needs be better met in one-track schools?

A single report cannot address all the issues, and this report is no exception. The goal of this report, however, is a broad one. It is to examine the existing research results on educational outcomes of vocational programs. I have not collected new data for this report, but instead I have collected and analyzed previously reported findings. The method I used to integrate the findings is quantitative, or meta-analytic. A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis of the results of other analyses. Meta-analysts use objective methods to find all the studies of an issue that they can.  They describe features and outcomes of the studies in quantitative or quasi-quantitative terms, and they use statistical methods to determine whether a relationship exists between study features and study findings.

It is important to note that my review focuses on outcome not process studies of vocational education. Outcome studies examine results of programs; process studies look at how results are achieved. I focused on outcome studies because they provide direct and essential evidence about the charges that have been leveled against vocational education.  To decide whether vocational education shortchanges students, we must first know what its results are and whether they differ from results of other programs. How results are produced is also important to know, but it is not the first consideration.

Researchers studying vocational education usually distinguish between labor-market and educational outcomes.  Labor-market outcomes include employment status, occupational prestige, earnings, and so on. Educational outcomes include individual growth in cognitive and affective areas. I consider only educational outcomes in this review. Although labor-market studies produce important evidence on vocational education, the information is not so critical for recent arguments made by de-trackers. The case against tracking is based on its educational effects not labor-market outcomes.  In addition, other reviewers have examined the literature on labor-market outcomes of vocational education. Few reviewers have carefully examined the literature on educational and psychological outcomes.

The research studies that I located for this review analyzed such educational and psychological outcomes as  knowledge gained by vocational students, their development of self-esteem, growth in citizenship, attitude changes, and so on. I examine only four outcomes in this report: completion of high school, cognitive growth, educational attainment, and occupational satisfaction. These are the four educational outcomes that Jencks (1972) examined in his classic book Inequality, and they are the educational outcomes examined most often by researchers studying vocational education.

I have organized the remainder of this report into six sections. I describe in section 2 the findings of authoritative reviews of research on tracking. The reviews I examine cover ethnographic, survey, and experimental studies of tracking and grouping. I critically examine the conclusions of these reviews and give special attention to the relevance of the conclusions to vocational education. My primary goal in section 2, however, is to provide a background for an in-depth examination of studies of tracking and vocational education.

I carry out this in-depth examination of educational outcomes of vocational programs in sections 3 through 7.  Section 3 focuses on high school completion. My goal in the chapter is to determine whether vocational programs help keep high-risk students from dropping out of school. Section 4 examines student achievement in vocational programs. My purpose there is to determine whether students learn as much in vocational programs as they would if they were moved into other curricular programs.

I examine the educational attainments of vocational and nonvocational students in section 5. The chapter reviews evidence relevant to the claim that enrollment in a vocational program in high school reduces a student's chances of enrolling in college. In section 6, I review studies of job satisfaction to determine whether students from vocational programs are more satisfied with their jobs than other students are. Finally, in section 7, I draw four major conclusions from my review and analysis of studies of tracking and vocational education.

[Abstract ] [Table of Contents] [Research on Grouping and Tracking ]