In the United States, vocational education typically begins in either high school or middle school, and may take place within a traditional school or a separate, vocational school. Vocational education, also known as career and technical education, has its roots in the apprenticeship system that dates back at least to the beginning of recorded history. As the United States economy exploded beginning in the 19th century, vocational middle schools and high schools were established to train hundreds of thousands of laborers in the skills needed by the new industries. These efforts were aided by federal legislation such as the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the George-Deen Act of 1936, and the George-Barden Act of 1946. Now that the U.S. has gone from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based, high-tech economy, the role of vocational education is evolving yet again, this time into a motivator for better collaboration between classrooms, colleges, and workplaces. This seems fortuitous because, as the United States K-12 public educational system is being reworked under the federal mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, vocational teaching methods, which have long been used to efficiently transfer knowledge through active student involvement, are being studied as possible models for enhancing the learning process in the classrooms of tomorrow.
Keywords Apprenticeship; Career and Technical Education; Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act; George-Barden Act; George-Deen Act; Morrill Act; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Public Education; Smith-Hughes Act; Vocational Education; Vocational Education Act
Alternative Education: Vocational Education
Now more properly known as career and technical education, vocational education typically begins in either high school or middle school, and may take place within a traditional school or a separate, vocational school. According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, "male students, students in rural schools, and students with lower grade-point averages (GPAs) completed more specific occupational coursework and were more likely to be vocational concentrators than female students, students in urban and suburban schools, and students with higher GPAs" (Levesque et al., 2000, p. 54). In 1994, 16% of all credits earned by public high school students were for vocational education, down from 22% in 1982 (Levesque et al., 2000, pp. 49-50).
According to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 2006, the prevailing federal legislation on the subject, career or technical education is defined as a series of "organized educational activities" that provide:
• "Coherent and rigorous content aligned with challenging academic standards and relevant technical knowledge and skills needed to prepare for further education and careers in current or emerging professions"
• "Technical skill proficiency, an industry-recognized credential, a certificate, or an associate degree"
• "May include prerequisite courses (other than a remedial course)" (perkins act, 2006, s. 250-3-4)
According to the Act, career and technical education can also include competency-based applied learning that contributes to the academic knowledge, higher-order reasoning and problem-solving skills, work attitudes, general employability skills, technical skills, and occupation-specific skills, and knowledge of all aspects of an industry, including entrepreneurship, of an individual. (Perkins Act, 2006, S. 250-3-4)
The Development of Vocational Education
Vocational education in the United States was - and still is - a creature of necessity. By the 19th century, the time-honored apprenticeship system had evolved into more formalized training programs provided by "manual-labor schools, lyceums, mechanics' institutes, technical institutes, corporation schools, and private trade schools" (Mobley, 1964, p. 167). But these schools and institutes could not keep pace with the demand from businesses - the American economy was growing far too quickly, and too many American and immigrant laborers needed job training.
The situation facing vocational educators at the time was daunting. By the end of the Civil War, wrote one historian, America "was already engaged in the most astonishing economic expansion in human history, which was to last, with one or two brief interruptions -- and a world war-- until the end of the 1920s" (Johnson, 1998, p. 507). The United States, which had been a primarily agricultural economy throughout its history, was, seemingly overnight, making the transition to a manufacturing economy. During the 1890s the United States surpassed Germany to become the world's leading industrial power, a position it has held to the present time (Robertson, 1955, p. 289).
This expansion was fueled in part by an influx of immigrants -- ten million entered the country between 1865 and 1890. (Johnson, 1998, p. 513). By 1890 New York City contained "half as many Italians as Naples, as many Germans as Hamburg, twice as many Irish as Dublin, and two and a half times as many Jews as Warsaw" (Davidson, 1951, 2:407). Some immigrants came of their own accord, but many more were invited, even begged, to come. American coal mines, factories, and railroads desperately needed labor, which was in short supply after the devastation of the Civil War. Company representatives traveled to Europe offering cash bonuses to laborers who would come to work in America. The state of Wisconsin had an agent in Basel, Switzerland, who was charged with coaxing the friends of Germans who had already emigrated to join their fellow countrymen in America (Furnas, 1969, p. 695).
The federal government made its first foray into vocational education in 1862, during the Civil War, when it passed the Morrill Act to require states to create agricultural and technical colleges. But the graduates from these colleges weren't nearly enough to satisfy American capitalism's nearly insatiable appetite for skilled labor. In 1906, business leaders joined together to form the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE) to pressure Congress to take a leadership role in promoting vocational education in the public schools.
Due to the efforts of NSPIE, Congress formed the Commission of National Aid to Vocational Education in 1914 to look into the issue. Acting upon the recommendations of the commission, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which provided $7.2 million annually to states "for the promotion of vocational education in agriculture, trade and industrial education, and home economics" (Mobley, 1964, p. 167). The funding was dispersed in three separate categories: agricultural education, trade and industrial and home-economics education, and teacher training. In order to get the federal money, states were required to set up boards of vocational education, produce an annual report on how the federal funds were spent, and provide federal money to qualified programs "only in publicly supervised or controlled schools" (Mobley, 1964, p. 167).
In 1936, the George-Deen Act increased the annual appropriations for vocational education to $12 million, and the George-Barden Act of 1946 raised the number again to $29 million. A number of vocational education bills were also passed by Congress in the 1950s and 60s, which targeted particular populations like nursing students, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and highly skilled technicians who could help ensure America's military preparedness during the Cold War. The Vocational Education Act of 1963, signed into law by new president Lyndon Johnson in December of that year, enhanced and improved federal policies on vocational education to include easier access to job retraining.
Current special education law is based on the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 to extend through 2012 and extended again through 2013. The Perkins Act continues to evolve as reform proposals are brought forth in response to budgetary considerations and the changing nature of the U.S. labor force (Klein, 2012). The reauthorized Perkins Act now refers to vocational education as career and technical education, a change supported by the lobbying group Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).
Vocational Education in the 21st Century
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