How Vocational-Technical Schools Are Helping Students Achieve the American Dream

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The Pioneer Institute is out with a new book, “Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools,” which finds that vocational-technical high schools have lower dropout rates and on-par test scores with traditional high schools.

The Boston-based think tank also makes the case that these high-performing schools in Massachusetts should serve as a national model, both to address the student loan crisis and a shortage of skilled labor in America.

Joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast” are Jamie Gass, Pioneer Institute’s director of the Center for School Reform, and David Ferreira, a former vocational-technical school administrator and teacher who edited “Hands-On Achievement.”

On today’s show, we also cover these stories:

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tells lawmakers she expects inflation to remain high.
  • The Department of Homeland Security warns Americans that there is a heightened threat environment for political violence
  • Three major TV networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—plan to air a congressional hearing hosted by the Jan. 6 committee in prime time.

Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: Jamie, I want to begin with just a basic question for our listeners … just to set the stage here. What is vocational-technical education and why is it so important to America and particularly the working class?

Jamie Gass: It’s a great question, Rob. The vo-tech schools in Massachusetts and in America are occupational education programs, primarily high schools that train kids in the wide variety of backgrounds for the workforce, including plumber, electrician, carpenter, auto repair, medical tech.

And increasingly, this is important as we’re all competing in the global economy, but it’s also just a great example here in Massachusetts of what Justice Louis Brandeis called laboratories of democracy, where a state-driven school choice effort has seen tremendous gains in the last 25, 30 years.

Bluey: And what inspired the Pioneer Institute to embark on this research and produce hands-on achievement?

Gass: The reality of it—this is a great story. There’s a lot of negative stories these days across K-12 education, but this is one of the things that Massachusetts has done really well. We had a 1993 ed reform law, bipartisan compromise of additional state funding in exchange for sort of the cod liver oil of higher academic standards, a high stakes test for graduation, teacher tests, charter schools, and accountability for everyone in the system.

And the truth of it is, is that the vo-tech schools use all of the tools—the accountability tools of education reform in Massachusetts, coupled with school choice and school autonomy—to drive tremendous, not only gains in occupational education, but also huge gains in academic achievement. And they were able to do this with twice the state average of special needs kids, and also having great relationships with businesses and serving the industrial needs of the state.

So it’s just a great story. It’s something that we’re really proud of and the schools really deserve an enormous amount of credit for the great work they’ve done over the last 25, 30 years.

Bluey: Well, it certainly sounds that way. Jamie, before we get into the findings and bring in a conversation about the book specifically, one of the things that struck me was the history of vocational-technical education in America. And I’m wondering if you could share more about how it began and some of the early success that it had, particularly for lifting the poor out of those low-income conditions and really helping them succeed and strive for the American dream.

Gass: Of course, the thing that’s always been great about this country, going back to its founding, is that it’s been a place that has generally rewarded strivers of all sorts. And of course, Americans are very practical, too.

So even going back to the early part of the 19th century, there were a lot of local civic organizations, things like these local associations that Alexis de Tocqueville talked about in “Democracy in America,” workman’s organizations, etc., that helped drive the economy going back to the early days of the republic.

And the vo-tech model here in Massachusetts, and we were fortunate, there’s a lot of great work that’s been done in the last 30 years, but really going back about a hundred years, Massachusetts developed its own specific vocational-technical model, where we have a wide variety of autonomous schools and really school districts that work with local businesses, local employers in order to provide students and employers with the kind of need they have for the economy.

So Massachusetts is quite unique. A lot of other states do a good job with vo-tech education, but what is unique about what we have here in Massachusetts, and in a way it’s its own system that then has benefit enormously from the big gains and policy achievements of the last 25, 30 years.

Bluey: To quote from the book, “Today’s vo-tech students have lower dropout rates than their counterparts at comprehensive high schools. They pass the same academic test required for graduation while adding practical life skills in a chosen career, and vo-tech students excel while having higher-than-average percentages of low-income and special needs students.”

So, David, I want to bring you into the conversation here. These are certainly impressive statistics that you document. What do you believe makes the biggest difference for students in these schools?

David Ferreira: I think one of the biggest differences is the fact that we’re no longer looked at as an alternative education, but instead we are schools of choice.

And back in the day that Jamie was referring to, and actually back in the early ’60s, the state made a commitment to regional schools in general, as the fiscal move to try to lower the cost of particularly very expensive vocational-technical education because of the equipment needs, the lower pupil-teacher ratio in the vocational-technical programs.

We needed to enlarge the base of students that would be interested in coming, particularly for those smaller communities who could never afford to have separate vocational-technical schools, or if they offered programs, the selection was maybe two automotive and machine shop or electrical and plumbing, but never an array of the different trades as well as the more technological types of programs that we were offered today.

So there was a great movement to build 26 regional vocational-technical high schools that stretched from Cape Cod all the way out to the end of the Berkshires. And these schools focused initially primarily on the vocational-technical programs and gave less emphasis to the academic programs.

So, as Jamie alluded to, in 1993, the state adopted, and this was a state initiative, to increase the standards for high school graduation for all students. So suddenly the vo-tech community had to figure out how are we going to maintain high-quality vocational-technical education and at the same time, meet the same standards as every other academic high school. And we did that through a change in the kinds of schedules we did.

We also integrated the academics into a pedagogy where you are teaching the academic skills, but in the context of a career path and an occupational proficiency. We never lowered the standards for the competencies that we expected students to learn, but we added, instead, the academic standards that were necessary, not only for post-secondary instruction, but for lifelong learning.

Because with the higher and higher levels of technology that we’re coming into, just about every program we offered, and there are 45 different occupational programs we offer in various schools, we did not want the students to not be able to be prepared to learn the rest of their life.

Bluey: How have vocational-technical students fared in comparison to students traditional public schools?

Ferreira: At first, certainly it was a slow process when the initial competency determination, the MCAT test came into being, we were not very high up the list and that was to be expected. But as we rolled out more and more of this integration, as we required vocational programs to integrate mathematics and integrate writing skills and reading skills into the technical program, we were reinforcing what our academic classes offered and we began to see those scores move up dramatically.

It was an intensive effort and a conscious decision to do two things. One was to work in the best interest of the individual student, no matter where they were. Whether they were a high-need student or a bilingual student, they were going to get the services necessary.

And we received the support of our communities. And because of the autonomy of the regional school district, it is not run by a superintendent that has to worry about K-12 education. We’re focused on about 20% of the high school population in the commonwealth.

And as those scores rose, parents looked and watched and saw that maybe the vo-tech school is not alternative education, but it’s truly a school choice opportunity. And once that happened, parents and students elected to come to the vo-tech school, were excited about a pathway that would lead to post-secondary education and/or a career pathway in the field that they selected to study over four years of high school.

So we went from schools that, basically, when they first opened, 25% of the post-secondary graduates went onto post-secondary matriculation to a point where today it’s around two-thirds go on to some kind of post-secondary education.

Now, that does not mean they all go to four-year universities, many go to associate degree programs at the community college system and others go directly into apprenticeships with labor unions in carpentry and plumbing. And as they do their apprenticeship, they’re also going to school in the evening. And many of them are earning their associate degree and their master licensure in their field at the same time.

So school choice has been huge to us. It’s a very different change that evolved as the result of our success.

Secondly is the autonomy of these individual school districts that are focused primarily on each student, their needs, and preparing them for both college and career. And I think those are the two big factors.

Bluey: How do vocational-technical schools prepare students for future careers?

Ferreira: As Jamie mentioned earlier, our connection to business and industry is not only beneficial for both sides, it is actually statutory under Chapter 74 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which require open meetings that would include parents, students, teachers, people from business and industry, and post-secondary people who meet together by program.

So if I’m a plumber, I’m meeting with these people who are working in the field, we’re building opportunities for employment. We are finding out for our teachers, the state of the art, where the industry is going, what competencies are needed for a student to be successful in that career, and we are doing that twice a year.

Plus, from that group, we then take one, the chair of each of those individual program advisory committees, who sit down at least one time a year with our district school committee to talk about what the needs are in the vocational programs and what the priorities should be.

It also leads these kinds of partnerships to cooperative education. And this is an opportunity for students halfway through their junior year or even more so in their senior year when they would normally go into their vocational program for two weeks or one week, whatever the rotation is, they go out and work for salary out in the field, a real-time job, the oversight being provided by a supervisor in that company.

So if an advanced manufacturing student goes into a company that makes parts for aerodynamics, that student is doing real work, is earning money—and we know teenagers do nothing but spend money, so they’re stimulating the economy.

And at the same time are not just working in a lab, they’re working in the field with others that they’re learning from, more senior people in the company that they’re working far from, and they’re highly motivated because they’re getting a paycheck.

Many years in many high schools, senior year is senioritis. And if you get a half a year out of a senior in an academic class, that’s pretty good. Because after that, all they’re thinking about is graduation, proms, etc. In the voc community, that doesn’t happen because they can get fired just as easily as they get hired. Plus, they must maintain certain standards academically in those classes in order to retain their cooperative education position.

So we’re very fortunate that local control, the connection to businesses and industry, that’s what drives the low dropout rates and the success stories we have. And as a result, particularly in low-income communities and urban centers where a demand for all kinds of school has just skyrocketed.

Bluey: Follow-up question, what is the level of interest among students for a vocational-technical education?

Ferreira: We average 5,000 students a year on waiting lists trying to get into many of our schools.

And that demand, of course, drives more interest because, as we all know, if there’s a line to get into the restaurant, it’s probably a good restaurant. Well, if there’s a line to get into the school, it’s probably a darn good school.

And we’ve been blessed to be supported by the Pioneer Institute and their philosophy of education on school choice. And they believe in us and we believe in them, and that partnership has meant a lot from a political viewpoint.

We get a tremendous amount of additional money from our state government for our connections to business and industry. It’s called the Workforce Skills Cabinet. It is a group of individuals from business and industry from the states, various departments for economic development and for labor and workforce development. And these advisory committee members working together to say, the advanced manufacturing today is nothing like it was years ago.

And we know that one CNC lathe, for example, is $50,000 and only one student uses it at a time. So we needed that equipment boost and our governor, Gov. [Charlie] Baker, over the last eight years and prior to that, our lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, were very, very strong proponents of what we do.

And now have expanded that to include evening instruction, again, with help from the state in terms of 300-, 600-, 900-, and 1,200-hour programs of study for youngsters who never went to a vocational school, some of the dropouts out of college who never finish with a degree, and certainly retraining those people who lose their position by technology or want to set a different career path. And they can do that at a very, very low rate through our evening school programs and those have been supported by the state as well.

So we like to think of our schools as all-day-long schools. We’re going from early in the morning and we’re going right into the evening four days a week with the evening programs and five days a week with our high school population.

And we’re not depending on anything, but measure our success, measure how we place our students, measure where they are after graduation. Be it post-secondary, how successful are they? Be it still in the field, moving up that career ladder, advancing. We’re doing those things, and to that is just helping us in every way of maintaining this high interest that we have. And we’re very proud of what we do.

Bluey: Do you think the Massachusetts model could work elsewhere?

Ferreira: We’re also very willing as a community of vocational-technical educators to share what we have. And that’s why we were so excited to partner with the Pioneer Institute on this book because we feel CTE, as they call it in most of the country, career and technical education, is everywhere.

All 50 states have CTE, but the level of intensity and the success is different because many of them are not blessed with autonomy at the school committee level and superintendents are running districts where they’re now pre-K all the way up to grade 12 and priorities at time have to be made where maybe the vo-tech don’t receive the kind of funding they need or they’re not able to expand programs.

So putting all these things together, we’re willing to share. Every year we have visitors from CTE schools across the country who spend a couple of days with us and maybe look intently at two of our vo-tech schools to see if they can emulate or take some of this success story back to wherever they come from. And we’re hoping that this book will stimulate that interest in certain states who would like to share with us some of the things that we’re doing and maybe try it, if it’s something possible, and we’re always willing to do that.

Bluey: Jamie, I’m going to give you the final word here. Tell us a little bit more about the Pioneer Institute, the work you do, and maybe what hopes that you have come as a result of this book.

Gass: So, Pioneer’s been around for about 30 years or so. It’s a free-market think tank. We really were founded to use high-quality research and data to drive decision-making.

We’re, of course, really proud of the lead effort that we played in the reform law here in Massachusetts, done a lot of work in other books on Catholic schooling, charter schools, a lot of work on school choice.

But this vo-tech book is really kind of a part of a portfolio of school choice options that we’re trying to lay out, not only to remind people in Massachusetts how we got to be a high-performing state, but as David mentioned, exporting some of the appropriate lessons so that where states want to adopt some of the things that we have done, particularly around school choice models, that they’re able to do it. And we’re able to kind of share some of the lessons.

So that’s really the goal of it. We’ve been really grateful for the excellent work that Chris Sinacola and David Ferreira have done and are really, again, proud of these schools. They’ve done a terrific job and it’s a larger story that I think folks across the country can benefit from.

Bluey: We certainly hope our listeners take to heart the research that you’ve done. It seems like vocational-technical schools are certainly part of the solution. So we thank you and the Pioneer Institute for doing the research and congratulations on the launch of the new book.

Gass: Great. Thanks so much, Rob.

Ferreira: Thank you very much.

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