Struggling Students Want Vocational Education, Poll Shows

Times Staff Writer

Most American high schools phased out vocational education years ago, motivated by complaints that it was used as a tool to “track” African American and Latino students into low-paying careers.

But the idea of combining traditional academics with career training is making a comeback, and a poll released Wednesday suggests that it is popular among one particularly important group: struggling high school students.

The poll of California 9th- and 10th-graders, conducted for the James Irvine Foundation, found that six in 10 students didn’t particularly like school and weren’t motivated to succeed. But of those disaffected students, more than 90% said they would be more motivated if their school offered classes relevant to their future careers.


The poll was conducted to coincide with the launch of an Irvine Foundation center dedicated to encouraging the growth of career-oriented education in California. The foundation is spending $6 million on a new San Francisco-based center called ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career.

“Whether you’re talking about dropout rates or the number of youth unprepared for college and career, the basic point is the same: High schools simply are not working for too many of California’s young people,” said Jim Canales, president and chief executive officer of the Irvine Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Orange County land baron James Irvine. “We need to promote programs of study that blend academic rigor and real-world learning if we hope to inspire more of our youth to stay and succeed in school.”

Vocational education, a staple in American high schools for much of the 20th century, was widely discredited in the 1970s and ‘80s as a tool that, wittingly or not, perpetuated class divisions. Even as interest has increased recently in bringing back work-oriented classes, educators shun the term “vocational,” instead referring to “career and technical education” or “multiple pathways to success.”

By whatever name, the point is the same: To find material that catches the interest of at-risk students, keeps them motivated and stops them from dropping out. And any talk of career education now also comes with the assurance that it will be academically rigorous, leading students to some kind of postsecondary education.

“We want to help all students get to the same destination, and that is graduating from high school prepared and inspired to go on to both college and career -- not one or the other,” Gary Hoechlander, president of ConnectEd, said in a telephone news conference. “But we believe that we need to recognize that different students will reach that destination in different ways.”

Hoechlander said ConnectEd would promote high school programs that “connect academics to challenging technical courses in such fields as business and finance, biomedical and health sciences, building and environmental design, engineering, advanced manufacturing, law and government, transportation, hospitality and tourism.”

He insisted that the programs would not conflict with the state’s push toward a more rigorous academic curriculum.

But Chris Walker, a lobbyist for several blue-collar trade groups in Sacramento, predicted that ConnectEd would confront barriers from the University of California and the California State University systems, which are loath to accept some vocational courses as college prep material. Increasingly, California school districts are adopting the entry requirements of the university systems as high school graduation requirements.

“More and more, this college pathway is edging career tech out,” Walker said.

The poll commissioned by Irvine, which was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates among a representative sample of California high school students, found that only 39% of students said they liked going to school and that their school “does a good job of motivating me to work hard and do my best.”

The remaining 61% who disagreed with that statement were selected for more in-depth interviews. Of those students, 88% said they probably would enroll in a career-oriented school if they had the chance.

There was virtually no difference among racial or ethnic groups, but in a departure from stereotype, girls were more likely than boys to say that they would benefit from hands-on learning.

The in-depth portion of the poll was conducted among 619 9th- and 10th-graders throughout California, and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.