Thomas Birmingham: State should invest in more voc-tech schools

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BOSTON — Massachusetts vocational-technical high schools are like the person who toils for years, only to be termed an "overnight sensation" when he or she finally achieves recognition. For over a decade the schools have quietly compiled an impressive record, and the time has come to expand them.

Voc-tech schools were once among the staunchest opponents of MCAS and of holding their students to the same standards as those at other public high schools. School leaders sincerely doubted that voc-tech students, many of whom entered the schools with reading skills that were at least two years below grade level, could match the performance of their comprehensive high school peers.

But once the decision to apply the same standards and accountability to all students was made in 1993, voc-techs' response demonstrated that attitude matters when confronting a challenge. The schools did everything they could to help their students succeed. In 2006, former Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School superintendent Eugene Carlo said, "MCAS was the best thing that ever happened to us." Today, voc-tech MCAS scores are about equal to the statewide average.

Voc-techs educate a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than typical high schools do, but the dropout rate at regional voc-techs is about one third that of traditional high schools and their special education graduation rate is 24 percentage points higher.

More than two-thirds of voc-tech graduates go on to post-secondary education. For those who choose not to, a survey of business owners and others conducted by Northeastern University's Dukakis Center found that voc-tech graduates are more job ready than other high school graduates. What's more, a number of respondents said they were more job ready than college grads.

The schools operate using an innovative model under which pupils alternate weekly between traditional academics and hands-on work in their trade, allowing students to graduate with a high school diploma and a certificate of proficiency in their career technical program.

Manufacturing firms currently employ approximately 250,000 people in Massachusetts, with an average annual salary of about $75,000, and demand for these highly skilled students will likely continue to grow.

Not surprisingly, demand for voc-tech seats is also on the rise. While statewide public school enrollment fell 3 percent between 2005 and 2015, voc-tech enrollment climbed by 13 percent. At least 4,400 students are on waitlists, and the actual number is probably even greater.

Demand is particularly high in Gateway Cities like Springfield and Chelsea, where voc-tech graduates could give local economies a much-needed boost. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, just over one-quarter of the students enrolled in voc-techs come from Gateway Cities, but they are home to more than half of those on waitlists.

The shortage of voc-tech seats could be addressed by investing an additional $20 million per year, less than 0.5 percent of the commonwealth's education budget. The investment would make space for 5,000 more students.

Expansion should focus on the 52 Massachusetts cities and towns that don't currently have access to a district or regional voc-tech school.

Since, with the exception of Worcester Technical High School, regional vocational-technical schools have outperformed those that are embedded within a school district, the state should look to the regionals as the model for expansion.

The commonwealth's vocational-technical school graduates are more likely to contribute to the state economy, fill anticipated job openings, earn more money and pay more taxes than traditional high school grads, and they are also likely to require fewer public benefits. Expanding vocational-technical schools is an investment that would pay handsome dividends for Massachusetts.

Tom Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.




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