New York City
March 2003

Vocational Education Resurgent
by Frank Carucci

A remarkable thing happened along the way to the presumed demise of vocational education in New York City. It came back stronger than ever and is now a model for academic—as well as career—success.

Not that it was easy. Fifteen years ago, our schools were building back from the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis. Many traditional shops like carpentry, plumbing and automobile repair had closed, particularly in comprehensive high schools. Then, in the 1990s, the drive for higher academic standards kicked in, and what is now called career and technical education (CTE) seemed in danger of collapse.

At the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), we did not see this as an either/or issue. We believed that vocational programs could raise academic performance while imparting technical knowledge. Working with our state and national affiliates, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), we involved parents, industry advisors, unions and testing companies. We argued that CTE keeps students in school and prepares them for work and higher education. (And we do! The Transit Authority’s new contract added a clause about working with city schools on apprentice programs.)

We said it was preposterous that CTE schools were forced to shortchange vocational courses to squeeze in traditional academics, making them scramble to find the time, space and money to remediate and prepare students for the Regents that they had never before had to take.

We found it outrageous that some schools—afraid that CTE students couldn’t pass five Regents—were pushing them into GED programs or even into dropping out so their statistics would look better. That and the Regents-for-all mandate doubtless contributed to the surge in the 2000-01 citywide dropout rate to a troubling 20.4 percent, up from 15.6 percent in 1998. Wasn’t it better, we asked, to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to obtain good-paying jobs than to encourage them to drop out, unable to find jobs, and possibly end up in jail or on welfare?

The state said it lacked the time or money to craft new assessments tailored to CTE and asked us to help identify alternatives. We called in our creative teachers who figured out how to teach subjects like science or history in the context of a trade. We found industry partners to assure that CTE programs could provide work experience that’s relevant to the job market. We pinpointed rigorous assessments. And we assured that standards were not watered down.

We worked with the state to come up with models for certifying CTE programs. Albany agreed to our long-standing demand that CTE students get a technical endorsement in addition to a Regents diploma, along with a “work eligibility profile” documenting their work experiences, so employers would know how well they could do their jobs. This finally recognized the hard work that students put in to master their trades.

As of January, the state certified programs at nine vocational schools and others in the arts, health professions, building trades and culinary arts await approval. In essence, this establishes curricula that other vocational schools can replicate, bringing continuity and standardization to the entire state.

Credit must go to Rose Albanese-DePinto, senior superintendent for high schools, and Elizabeth Sciabarra, her deputy, for inspired implementation of the certification process.

Oh, one other thing. The big surprise about Regents scores (although not to the UFT) is that CTE schools showed tremendous improvement. This confirms that CTE programs can motivate students in all areas. Many of our vocational graduates will go on to post-secondary education and if, like most students, they need to work their way through, they will do so with high-paying, skilled jobs.

The tremendous work that the UFT, our CTE members and the city school system have done has been widely recognized. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, his secondary school and CTE divisional director Richard LaPointe, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have all visited our vocational schools lately, highlighting their success.

Is everything perfect? Not by a long shot.#

Part II of this article will appear in the April issue of Education Update and will highlight what should be done to improve the system as well as the impact of President Bush’s proposed budget on vocational education.

Frank Carucci is a vice-president of the United Federation of Teachers.

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