Back in the 1970s and 1980s, vocational high schools were largely a catchall destination for students who weren’t very academically-oriented, had no intention of going to college and simply wanted to learn a trade to make a living. Some students were eager to get into these schools, but there wasn’t exactly a stampede to their doors.
But times have certainly changed dramatically, especially in Massachusetts. In the state, some 48,000 students are enrolled in vocational schools and vocational programs in traditional high schools, with an estimated 3,200 more on waiting lists due to a shortage of available space for those who qualify for acceptance.
The burgeoning number of applications these schools are receiving is perhaps a better yardstick to measure their desirability to students. For example, at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, which has approximately 850 students in grades 9 through 12, there were 511 applications for just 240 places in the Class of 2021.
What is driving the popularity of vocational education – or as it is usually called now, career and technical education (CTE) – in Massachusetts? How does today’s vocational education differ from that of yesteryear? What is happening in the Bay State on the CTE frontline that is making it so successful and sought after?
CTE programs help make students competitive in the workforce
Even with 26 regional vocational technical school districts, 32 local school districts, 9 academic regional school districts, 2 county agricultural and technical school districts, 1 independent vocational and agricultural school district and 1 educational collaborative that all feature state-approved CTE programs, demand for admission is outpacing the availability of seats.
The reason for CTE’s current surge in appeal in can best be summarized in one key word – opportunity, according to Blue Hills Superintendent-Director James P. Quaglia, who is also president of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA). Supt. Quaglia was the principal at Blue Hills for four years before he became its superintendent in 2010.
What kinds of opportunities is he referring to? Namely, the kinds that employers love to see on resumes and that give students a leg up on their competition.
That translates into opportunity to be trained by highly-qualified instructors on the latest state-of-the-art equipment and technology. Opportunity to make valuable connections with professionals in business and industry. Opportunity for students to apply their newly-minted knowledge and skills by working on challenging real-world projects in the field, outside the classroom. Opportunity to grasp and utilize academic concepts in actual, career-related situations. Opportunity to hone the ability to think critically and to problem-solve. Opportunity to sharpen the necessary “soft skills” that greatly heighten a candidate’s employability like punctuality, functioning as part of a team, being prepared with the proper gear and attire, and having the confidence and know-how to interact with the public and with colleagues in a professional manner.
These days, the program offerings at vocational high schools aren’t limited to time-tested staples like automotive, construction and graphics. Now, students can also choose cutting-edge career paths in engineering, robotics, telecommunications and fiber optics, criminal justice, biotechnology and computer technology. Even in areas like automotive, for instance, students’ training incorporates the most up-to-date advances in sophisticated new technology that are used in today’s vehicles.
Technical skills, with tailored academic instruction to enhance them
As Supt. Quaglia put it, what students get overall is “deep learning and the ability to put those skills into action in the world of work.” They emerge from their high school CTE education “well prepared for the kaleidoscopic 21st century labor market,” noted a January 2016 report titled “The Critical Importance of Vocational Education in the Commonwealth” from the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
The structure for the CTE system in Massachusetts is contained in the Massachusetts General Laws, specifically Chapter 74. It established regional vocational schools like Blue Hills (which opened in 1966, has a nine-town district, and where I have been the communications specialist since 2002), non-regional schools and CTE programs in traditional high schools. In addition, guidelines, or frameworks, as they are known, have been formulated for each of the 44 CTE programs offered in the state and describe, in minute detail, precisely what skills and areas of knowledge students are expected to master in each program. Unlike CTE programs in some other states, which primarily tend to be broader in scope and often resemble career explorations, CTE in Massachusetts is extremely in-depth and intensive across the board.
Another plus for CTE in Massachusetts, said Supt. Quaglia, is the fact that even though students in schools like Blue Hills are only in academic classes fifty per cent of the time, with the other fifty per cent devoted to CTE, what constitutes a crucial difference is “the way that academic concepts are presented, used, reinforced and demonstrated. Our educators are doing project-based learning, stressing technology-based literacy, language-based literacy and relating academics to technology-based areas.”
What exactly does that mean? For one thing, teachers in schools like Blue Hills are effectively communicating the power of language as it is used in the workplace, along with the need for learning the vocabulary unique to a student’s chosen occupation. For instance, to write an accurate automotive work order which a technician – or in this case, a student learning to become a technician – can follow so he or she can identify a problem and fix it, language, as well as data, must be used correctly and appropriately.
Furthermore, teachers are routinely integrating math and science concepts with CTE curricula. Thus, students see and put into practice what Supt. Quaglia calls “the massive, varied and intricate connections” between, say, biology and health assisting, physics and any mechanically-based program, and math and drafting.
Beyond the classroom, entities and individuals at the highest levels of government and education in Massachusetts are united behind CTE, are advocating for it, and are ensuring that sufficient resources are allocated to either consistently maintain or even step up its caliber. Governor Charles D. Baker, Secretary of Education James A. Peyser, the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education (AVTE), the Massachusetts Vocational Association (MVA), MAVA and industry coalitions all “recognize the importance of our educational methodology in producing skilled workers for the 21st century,” said Supt. Quaglia.
Students aren’t really into all this behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty; they just enjoy what they are doing and rarely feel compelled to ask the age-old question, “Why do I need to know this?”
Take, for example, Shalor McKee, a member of the Class of 2020 at Blue Hills who is in the Metal Fabrication and Joining Technologies program. “I like being able to work with my hands,” he said. “When I’m in my technical program, it’s really fun to me. I get to use huge, extensive tools to do what I love to do. I am getting a good education and I have a lot of fun doing and learning what I love and I get a skill I can use in life.”
“We’re doing our best to answer the call [of industry and business] and provide quality workers,” said Supt. Quaglia. “Our educational system in Massachusetts is ranked number one and 50,000 students in vocational education are part of it.”
Judy Bass is a communications specialist and webmaster at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Massachusetts.