Education: The President's Apprentices

Vocational education's failing grades


America's "forgotten youth," the three quarters of high school students who never complete college, are forgotten no longer. They are now the focus of vigorous White House attention and one of the trendiest movements in education circles: "school-to-work transition" programs.

This upsurge of interest in school-to-work programs began with widespread recognition that non-college-educated workers have fallen into a deep economic pit over the past two decades. From 1973 to 1993, the real hourly wage of male high school graduates plummeted 20 percent. Younger workers did even worse; male high school graduates with one to 15 years of work experience saw their wages dive 30 percent in the same period.

In the conventional wisdom of Education Secretary Richard Riley, American students suffer thus because "we are the only major industrialized nation with no formal system for helping our young people—particularly the 75 percent of high school youth who don't go on to finish a four-year college—make the transition from the classroom to the workplace. That translates to lost productivity and wasted human potential."

School-to-work programs come in many varieties, including youth apprenticeships, co-op programs, and career academies. Before they became so fashionable in the 1990s, they had a more generic name: vocational education. But bland old voc-ed is now hailed as the potential savior of American workers from foreign competition and declining living standards. It is supported with impassioned rhetoric from politicians of both parties and an infusion of $300 million in new federal funds last year.

Yet the clamor at the federal and state levels for revamping vocational education is based on one part research, five parts wishful thinking, and 10 parts political opportunism. The problems they are addressing are real enough, but with their exaggerated claims, government officials are setting up students and educators for a big disappointment.

Bill Clinton didn't invent federal government support for vocational education; federal cash has flowed to such programs since 1917. Since the early 1980s, Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for youth training under the Job Training and Partnership Act. And in 1990, Congress reauthorized the Perkins Act, a $1 billion-a-year program to fund state and local vocational education initiatives.

Despite those programs, Clinton promised that "in our administration, we'll establish a national apprenticeship program, like those in Europe." In his first budget Clinton asked Congress to support a national school-to-work transition program, including youth apprenticeships. The absence of a master blueprint, Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared when legislation was introduced in August 1993, "creates tremendous expense for business and long-term negative consequences for our economy."

The School to Work Opportunities Act, which enjoyed bipartisan support, was signed into law last May. It provides $300 million to help states plan "comprehensive, statewide school-to-work systems," implement programs at the local level, and develop a skills certification system for high school graduates.

Since the act passed, the Departments of Education and Labor have issued a steady stream of grants—and feel-good press releases—to communities all over the country. The money goes to assist partnerships of employers, educators, students, and labor organizations. Yet even officials involved in the new wave of voc-ed concede that it's no revolutionary advance.

"The School to Work Opportunities Act is in the same mold as the Perkins Act," says David Boesel, head of the National Assessment of Vocational Education in the Department of Education's research office. "A lot of discussion and work is going on right now to decide what the relation between the two acts is and how they can be brought closer together. There is no answer yet to the question of how they differ."

Both acts aim to integrate academic and vocational education to help students who have trouble grasping abstract concepts. The theory is that schools should offer non-academic track students enough academic instruction to broaden their minds and keep open their college options, while gearing teaching to practical tasks. Shaping curricula around a particular occupational interest and providing related job experience should in theory provide students with marketable skills and an incentive to stay in school.

Modern voc-ed programs take several forms. Cooperative education usually combines morning classes with afternoon jobs that earn students credits toward graduation as well as pay and work experience. The marketing education co-op program at Pennington, New Jersey's Hopewell Valley Central High School, for example, gives seniors work experience in various retail and service industries. As of 1993, about 450,000 high school juniors and seniors nationwide, about 8 percent of the total, were enrolled in such programs.

Tech prep programs coordinate high school and community college curricula to encourage a smooth transition into higher education, usually in a vocationally oriented technical field. In Tulsa, Vo-Tech High School and the local community college offer a combined four-year program in metalworking. About 90,000 students across the country now follow such a track.

Career academies, a hot trend, are schools-within-schools that offer an intimate learning environment, a positive peer culture, and occupational themes, such as computers or health care. Using local employers as mentors, they blend academic and practical training into a unified whole. Nationwide, only about 9,000 students attend 150 such academies, but their number is growing fast. Philadelphia, with 25 academies in 16 high schools, is home to the idea, but California, Florida, and the District of Columbia are also making them the focus of school restructuring efforts.

Oakland Tech's Health and Bioscience Academy offers 200 students a three-year exposure to those fields, including field trips, guest speakers from industry, and paid summer internships in local hospitals. Targeting middle and low achievers in mostly minority Oakland, California, this highly regarded program draws special funding from the federal and state government, the city of Oakland, the school district, and foundations. To accommodate extra staff and smaller class sizes, some career academies cost as much as $1,500 more per student than average school costs.

There is no shortage of anecdotal testimonials to the value of such efforts. One student at the Media Academy in San Francisco's Fremont High School, which trains students for media careers, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was using his knowledge of TV production to work part time at KDOL-TV, channel 13. Without the academy's training, he said, "I'd just be hanging out after school and wouldn't have hope for the future. I'd just be lost."

Anecdotes aside, no one yet has proof that academies or similar innovations make much measurable difference to students' educational or job-market performance, much less that they are cost effective. A massive synthesis of research published this year by the Department of Education concluded that despite wide gaps in our knowledge, "One thing is clear, however: the research does not show that secondary vocational students have a clear, consistent, and sizable labor market advantage over general track students….We must conclude that, for most participants, neither program is working very well."

Studies show, for example, that California academy students, at least initially, had better attendance, took more course credits, had higher grade point averages, and failed fewer courses than other students of similar background. But those effects were strongest in the first year and disappeared by the third, according to a report issued to Congress last year by the National Assessment of Vocational Education. Nor did graduates appear to reap any benefits. "Followup studies of graduates of two [Bay Area] academies and comparison students 27 months later found no significant differences in labor market outcomes such as employment status, wages, or hours worked," it noted.

The same report indicated that vocational students who find a job in their field of study do tend to enjoy higher pay after graduation than those who follow a general education track. "Unfortunately," it added, "less than 40 percent of secondary graduates are able to find a job that matches their training, limiting benefits to a fairly small group." And there is no way of knowing from current studies whether those who did find a job in their field of study really benefited from their vocational training, or were simply better motivated to begin with.

In its strongest favorable conclusion, the assessment office reported that "on balance, vocational education seems to reduce dropout rates, but we do not regard the issue as closed." And even that effect, if real, is of uncertain significance. "Some students have told us they were staying in school because vocational education offered them an easier alternative than academics and because it required no homework," the report cautioned.

One study of career academies in California cited by the report found a significantly lower dropout rate among its students than among similar students in the general school population. But these results are disputed by Stanford University education economist Henry Levin—who notes that one school accounted for most of the reduction in dropouts. "That tells me there may be something idiosyncratic about the situation since you don't find consistent results. That troubles me, given that I've seen these results strewn all over the literature."

Similarly, a major study of the Job Training Partnership Act by Abt Associates, issued by the Labor Department last year, found no payoff to training youth; indeed, males lost ground compared to those who did not undergo the training and earnings of participating male youth with an arrest record fell 22 percent behind their peers in a control group. "Unfortunately, there is little available evidence to suggest alternative program strategies that might work better, especially for youths," the report concluded.

The reality is that disadvantaged youth—those most likely to drop out, perform poorly in school, and take menial jobs—are hard to reach with any program by the time they reach adolescence. "I think upgrading dropout skill levels is an uphill battle," said Department of Education economist Nabeel Alsalam. "They leave school because they aren't getting much out of it. People don't know what kinds of institutions or help works for these people."

Nor have other countries found a magic solution to these problems, despite having "comprehensive" school-to-work programs lauded by the Clinton administration. Germany, with its national system of training and certifying apprentices in 377 specific occupations, is often held up as a model. But Syracuse University economist Kenneth Couch, author of the only available study of the earnings of young German apprenticeship graduates, found that they made no more money on average than ordinary high school graduates five to 14 years after their certification. "People who say going to apprenticeships will solve our problems have done absolutely no research using data to prove that people who go through them will have better outcomes in any dimension," he said. Couch concludes that "emulating the German approach may in fact give us an education system that will not perform better but will cost more than our current one."

Another set of researchers, James Witte and Arne Kalleberg at the University of North Carolina, dispute the assumption that German apprentices move seamlessly from school to the jobs for which they have intensively trained for two to three years at an average cost of $8,300 per year. Only about half of apprentices end up taking jobs that fit their costly training, they found. For example, Witte said, many bakery apprentices end up working for Ford Motor Company.

One of the great attractions of the apprenticeship system to German companies is cheap labor, says Peter Harf, CEO of John H. Benckiser, one of Europe's largest consumer companies. Firms can pay an apprentice cook $4.07 an hour to sweep and clean when an unskilled nonapprentice cleaning person would cost them $12 an hour. Germany, like the United States, is experiencing a growing gap between high school- and college-educated workers. For less-educated American workers, he said, the problem "is not a need for the training of mid-level skills, but rather a lack of comportment. These skills are imparted as early as kindergarten and not in the ninth grade when students are making choices between vocational or academic education."

For all the handwringing in Washington, America's lack of a "formal system" for training youth may be a strength, not a weakness. American youth engage in a sometimes frustrating, sometimes wasteful, but on the whole highly productive search for the right match between their tastes and skills and available jobs. They switch jobs several times before they are 30, usually enjoying substantial wage gains in the process. They often return to school at local community colleges or technical institutes to upgrade their skills or try out new fields. In a fluid job market, where employer demands are changing constantly, specific job training in their teen years may be wasted. Studies show that developing general skills and cognitive ability, rather than narrow vocational education, helps students perform better on the job and in further education.

"We argue that much specific training ought to be postponed to the postsecondary level," says Boesel. "We really want to emphasize getting as many students prepared for and participating in postsecondary education as possible. That's where the heavier benefits are likely to be found. We can't work miracles with students who stop with a high school degree."

It's time to broadcast that message loud and clear: There is no cheap and easy salvation for young, low-skilled workers. Sending more young people on to higher education will be extremely expensive. Large returns require large investments of both time and money. University of Chicago labor economist James Heckman estimates that at current rates of return to education and training, it could take an investment of $1.6 trillion to reverse the loss of pay suffered by low-skilled American workers since 1979.

Given those stakes, it would make sense to find out first which programs work best at developing skills and motivating students. And knowledge is slowly accumulating, starting with the admirably critical synthesis published this year by the National Assessment of Vocational Education. Other useful studies are underway. The California legislature, which launched a major career academies push in 1985, voted in 1992 to study their effectiveness using a rigorous and all-too-rare experimental design that will allow valid comparisons between treatment and control groups. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation has taken on the task but will not issue a final report until 2002.

Many legislators are understandably loathe to await the results before launching expensive new programs that promise to make the world a better place. But as a 1992 report by the National Research Council noted, "Without high-quality and credible evaluations, school districts will never be able to choose wisely among available innovations." And squandering billions of dollars hardly supports the message that schools hope to instill in youth: that knowledge is a precondition to individual and social advancement.

Contributing Editor Jonathan Marshall is economics editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.