The Assessment of Senator dealt with vocational education at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, in the brief time available here, they will focus on occupational preparation at the secondary level, which is the more problematic of the two.
Our nation’s system of secondary education prepares some students for the future much better than others. It serves the interests of students in college preparatory programs fairly well, although there is room for improvement- However, it does not serve the interests of other students – those in general and vocational education programs — very well. While the real earnings of college graduates have increased over the last decade, the earnings of high school graduates with no further education have decreased. Vocational students do a little better than general-track students in the labor market, but not much. Both are losing ground in a competitive global economy increasingly knit together by information technology.
What vocational and general track students need most is a higher level of cognitive skill development. The Assessment provides a technical definition of cognitive skills, but essentially they are thinking and problem-solving skills such as those typically measured by standardized verbal and quantitative aptitude tests. Cognitive skills are critically important because, as the research shows, they are strongly associated with —
* Better performance on the job; * Better chances of entering and succeeding in postsecondary education; and * Greater likelihood of obtaining and benefiting from additional education and training over the course of a lifetime.
In my opinion, the development of cognitive skills should be the highest priority for all secondary students, and especially for those who are now in vocational and general education programs. The National Assessment recommends that high schools “frontload” on the development of cognitive skills and broad technical skills such as computer literacy.
This approach would provide an investment in versatile, flexible skills that can be used later in many different ways, both in work and in further education. Maximizing this investment may require deferring much occupationally specific training — especially that which focuses on procedures, tools, and vocabulary — to the postsecondary level or to the workplace, where the labor- market payoff is higher.
How can cognitive skills be improved? Students learn in many different ways, but research suggests that teaching in an applied context — for example,, solving problems from the world of work — ran be a very effective way of developing these skills. One way of contextualizing learning is through the integration of academic and vocational education. Another important element in the development of cognitive skills is the use of standards and challenging curricula, or, in the case of work experience programs, rigorous learning requirements.