A Changing World

By Kathleen Vail

William Adams knows exactly how much the world of career and technical education has changed.

The superintendent of the Salem County Vocational Technical Schools in Woodstown, N.J., recalls when he gave presentations about his school to the PTA and other parent groups 35 years ago. Inevitably, audience members would pull him aside and mention a nephew or a niece who would really benefit from his school. “You know,” they’d tell Adams, “they’re a little slow.”

Audiences have a different reaction now, Adams says. “Now I get parents who say, ‘I wish I would have had that program when I was a kid. I would have been in that program.’”

Gone are the days when vocational education, as it was once called, was considered a dumping ground for the unmotivated, the misfits, and the troublemakers. Today’s career and technical education is less about lug nuts and monkey wrenches and more about computer-aided drafting and premed bioethics. And it’s for everyone, not just the kids who aren’t going to college.

After years of being considered second-rate to academia, career and technical education now finds itself center stage in the high school reform arena. According to the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment has shot up in the past decade by 57 percent, from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2004.

That increase is no doubt due, at least in part, to the growth of career academies --  small schools-within-schools focused on career paths or themes. Designed to make high school more relevant to students, there are about 2,500 career academies in the United States, according to MDRC, a New York City-based research group.

“Today in our academy programs, we are serving our brightest and best,” says Adams. “We have students earning credits from the local community college, leaving us as juniors. We wouldn’t have found that 10 years ago in our tech-ed program.”

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