Advocates, mayors renew push for voc-tech admission changes
Coalition says selective entry standards are locking out students who would benefit most
AFTER YEARS OF frustration with admission policies at Massachusetts vocational technical high schools, which they say shut out disadvantaged students who might benefit most from hands-on learning, a coalition of community groups and elected officials renewed the call Thursday for state officials to overhaul the entry system.
Vocational schools, once derided as the “dumping ground” for less academically inclined students, have become jewels in the Massachusetts education landscape, with high-quality programs that prepare students equally well for skilled vocational training or four-year college. But as demand for seats at many of the schools has outstripped supply, the selective admission standards the voc-techs use for entry has become the flashpoint for heated debate.
A year ago, state education commissioner Jeff Riley signaled that he was preparing to recommend changes to the schools’ admission system, but action on the issue got sidelined by the pandemic.
“The process that we’ve had in place has given vocational schools license to cherry pick students,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has been a leading critic of voc-tech admission policies. Meanwhile, Mitchell said, the policies are working to “the detriment” of students who most need the more applied approach to learning that vocational schools offer.
State regulations allow — but don’t require — voc-tech schools to admit students based on a combination of middle school grades, attendance record, discipline issues, and a guidance counselor’s recommendation. All of the state’s 37 vocational schools that have excess demand for seats use some type of scoring rubric to admit students. Critics say it has led to huge disparities at some voc-tech schools in the enrollment of racial minorities, English language learners, special needs students, and students from low-income backgrounds.
English language learners make up 29.7 percent of the student body at New Bedford High School but only 3.7 percent of the population at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, Mitchell said. He said ELL students account for 34.5 percent of the population at Lawrence High School, but only 12.9 percent at the Greater Lawrence Technical High Schools.
The regional voc-tech schools enroll students from a larger catchment area that also includes smaller neighboring communities with lower populations of English learners. But even after adjusting for those factors, Mitchell said, “the disparities remain huge.”
Of the state’s 37 voc-tech schools, 28 are regional schools that effectively operate as their own independent school district.
The community groups and elected officials, operating under the banner of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, want voc-tech schools to use a lottery system to award seats. That’s the approach used by oversubscribed charter schools.
The reform advocates say the changes the schools have offered to make, including weighting As and Bs together in their grade calculation, don’t go nearly far enough in addressing the concerns over admission disparities.
“What we’ve been greeted with from DESE over the years is a series of half measures,” said Mitchell, referring to the state education department.
The vocational coalition said it expects Riley to lay out proposed changes at the state board of education meeting next month. A spokeswoman for the education department said the April meeting agenda has not been finalized, but the department has been gathering and analyzing admission data from vocational schools.
Critics say the problems with the admission system began to emerge after the state instituted MCAS testing with its high-stakes graduation exam in the 1990s. Vocational schools that had not previously put as much emphasis on traditional academics redoubled their efforts in those areas. Meanwhile, state regulations allowed them to choose academically stronger students.
The result has been vocational technical schools in places like New Bedford and Fall River that have become the preferred choice of college-bound students over the local district high schools.
A 2016 report from Northeastern University called this the “peculiar paradox” in Massachusetts vocational education.
“Some still think that these schools are reserved for students who cannot succeed in the state’s comprehensive high schools,” the report said. But vocational schools are, in fact, now in such demand, it said, that they are leaving behind students “with lackluster academic or disciplinary records, often with fewer family resources, who have historically benefitted the most from career vocational education, and who now must compete for vocational school slots with better-prepared students—many of whom are college-bound.”
In January of last year, Mitchell and mayors of 22 other Massachusetts cities wrote to Riley and Education Secretary Jim Peyser urging the state to adopt a “qualified lottery” for voc-tech admissions that would set only basic threshold criteria, such as successful completion of middle school and no record of serious disciplinary issues or chronic, unexplained absenteeism.
The mayors wrote that “a case could be made that an applicant’s ability to benefit from a vocational education is inversely related to his or her academic and attendance records. There are no shortage of examples of students who, having struggled in mainstream classrooms in their middle school years, thrive in vocational high schools because the opportunity to learn a trade prompts them to embrace school as they had not before.”
Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, a Chelsea advocacy group, said students in Chelsea, home to many English language learners and low-income families, often feel discouraged from even applying to a voc-tech school because of the competitive entry criteria. Change in the policy would “guarantee our most vulnerable youth an alternative pathway to dignified work opportunities,” she said, and a way out of the cycle of “generational poverty.”
Speakers at Thursday’s briefing said another effect of the increasingly competitive voc-tech admission system has been a shortage of graduates from the schools entering skilled trades that are desperate for younger workers.
Tom Fischer, executive director of the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, said for every two carpenters who retire, the union is only seeing one enter its apprenticeship program. What’s more, the average age of first-year apprentices is 28, he said, meaning they are recruiting people who have been “floundering for 10 years” after high school rather than getting those graduating from voc-tech schools.
Michael Fitzpatrick, the superintendent-director of the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, one of the six schools flagged by Riley in his 2019 letter, said his school has twice in the last 10 years reduced the weight given to grades in its admission formula. He said the school has also made changes and “dug deeper” into applicants’ discipline and attendance record in middle schools to better understand the circumstances that may have contributed to poor scores on those measures.
He said voc-tech school leaders are willing to have “meaningful conversations” on ways to draw a more diverse study body.
But the schools seem likely to resist the idea of abandoning a scoring system in favor of a lottery. When the issue came up last year, Kevin Farr, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, which represents vocational school leaders across the state, said the proposal being pushed by Mitchell and other mayors was a bad idea. “You really have to have the drive and have some ability to work independently around some dangerous equipment” to succeed at vocational schools, he said.
Farr said late Thursday afternoon that the group had not yet formulated a response to the latest call for changes to admission policies.Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Law and Education, claimed at Thursday’s briefing that the current selective admission system “runs afoul of many provisions of state and federal law.”
In their letter to state leaders last January, the group of mayors also warned of legal action, but urged state officials to adopt changes to head off a protracted court fight. “The data sketch a clear roadmap for litigation,” they wrote, “and we are concerned that as compelling as the case may be, a judicial solution will take significant time, be divisive, and may not be tailored to the needs of students.”