In Mass., vocational success – and admissions debate
New book lauds voc-tech gains, criticizes changes to acceptance rules
THE STATE’S VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL schools have long stood as one of the unheralded success stories of the education reform efforts begun in the early 1990s. A new book, published by Pioneer Institute, gives the schools their much-deserved due.
Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools chronicles the history of vocational education and documents how schools that were initially wary of the new standards and accountability imposed by the Education Reform Act of 1993 rose to meet the challenge, becoming centers of academic excellence as well as quality hands-on instruction in vocational fields. But the book is also giving new fuel to the recent debate over admission policies at voc schools by suggesting the state should roll back recent changes to admission regulations.
For several years, local elected officials and a coalition of community groups railed against state regulations that allow vocational schools to use selective admissions criteria in enrolling students. They argued that letting the schools rank applicants based on grades, attendance, and their discipline record was cutting off access to voc schools for some students who struggled in middle school and might benefit most from a more hands-on approach to learning. What’s more, they said, the policies were disproportionately cutting off voc-tech access for students of color, English learners, and low-income applicants.
After years of pressure, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted new regulations last June that prohibit voc schools from using admission criteria that have a disproportionate impact on any groups protected by state and federal law unless they can show such standards are “essential to participation” in the school’s program. The state also changed regulations so that schools could no longer count excused absences or minor discipline issues in their admissions rubric.
But the new book on the state’s vocational schools says the changes already put in place threaten the schools’ success, and it sounds a warning about the possibility of the state going further and requiring admission lotteries.
“This recent replacement of voc-tech schools’ longstanding admissions process with the potential threat of a lottery system chips away at the autonomy voc-tech schools have earned and that has been a key ingredient in their success,” says the book. “State policy makers should reverse the changes [they recently made] and restore full autonomy over admissions policies to voc-tech districts and schools.”
David Ferreira, co-editor of the book, said there are concerns with an open admission policy that voc schools would end up with students not as committed to their programs who could end up leaving after a year and going back to the district high school. He said there are also safety reasons for screening students based on their discipline record. “You’ve got 15 kids with welding torches and somebody starts horsing around, you’ve got major issues,” he said.But Lew Finfer, an organizer of the coalition fighting for admission changes, slammed the idea that the admission changes are a threat to the schools and said it’s unfair to have “life opportunities for students determined by what they did in 8th grade.”
“Some people can change and blossom and do better in a voc setting than in a classroom setting, but they don’t get the chance,” said Finfer. “They’re public schools and they’re using a private college admissions policy.”