Voc-tech schools are a Mass. success story

4,400 students are on waitlists; let's expand schools that work

MASSACHUSETTS VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL high schools are like the person who toils for years, only to be termed an “overnight sensation” when he or she finally achieves recognition. For over a decade the schools have quietly compiled an impressive record, and the time has come to expand them.

Voc-tech schools were once among the staunchest opponents of MCAS and of holding their students to the same standards as those at other public high schools. School leaders sincerely doubted that voc-tech students, many of whom entered the schools with reading skills that were at least two years below grade level, could match the performance of their comprehensive high school peers.

But once the decision to apply the same standards and accountability to all students was made in 1993, voc-techs’ response demonstrated that attitude matters when confronting a challenge. The schools did everything they could to help their students succeed. In 2006, former Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School superintendent Eugene Carlo said, “MCAS was the best thing that ever happened to us.” Today, voc-tech MCAS scores are about equal to the statewide average.

Voc-techs educate a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than typical high schools do, but the dropout rate at regional voc-techs is about one third that of traditional high schools and their special education graduation rate is 24 percentage points higher.

More than two-thirds of voc-tech graduates go on to post-secondary education. For those who choose not to, a survey of business owners and others conducted by Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center found that voc-tech graduates are more job ready than other high school graduates. What’s more, a number of respondents said they were more job ready than college grads.

The schools operate using an innovative model under which pupils alternate weekly between traditional academics and hands-on work in their trade, allowing students to graduate with a high school diploma and a certificate of proficiency in their career technical program.

Manufacturing firms currently employ approximately 250,000 people in Massachusetts, with an average annual salary of about $75,000, and demand for these highly skilled students will likely continue to grow.

Not surprisingly, demand for voc-tech seats is also on the rise. While statewide public school enrollment fell 3 percent between 2005 and 2015, voc-tech enrollment climbed by 13 percent. At least 4,400 students are on waitlists, and the actual number is probably even greater.

Demand is particularly high in Gateway Cities like Springfield and Chelsea, where voc-tech graduates could give local economies a much-needed boost. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, just over one-quarter of the students enrolled in voc-techs come from Gateway Cities, but they are home to more than half of those on waitlists.

The shortage of voc-tech seats could be addressed by investing an additional $20 million per year, less than 0.5 percent of the Commonwealth’s education budget. The investment would make space for 5,000 more students.

Expansion should focus on the 52 Massachusetts cities and towns that don’t currently have access to a district or regional voc-tech school.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
Since, with the exception of Worcester Technical High School, regional vocational-technical schools have outperformed those that are embedded within a school district, the state should look to the regionals as the model for expansion.

The Commonwealth’s vocational-technical school graduates are more likely to contribute to the state economy, fill anticipated job openings, earn more money and pay more taxes than traditional high school grads, and they are also likely to require fewer public benefits. Expanding vocational-technical schools is an investment that would pay handsome dividends for Massachusetts.

Tom Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    It’s interesting how Thomas Birmingham, a co-author of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, omits the most important part of that law: Funding. The Education Reform Act set up the Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing state aid to local public schools. Why not take a sentence or two going into funding? Because then Birmingham would have to acknowledge some facts he’d prefer to ignore. In 2010 the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education released a report, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept How is the Foundation Budget Working?” finding “Over the 17 years since the Education Reform Act passed, there has been virtually no equalization in spending or state aid between rich districts and poor.” In 2015 the “Foundation Budget Review Commission Final Report” was released finding a massive shortfall in state aid to public education in areas including English language learning, low income and special education. And yet, the former Senate President Tom Birmingham never once mentioned that. Why? Because it’s all about starving public education of funding. It’s true.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I strongly support an expansion of vocational technical education in Massachusetts but I also want an informed discussion about it. Unfortunately, this commentary by Thomas Birmingham doesn’t contribute to an informed debate at all. Why is “MCAS…the best thing that ever happened…” to vocational regional high schools? Why are voc-tech MCAS scores about equal to the statewide average? How is it possible for voc-techs to educate a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than typical high schools do, but the dropout rate at regional voc-techs is about one third that of traditional high schools? Because regional vocational technical high schools have selective enrollment! A student has to apply and meet the selection criteria. For Great Lowell Technical High School “Admission reviews five criteria: Scholastic Achievement, Attendance, School Discipline/Conduct, and the Local Sending School’s Recommendation.” And how does a student gain entrance to the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School? According to the school’s website:
    Complete, sign, and submit an application
    Minuteman will obtain the student records
    Student will attend an interview
    The admissions criteria consists of the applicant’s last two academic years of the following information:
    Grades
    Attendance
    Discipline/Conduct
    Recommendation
    Interview
    All applicants are scored and accepted highest to lowest.
    Students may be accepted or placed on a waiting list.
    Wait listed students will be accepted as space becomes available
    Those who do not meet the minimum requirements may reapply the following year.
    Accepted students must participate in a Placement Testing Program.
    So why wouldn’t regional vocation technical schools have strong MCAS scores?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s really great about Thomas Birmingham’s commentary is how he glosses over the numbers and minimizes the costs of regional vocational technical schools. He stated: “The shortage of voc-tech seats could be addressed by investing an additional $20 million per year, less than 0.5 percent of the Commonwealth’s education budget. The investment would make space for 5,000 more students.” Let’s dig into that number. If you divide $20,000,000 by 5,000 students then you would come up with a $4,000 per student cost. Wow! Isn’t that an incredibly low number! What taxpayer wouldn’t want schools across the state opened up educating students at that low cost? The problem is…that isn’t how much it costs to educate a student in a regional vocational technical high school. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in 2015 the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School had a per pupil expenditure of $28,208 or more than 7 times the $4,000 cost Birmingham cited. South Middlesex Regional Vocational Technical School’s expenditure per pupil is $25,758; Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical School’s per pupil expenditure comes in at $21,335 and Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical School’s per pupil expenditure is $20,558. Compare GLTS’s per pupil cost to North Andover’s in district per pupil cost of $12,055 and you can see regional vocational technical high schools operate with higher costs than local public school districts. Why didn’t Birmingham acknowledge that fact? Because then readers would do the math. If local public schools are already underfunded by the state, receive an unreasonably low charter school reimbursement due to a flawed and underfunded formula, and charter schools are still draining funds from those public schools then what will additional seats in existing, and brand new regional vocational high schools do to local public education? Public education needs to be fully and properly funded. Thomas Birmingham is all about trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. CommonWealth’s readers deserve better commentary than this.