Recent increases in high school graduation requirements have cut enrollment in vocational courses and threaten to force more students to drop out of school, a study panel on vocational education has charged.
Moves by many states to require all students to take more academic subjects, such as English, mathematics or science, "screen out those who do not fit the mold," the group said, and "ignore the needs of those . . . who do not plan to go to college."
"The assumption of much recent criticism of schools is that more academics, which may be the best preparation for college, is also the best preparation for life," it said. "This assumption is wrong."
The 14-member panel, which released its report here, was set up by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at Ohio State University. Its $225,000 budget was financed by the vocational and adult education office of the U.S. Education Department.
The group's chairman, Harry F. Silberman, an education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the new study was needed to provide "a more balanced perspective" than the series of highly critical reports on American education issued over the past two years. These reports have helped spur the increases in academic course requirements enacted by about 40 states.
But the new report, "The Unfinished Agenda," says academic requirements should be limited so students can take a full vocational program. It urged that students be permitted to meet some academic course requirements with vocational courses that are "comparable in content coverage and rigor."
In Virginia, the State Board of Education has allowed students in specific occupational programs to waive a new required math or science course, though this does not apply to those taking a few vocational electives. On Wednesday, the Maryland State Board rejected pleas by vocational groups and gave tentative approval to adding one more math course and fine arts to its graduation requirements.
"In the past 25 years there's been too much diversity in education," said Margaret S. Marston, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education who served on the National Commission on Excellence in Education. "We felt that everyone needs certain basic skills and basic knowledge to survive."
Another Excellence Commission member, Harvard physics professor Gerald Holton, said that panel "rejected the argument that academics are only necessary for persons heading for college." Vocational education, he said, often is a "dead end . . . that only prepares students for low-level entry jobs."
Silberman said vocational courses not only teach job skills but also motivate "marginal" and "dropout-prone" students to stay in school by making academic work relevant. The report urges that vocational courses be made more rigorous so that they are not a "dumping ground" for the less able.