Boston's Vocation

Brass Tacks

Vocational schools in Boston have reached a crisis. Less than fifteen hundred students graduate yearly, many in outdated jobs like painting, printing, and cabinet-making. But the demand for skilled workers in metropolitan Boston has begun to zoom, especially in the highly technical electronics and fabricated metals industries.

Teachers, students, and parents all agree that the city's vocational schools are hopelessly inadequate. Boston Trade School for Boys is the dumping ground for the city. Its machinery is run-down; its faculty is way too small. Since many students are just marking time in classes, incentives are low, and dropouts are high. Boston Trade Schol for Girls is straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. It occupies what was once a gracious mansion which has now become incredibly dilapidated. Cooperative work-study programs like the one in Dorchester High School offer courses only in upholstery, cabinet-making, and cabinet furnishing, though the demand for these skills has greatly diminished. Boston School for Business Education, which trains accountants and secretaries, has a decent program, but facilities are too few and too old. The only real bright spot in the Boston Technical High Schol, which has competitive admissions and sends sixty per cent of its graduates to four year colleges.

These obvious inadequacies have prompted the State to hire two experienced educational consultants, Walter Markham and former Pennsylvania State professor Carl Schaefer. But Markham's report calls only for a liberalization of the present training programs--advisory committees from local industries, better job placement services, courses in new technical fields, and greater flexibility between vocational and academic programs. Although Schaefer has not completed his report, his criticisms in previous studies are similar to Markham's.

The most significant departure from the present training system has been advocated by Thomas Roche, the conservative director of Boston's Vocational Schools. Roche bases his plan on the desirability of the conventional neighborhood school for all students, which in Boston means segregation schools. He would like vocational students to attend neighborhood high schools for academic courses, and on alternate weeks and in their senior year study a trade at a metropolitan vocational center. Students in general and college preparatory courses would be allowed to take electives at the center.

The latest entry into the vocational school brag-bag is A-200, a field-study course in the Harvard School of Education mostly for students getting doctorates in school administration. A-200 has a contract with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), which is trying to force cooperation between different town governments within the Boston area to prepare for an eventual metropolitan system of vocational education. At the same time A-200 has a contract with Operation School House, another Ed School group that plans schools for the city of Boston, to write the specifications for a new vocational high school.

With this joint contract, the A-200 students initially hoped to get Operation Schoolhouse to think about metropolitan vocational training, while helping MAPC get a concrete focus for efforts at regional cooperation. But the contradictory demands of the two contractors have forced the students in A-200 to split into two groups. By April Operation Schoolhouse wants comprehensive specifications for a vocational high school on a site already tentatively selected. But the outcome of the MAPC research may be that Boston needs a scattered series of schools, or that Boston should construct its job training programs in conjunction with other communities in the area.

A-200 will never produce a report as competent or thorough as the studies of Markham or Schaeffer. A-200 students want to learn about educational administration as well as make recommendations for vocational training. They spend a lot of time arguing about organizational needs and procedural timetables. The more theoretically inclined students are still trying to define "vocational education," while the more practically minded men just want to see first-hand a wide variety of job training programs.

The main problem with all these reports on vocational education is that they focus on the status quo and aim at limited changes. In part, this orientation is justified by the political and economic barriers to a whole new concept of vocational training. But there are strong arguments that vocational schools can never be very effective, and that cities should give all funds for job training directly to industry.

First, since technology today is changing so rapidly, only a profit-making organization can keep their machinery up to date.

Second, vocational schools can never hope to hire qualified teachers who can make twice as much by going into industry. A company could offer students highly skilled teachers familiar with the latest techniques.

Third, students have far greater incentives to learn with a definite job in sight. They could learn a trade on the job in six months instead of four years in school.

There are more benefits to this approach than just increasing the efficiency of vocational training. Students could spend the time between grammar school and the start of their apprentice programs in specially devised general education courses in economics, politics, or other subjects directly related to the world of work. Such training programs would be racially integrated since they could draw upon students from all parts of the metropolitan region. Integration could be ensured by equal opportunities clauses in all training contracts.

Of course there are formidable barriers to this approach. A constituency of educators and parents would have to fight the Boston School Committee's vested interest in vocational education. Companies would have to organize large-scale training programs, which many firms have already done. Boston and its suburbs would have to build direct transportation from the central city to Route 128, where many of the expanding industries are located. But this public transportation is necessary anyway to fill the skilled worker demand in the 128 firms.

Finally trade unions would have to change their membership criteria in order to allow for expanded apprentice programs. Parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act if enforced provide for equal opportunities to join unions.

At present State and Boston governments are spending a lot of time and money trying to improve the vocational education system. The currently popular proposal for a city-wide vocational high school would cost millions of dollars. Private consultants and the Harvard Ed School are researching equally costly programs. But the assumpitons of the city, State, and private consultants do not seem valid. Industry-directed training is more efficient and more socially equitable. If the Harvard Ed School is to be in the vanguard of educational reform, course A-200 must study seriously the economic potential, social ramifications, and political feasibility of this new approach to vocational education.