Separate Tables: Academic and Vocational Education Reforms in Traditional, Comprehensive High Schools

Publication July 1998

The last decade has witnessed a plethora of research on significant restructuring and reform efforts within schools. Yet, for the most part, this research has tended to focus on the fate of a singular reform initiative, ignoring the larger reality of the school site that almost inevitably encompasses multiple and simultaneous change efforts. Thus, little is known about how substantive and systemic reform initiatives interact within schools or what consequences one may hold for the other. This study examined two traditional, comprehensive high schools, both of which have been involved with the school restructuring efforts advocated by the Coalition of Essential Schools. Shortly after their commitment to essential school changes, the schools also became involved in the series of vocational education reforms loosely referred to as “Tech Prep.”

Briefly, an examination of what happened to both reforms in these schools was investigated in two ways. First, single case studies of each school were developed. These include the story of the schools’ reform efforts, including an overall chronology of the change efforts engaged in as well as influential/significant events that influenced the course of change. Conclusions were then drawn about (1) what happened to vocational education reforms within the context of the traditional, comprehensive high schools engaged in essential school change and (2) the interactions and/or relationships (or lack thereof) that occurred between the essential school restructuring reforms and the vocational education initiatives in each school. Then, a second cross-case analysis was made to identify themes that emerged from the data about factors that affected the course and outcomes of the two reform initiatives. Finally, implications for policymakers were drawn.

The single cases focused on Oakfield, a small, rural comprehensive high school, and Edgewater, a large suburban high school. While the essential school and vocational education reforms struggled in both schools, the single case studies revealed that Oakfield clearly was making substantively greater headway in implementation of both initiatives. This was largely because of two site-related factors: (1) Oakfield was able to begin to establish clear and complementary linkages between the essential school ideas and the vocational education reforms; and (2) Edgewater had a huge investment in terms of community approbation and measures of student success in maintaining the status quo of a traditional, comprehensive high school.

From a cross-case perspective, there were four central conclusions drawn. The first of these concerned general issues of reform and the importance of context in change efforts for secondary schools. The second drew upon considerations of simultaneous reform efforts in schools; specifically, the essential school and vocational education reforms. This alluded to the fact that unless the complementary aspects of simultaneous reforms are sought out and emphasized, the initiatives are likely to be seen as competing. The third and fourth conclusions extend the examination of essential school and vocational education reforms by focusing respectively on the continuing centrality of the academic core in secondary schools and the impact this holds for vocational education reforms.

The implications for policymakers are constructed on an explanatory framework using the concepts of will, capacity, and accountability. The fundamental argument presented is that vocational education reforms face serious challenges in all three of these conceptual areas when it comes to implementation in traditional, comprehensive high schools. This will likely have the effect of placing the reform efforts from the start in a negative position and can allow the idiosyncrasies of local context and the dominance of the status quo to ride roughshod over the reform to an even greater extent than might be expected.

Prestine, N. A. (1998, July). Separate tables: Academic and vocational education reforms in traditional, comprehensive high schools. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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