School officials say dual-track education costing Tennessee jobs

October 05, 2003


KINGSPORT - Few 13-year-old kids know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. Many haven't figured it out well into adulthood.

But Tennessee's dual-track high school education programs is forcing students to make the choice of college or vocational school by eighth grade. Local officials attending Friday's "Jobs Cabinet" meeting hosted by Gov. Phil Bredesen believe the dual-track requirement and the negative stigma associated with vocational school are driving away capable students and hurting the region's work force.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Lana Seivers, who serves on the Jobs Cabinet, told the panel that the need for high school vocational programs is greater than ever, but the state is not attracting as many students as it could to those programs. While the need may be great, Seivers said school systems are choosing to cut expensive vocational programs. She said changes need to be made to boost vocational education by re-evaluating the dual-track program and other vocational requirements.

"The vocational/technical program is a concern we have," said Seivers, explaining that vocational programs are the first to be cut in school systems. "One of the reasons is because of the class-size requirement. Vocational/technical class sizes are lower, and they require more teachers." Seivers noted that few students can make a life choice at 13. She said it's time to rethink the breakdown of those tracks and integrate the two to give students a more flexible education.

Margaret Cloninger, a math and biology teacher at Sullivan South High School who was also a member of Friday's panel, said she has seen the degradation of the state's vocational education program over her teaching career.

"I have seen our vocational programs being dropped every year. ... Only 25 percent of the jobs in the next 10 years are going to require a four-year degree. Most will require a 14-year program, and then we are cutting those out. That's a big concern for me,'' Cloninger said.

A huge economic drawing card for the area, Cloninger said, would be to construct a regional skills center to train high school students in vocational areas.

Cloninger also noted that vocational students are required to pass Algebra I before taking the majority of their vocational classes. Vocational students are also expected to pass the class before college-bound students. That requirement turns many students away.

Before he was the mayor of Bristol, Tenn., David Shumaker worked for years as an educator. He said there is a stigma attached to vocational school that pushes good students away from technical training.

"Some of the administrations have turned vocational programs into dumping grounds for behavioral problems, and what has happened is that many of the good students who should be going into those vocational programs, who don't have an interest in going to college, they are not going into those programs because they don't want to be associated with some of the students there," Shumaker said.

"The best teachers are so frustrated that they have left those programs and teaching. We have to do a better job of selling to our high school students those programs and get those good students back," he said. "What happens is those students who don't have a desire to go to college, and (aren't) going into the program ... graduate and end up doing some menial job in order to have a job at all."

Although the perception may be that "shop" classes are for dummies, Northeast State Community College President Bill Locke said his staff is working diligently to spread the news to high school students that technical classes are just as tough as college. He noted that 70 percent of entering freshmen have to take remedial courses, and the bar for all students needs to be raised.

"If you want to go this route, you're going to have to step up academically. You are going to take a higher level of coursework in high school. The key, I think, is to raise the expectations for learning and the standards for learning in high school,'' Locke said.

Seivers said legislative changes can be made in curriculum to dissolve the dual-track and create a seamless education.

"I think we have to be realistic. What do kids actually need, and how can they be successful? And we need to tell them it's OK to be on a different track," Seivers said.

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.