Guest Op-Ed: Start Solving the Vocational Admissions Problem: Improve Access, Create More Seats

By Steven C. Sharek

It’s no longer a secret that Massachusetts vocational-technical and agricultural high schools are a great option for students of all backgrounds who want to learn a trade and pursue a career.  Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough space in these schools to accommodate the huge demand.  

Right now, there are roughly 55,000 students in Chapter 74 state-approved vocational-technical and agricultural programs, with another 6,000 students on wait lists.  At the same time, business and industry are crying out for skilled workers.

We can be proud of these schools.  They excel in academic performance, graduation rates, and expanded programming that includes fields like environmental science; information technology; and medical, health, and dental assisting.  Students excel because they enjoy the engaging, hands-on learning. 

We are at a tipping point. With this lack of available seats and strong demand for vocational education, advocates, elected officials, and editorial writers are understandably concerned about whether students are being admitted equitably into our schools.  Vocational school leaders are, too.  

The current debate is centered on admissions policies and whether the adoption of a lottery system is the silver bullet for fixing any inequities, real or perceived.  The reality is that a lottery does nothing to address the lack of capacity and it does not guarantee desired enrollment outcomes. 

As educators, we’d like to offer enrollment to everyone.  We simply can’t.  We don’t have the space.  No lottery will ever change that.  A lottery will just rearrange who sits in the seats, with 6,000 kids still on the outside looking in.  With that in mind, we are working hard to conduct our admissions processes as fairly and equitably as possible:

-Since admissions regulations were revised by the state in 2021, 97% of vocational-technical and agricultural high schools have made changes in their admissions policies, personnel, or training.  Clearly, our schools are serious about this effort.

-Grades are now less of a factor.  Many schools now give equal consideration for grades of C or above, unlike before when student grades were more heavily emphasized.

-Disciplinary issues are now less of a factor.  Minor disciplinary issues are no longer factored into the admissions process. 

-Most schools require a recommendation, typically from a guidance counselor, and a brief interview to gauge a student’s interest in vocational education.  We are training interviewers on eliminating bias and are providing supports and accommodations for those applying, including easier access to interviews and translation services.   

-The admissions changes only took effect recently so we have limited data to gauge whether the changes we’ve made are making a real difference.  One year of data doesn’t make a trend.  Moreover, our schools have no access to demographic information about the students who do not enroll.  We need help from the state on this so we can make best-informed decisions. 

-Finally, there’s no guarantee that a lottery would actually help the protected groups of students that all of us want to help.  In fact, simulations run by some of our schools have demonstrated that a lottery would yield exactly the opposite result.  That is, a lottery would result in lower numbers of enrolled students in some protected groups (just as one school experimenting with a lottery recently discovered).

Vocational-technical schools are continuously striving to serve under-represented populations.  Consider special education.  Five of the 10 school districts in Massachusetts with the largest percentages of students with disabilities are vocational-technical and agricultural high schools. 

While there is strong sentiment on the both sides of the lottery debate, what all advocates of high quality vocational-technical education can agree on is this:  The state can do more to help vocational schools and our potential students:  

First, the state needs to make a massive capital investment in vocational school construction to create more seats.  Second, our schools need unfettered access to our middle schools so we can inform students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, about the value of vocational education.  Put another way, we need better access to reach the very students our detractors say are being excluded. 

As demand for limited seats continues, we must work together to create opportunity and bright futures for all our high school students.  Vocational-technical and agricultural high schools in Massachusetts will continue to do their part. 

Steven C. Sharek is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, a professional association of educational leaders who administer and advocate for high-quality vocational-technical and agricultural education.

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