Public vocational-technical high schools could preserve Tennessee’s economy

Published 4:32 pm Friday, August 19, 2022

Tennessee is growing. Its low-tax environment and booming metropolitan areas are attracting talent from around the globe.
To sustain that growth the state must produce and replenish the skilled workforce that fuels the economy. Analysts project that Tennessee will face labor shortages in IT and health care, among other fields. At the same time, the statewide dropout rate in its public schools has reached 6.7%, well above the national average of 5.1%.
Tennessee leaders should look to Massachusetts for an effective way to address this growing workforce development problem. The Bay State has developed a system of public vocational-technical high schools that are considered a national model.
Massachusetts vocational-technical schools were once havens for underperforming students; now there are long waitlists to attend. A 1993 state education reform law required students — including vocational-technical students — to pass state tests to receive their high school diploma. The vocational-technical schools rose to the occasion and invested in academics while maintaining their focus on vocational training.
According to a new book published by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think tank, there are three keys to Massachusetts’ vocational-technical success. The first is that the students alternate on a weekly basis between academics and technical education, with each area benefiting from skills learned in the other. Although voc-tech students spend only half their time in academic classes, they match their comprehensive high school counterparts on state test scores — and Massachusetts has the nation’s top-performing public schools.
The second key is autonomy. Massachusetts has regional voc-tech districts with their own school committees, administrators and budgets, which allows them to respond to the unique needs of vocational-technical students in their regions.
The third key is close ties to the business community. Those relationships provide jobs for both students and graduates and equipment donations from employers eager to keep the talent pipeline flowing.
The collaboration yields another important benefit. As technical jobs demand ever-higher skill levels, Massachusetts voc-techs are keeping up, thanks in part to the participation of business leaders in school advisory committees that give the schools the input necessary to train graduates with in-demand skills. Voc-techs continually update their programs, adding new ones and eliminating underused ones as the economic landscape changes. As a recession looks increasingly likely, this skills matching can help blunt its impact.
The results have been impressive. Massachusetts voc-tech schools enroll twice the state average of special-needs students, yet those students show inordinate academic growth from the ninth grade on. Their dropout rate among special-needs students is minuscule, and the graduation rate for that population is 24 percentage points higher than the state average.
Today, two-thirds of Massachusetts voc-tech students attend some form of higher education after graduation. Students who choose not to pursue secondary education are more job-ready than their peers at conventional high schools, according to a Northeastern University survey of business owners and others.
Using Massachusetts as a model to improve Tennessee’s vocational-technical high schools would bring a host of benefits, such as helping address the state’s dropout problem, especially among the low-income and special-needs students who are most vulnerable. It would also increase the output of skilled workers, who are crucial to economic growth.
Vocational-technical education also provides a pathway to lucrative careers that can support a family without incurring the debt associated with a four-year college education. In Tennessee, student debt averages $36,418 per borrower.
Tennessee is enjoying a period of robust economic growth. Sustaining that growth long-term will require wise decisions on the part of state leaders. Massachusetts’ vocational-technical high schools offer a model that generates the talent employers need and provides economic opportunity for students — including the less affluent and those with special needs.
— Memphis Commercial Appeal

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox