In this season of social justice reckoning everything is — or should be — getting a second look, especially educational opportunities, from which so many other opportunities flow.
Vocational education, at long last, is getting that second look — who gets into the highly sought after programs, with their promise of preparation for well-paying jobs, and how to open those opportunities to more Black and Latino students and to those from poorer households. Also in question is whether there are enough programs to accommodate the range of needs of the Commonwealth’s students.
“The students who may need these schools the most are systemically shut out as the number of students from middle-income households and college-bound students increase,” Barbara Fields of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, told the state Board of Education last week. “Students with great interest in pursuing a career in vocational-technical education are unable to qualify for admittance to the schools, therefore relegating them to the lowest-paying jobs,” Fields said.
More than three dozen public vocational schools in Massachusetts provide services to over 36,000 students in what has clearly become a highly competitive atmosphere. Several thousand more are on waiting lists.
These aren’t, after all, your father’s shop classes. Sure, there are the traditional automotive, electrical, and plumbing programs, but also programs in cosmetology, culinary arts, early childhood education, medical assisting, hospitality management, and Web design — along with required academic programs.
Not surprisingly, demand is high and available slots are limited, so schools can afford to be selective. But some are being far too selective, according to two dozen mayors, many of them from the state’s gateway cities, who pleaded with the Board of Education in a letter last January to make the admissions process fairer to those students who could benefit the most.
Currently students, who apply in the eighth grade, are admitted on the basis of grades, disciplinary records, attendance, and usually the recommendation of a guidance counselor or an administrator who conducted an in-person interview. While many see these as reasonable standards for a school that can be selective, the result at many vocational-technical schools has been a student population that is less diverse than the districts where they are located.
The disparities are particularly acute when it comes to the representation of English-language learners, relative to their high populations in cities such as Lawrence and New Bedford that host the vocational schools. Accompanying that letter from the mayors and the Massachusetts Municipal Association was a chart documenting those disparities.
Some of the vocational technical schools, especially those that boast some of the higher MCAS scores in the state, have reinvented themselves as “superior alternatives to comprehensive high schools for college-bound students,” the mayors say. Many now offer Advanced Placement courses, which is terrific for the students who are interested in college, but not so great for students who would rather focus on a well-paying trade. It’s clear that a wide range of options for vocational school are needed, and also a better system to eliminate bias in admissions to the best ones.
The mayors, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and the recently formed Vocational Education Justice Coalition are proposing a lottery system similar to that used for charter schools but with certain “gating criteria,” like successfully completing the previous grade and being free of “serious” disciplinary charges (spelled out in state regulations). A minor middle school infraction, the coalition rightly asserts, shouldn’t doom a student’s chances for admission to a program that would set him or her on a path to a better future.
The consequences — unintended or not — of the existing admissions criteria have become increasingly obvious over the years. Last November, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley sent notices to six schools, flagging “enrollment discrepancies” between the demographics of their student bodies and those of the local district high schools. He asked that the schools look at their policies, including admissions policies “that may be impacting equitable student access to the strong vocational-technical programs your school offers, and to voluntarily enact changes.”
In the meantime, a pandemic has intervened, and schools are struggling just to stay open. But the state shouldn’t lose sight of this problem.
Part of the solution, of course, is to expand the programs with more state dollars — something unlikely to happen in this cash-strapped year. But the rest of the solution rests with Riley and the state board, who have vowed to put the matter on their December agenda. Another year must not pass without reforms and resources to help the young people who could benefit most from these schools.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.