I have been blessed to serve in vocational a course in miracles bookstore in Massachusetts. Our system is known as the best in the country, and I have little doubt that that reputation is well-deserved. Because of our success, particularly over the past several years, vocational education has become a darling of the press – and a lightning rod for criticism, often unfair.
It’s a great system, but it could be even better.
Here are three things that could help us improve the vocational education system in Massachusetts — or at least maintain its current excellence:
1. Directly Address the Tension and Misunderstanding Between Vocational School Districts and Their Non-Vocational Counterparts. Misinformation and misunderstanding is all too common. It needs to stop. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) can – and should – take the lead. DESE should convene regular meetings of representatives of the major professional education associations, including the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA), Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association (MSSAA), Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials (MASBO), Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS), and Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).
Get them to talk.
As a bridge to common ground, DESE should ask these groups to focus on educational issues of mutual interest and ask them to identify solutions. The topics should include paying for out-of-district placement of students with severe disabilities, keeping alive arts and music in the public schools, providing education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and delivering 21st Century skills.
2. Insist on Maintaining High-Quality Vocational Education Programs. Chapter 74 of the Massachusetts General Laws governs vocational education. The law and its regulations outline high standards for program approval. The state must not deviate from those high standards – no matter where the program, no matter how high the political price. Doing otherwise puts the integrity of the entire vocational education delivery system and that of the state education department at risk.
In this context, DESE would be wise to drop the idea of “provisional” or “conditional” approval of Chapter 74 programs. Existing standards for these programs have worked well for decades. Why change them? If the state wants to speed up the approval process, that’s fine. Just reassign staff to put more people in charge of reviewing applications for program approvals. Don’t ease up on the standards.
Further, the state needs to clarify the circumstances under which the Commissioner would consider approving in an academic school district a Chapter 74 program that directly duplicates one already currently offered at a regional vocational technical district of which that community is a part. There might be exceptional circumstances where a duplicate program warrants such approval. In my opinion, those cases should be exceedingly rare.
3. Move Cautiously on Regulatory Changes. The vocational education system in Massachusetts is working well, exceptionally well. The regulations covering vocational education have been in place for many, many years. While there may be a need for some tinkering around the edges, there is absolutely no pressing need for wholesale change.
To its credit, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education invited the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA) to talk about possible regulatory changes early on, before anything “official” was proposed. As a result, DESE modified its initial position on several issues and delayed its proposed timetable to bring the recommended changes to its board. With several new members on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the case for further delay and investigation is even more compelling. Massachusetts would do well to slow down, allow practitioners to discuss these proposed changes further, and reflect carefully on their potential impact.
Steven C. Sharek is a veteran school administrator. He has served as an Assistant Dean of Academic Services at Southern New England School of Law (now UMass School of Law) in Dartmouth, MA; as Superintendent-Director at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, MA; and as a Cluster Coordinator and Communications/Grants Manager at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School in New Bedford, MA. He holds a B.A. in English, Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership, and Juris Doctor. He has been an active member of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA).