One Million Hours a Day

Vocational Education in California Public Secondary Schools
David Stern
University of California, Berkeley
Susan Choy
MPR Associates, Inc.
Charles Scott Benson
University of California, Berkeley


Eleventh and twelfth grade students in California comprehensive high school and Regional Occupational Centers/Programs (ROC/ROPs) collectively spend about one million hours a day on vocational education. This represents a large investment of student time and public money, yet vocational education has potential that far exceeds its present performance.

California students spend more than twice as much time in high school vocational classes as in ROC/ROPs. Most vocational programs are offered in both places, though possibly at a more advanced level in ROC/ROPs.

California students who took a concentrated sequence of high school vocational subjects during 1981 had a 26 percent unemployment rate in spring 1982, compared to 23 percent unemployment among all 16 to 19 year olds, and 27 percent unemployment among high school dropouts. Evidently, high school vocational training did not give students any relative advantage in finding jobs after they graduated. Available evidence also did not reveal that vocational classes were effective in retaining would-be dropouts.

On the whole, vocational classes as currently offered in California comprehensive high schools are not demonstrably effective in helping students find jobs after they graduate nor in retaining would-be dropouts. Furthermore, there is no evident way in which reallocating resources among existing high school vocational programs would bring about much improvement in labor market outcomes for graduates.

We propose fundamental changes in vocational education at the secondary level. Comprehensive high schools should stop trying to provide skill training for entry level jobs—a task they are not well situated to do—and instead should use vocational education to prepare young people for a working life of continual learning, problem solving, and communicating. To accomplish this broader purpose, vocational education should include all students at some point in their high school career. It should be integrated with the academic curriculum, but at the same time engage students in producing something of real use. It should teach teamwork and encourage active inquiry. The success of vocational education in high schools should be measured by improved performance in academic subjects, lower dropout rates, and life long gains in productivity at work.

To provide training in specific job skills for high school students, ROC/ROP programs should continue. We recommend, however, that evaluation of these programs put less emphasis on job placement and more on students' attainment of measured competence.

Suggested citationStern, D., Hoachlander, E. G., Choy, S., & Benson, C. S. (1986, March). One million hours a day: Vocational education in California public secondary school [Report].  Policy Analysis for California Education.