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Educator, Student, and Employer Priorities for Tech Prep Student Outcomes (MDS-790)

D. D. Bragg

A study was conducted to identify, classify, and prioritize student outcomes to help to build a foundation for evaluating Tech Prep programs. The study involved three stakeholder groups: educators, students, and employers. All of these stakeholders were actively engaged in planning and implementing Tech Prep programs affiliated with the Urban Schools Network sponsored by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE). Two research questions guided the study:
  1. Collectively, how do the three stakeholder groups of educators, students, and employers conceptualize and prioritize Tech Prep student outcomes?
  2. What are the similarities and differences in how each of the three stakeholder groups of educators, students, and employers conceptualize and prioritize Tech Prep student outcomes?

The need to better understand the perspectives of various stakeholder groups toward Tech Prep has been identified by many researchers (e.g., see Bragg & Layton, 1995; Connell & Mason, 1995; Dornsife, 1992; Hammons, 1992; Roegge, Leach, & Brown, 1995). Recognizing this need, a study employing concept mapping was undertaken. Concept mapping is a structured conceptualization and statistical modeling procedure developed by Trochim (1989a) to provide a means of articulating and structuring stakeholders' ideas in a visual form called a concept map. A total of 61 stakeholders participated in this concept mapping study representing 20 of the 30 NCRVE Urban Schools Network sites. The participants provided rating and sort data on 98 student outcomes statements gleaned from a wide range of literature addressing Tech Prep, school-to-work, vocational-technical, and general education reform and restructuring. A panel of experts reviewed the list of statements to establish content validity. The concept mapping procedure was pilot tested and refined prior to the actual administration with participants. Preliminary and final concept maps were computed using Trochim's Concept System program for all the entire groups of stakeholder participants (n=61) as well as each of the subgroups: educators (n=24), students (n=18), and employers (n=19). For the final analysis, a nine-cluster (solution) concept map was calculated providing both quantitative and qualitative results regarding Tech Prep student outcomes.

Results showed the three stakeholder groups of educators, students, and employers gave high priority to a wide array of student outcomes. It seems nearly everything one might think of as associated with a modern high school education is seen as important for Tech Prep. In fact, all three stakeholder groups rated nearly all of the 98 student outcomes statements at a "moderate" or "high" priority level even though they were instructed to spread the ratings of the outcomes statements across the 5-point priority rating scale. In addition, results showed there were many more similarities than differences in how the three groups conceptualized and prioritized Tech Prep student outcomes. A nine-cluster concept map was deemed the most logical way to represent the results for all participants. This concept map contained the following clusters (mean cluster rating on 5-point priority scale in parentheses):

  1. Personal attributes, attitudes, and employability skills (4.13)
  2. School-to-work transition (3.96)
  3. Technology and quality management (3.92)
  4. Information use and decision making (3.89)
  5. Work and interpersonal relationships (3.75)
  6. Educational attainment (3.68)
  7. Communications (3.61)
  8. Math and science (3.46)
  9. Democratic and participatory strategies (3.29)

When concept maps were created for each of the subgroups, many of the same clusters were apparent. In fact, all three subgroups sorted virtually the same sets of outcomes statements into the three clusters labeled "personal attributes, attitudes, and employability skills," "school-to-work transition," and "work and interpersonal relationships." In addition, all three stakeholder groups created both vocationally oriented clusters (e.g., work and interpersonal relationships) and academically oriented clusters (e.g., math and science). And these clusters were physically separate from one another on all of the concept maps, giving the impression that outcomes associated with vocational and academic education are distinct and independent from one another. However, in all of the concept maps, stakeholders created one or more clusters that clearly did possess outcomes from across the traditional vocational and academic curriculum. These clusters contained outcomes statements having to do with technology, information use, decision-making, work, and management. Outcomes from such disciplines as the humanities, social studies, science, and vocational-technical education were contained in these clusters. Typical of this kind of cluster is one created by students labeled "work, technology, and information use" or one developed by employers labeled "technology and quality management." Within each of these clusters is a nucleus of outcomes linking vocational and academic subject matter, contributing ideas for the integration of vocational and academic education for Tech Prep.

Beyond these areas, some important differences in how the three stakeholder groups perceived the Tech Prep student outcomes were apparent. Particularly in sorting and rating outcomes related to education, and specifically academic subjects, there was a great deal of disparity in the ways the stakeholder groups perceived student outcomes. For example, educators and students gave higher priority ratings than employers to sets of educational attainment outcomes such as to graduate from high school, make progress on grade level, and graduate from two-year postsecondary college. Employers gave slightly higher priority to clusters of vocationally oriented outcomes, although all three stakeholders tended to give vocationally oriented clusters high priority ratings while academically oriented outcomes received lower (albeit not low but moderate) ratings.

Clusters linked to the academic areas of social studies and humanities received the lowest ratings. In fact, the cluster labeled "democratic and participatory strategies" created by employers rated the lowest of all clusters with an average rating of 2.99. Recalling that the federal Tech Prep Education Act specifies that Tech Prep be comprised of mathematics, science, English/communications, and vocational-technical education, this rating may not be surprising. Similarly to the federal law, most local or state policies associated with Tech Prep have emphasized math, science, English/communications, and vocational-technical education over humanities or other liberal studies. Consequently, the stakeholder participants' responses may reflect a bias in the public policy, influencing how respondents rate various vocational and academic outcomes statements. Of course, this study only examines perceptions and not actual implementation. Therefore, it is not possible to determine whether respondents have experienced a shift in curriculum focus. Related to this concern, many local consortia and state agencies profess a primary purpose of Tech Prep is to "eliminate the general track," following a vision of Tech Prep articulated by Parnell (1985). Although difficult to determine from this data, it is possible that reforming the general track by emphasizing math, science, and technology may lead to less emphasis on the traditional social and democratic functions of public education. There is only so much time in a school day. Yet, even though the data suggests such a prioritization is occurring among the Tech Prep student outcomes, it is difficult to believe these kinds of ideas are explicit to the respondents in terms of tradeoffs of courses and content (subject matter) within the curriculum. Certainly, more research is needed to understand the actual changes occurring within the curriculum and subsequent effects on students.

In summary, this study attempted to better understand Tech Prep student outcomes from the perspectives of educators, students, and employers actively engaged in implementing Tech Prep. Knowing how these groups conceptualize student outcomes has important implications for understanding the fundamental objectives of Tech Prep, for planning and implementing Tech Prep and related school-to-work programs, and for assessing outcomes. Also, by uncovering various conceptualizations of Tech Prep, it is feasible to identify conflicting perspectives held by disparate stakeholder groups, possibly revealing gaps in the logic that underpins the Tech Prep approach. Using this study as a model, further research could be conducted with still more stakeholder groups (e.g., policymakers, administrators, counselors, parents) and with other localities such as rural and suburban areas. As Tech Prep and school-to-work program implementation continues, more attention must be devoted to student outcomes. Only by better understanding various stakeholder perspectives can future evaluations and outcomes assessments be expected to produce results useful to the nation's goal of reforming education.

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