Global Researcher: Professor Shaun Dougherty Presents Vocational Education Research Abroad

Shaun Dougherty Headshot
Educational Leadership's Professor Shaun Dougherty

On September 15, 2017, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, Shaun Dougherty, presented research on technical education at the University College Dublin School of Economics in Dublin, Ireland. Four days prior to his visit to UCD, Dr. Dougherty presented at The Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) Conference at the London School of Economics in London, England. Following his trip, we were able to talk with Dr. Dougherty concerning the importance of technical and vocational education and his experience abroad:

1. How does postsecondary education in the United States compare to the education systems in Europe?

In the US we have a highly self-directed system of tertiary education whereby students can self-select into two- or four-year colleges, technical training, or no tertiary education as well. In the UK and Ireland, the systems are more similar to the US than in much of the rest of mainland Europe. That said, even the UK system is more differentiated than our own, with clearer vocational pathways for tertiary education, and less clearly defined in programs that would look like our community colleges.

2. Why is the idea of vocational education more popular abroad and what barriers have limited technical schools as a widely accepted route in the United States?

The United States has generally favored a focus on individual choice in educational pursuits and have thus chosen to focus on development of more general skills, rather than encouraging differentiation of educational pathways based on prior test score of academic performance. In the UK and Ireland there is less differentiation early in the educational process. In contrast, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark differentiate across educational pathways that are college bound, or not, much earlier (e.g. lower secondary, or transition to upper secondary).

3. How has the value of a high school diploma changed in the United States? Additionally, how has the value of a bachelor’s degree changed in the United States?

Over the last three decades there has been a clear decline in the value of a high school diploma. Some of this decline has been driven by the fact that high school graduation rates have risen steadily over this period, which has reduced the ability of the diploma to be used as a way to distinguish students with lower and middle skills. In contrast, the value of a bachelor’s degree has increased over this period, though there is some speculation now whether we may see a plateau in the returns to a college degree as rates of degree acquisition increase.

4. What is the future for technical education schools and vocational training in the United States?

In the present political moment, interest in Career and Technical Education (CTE) as part of “college and career readiness” is at its highest in 30 years. As there is increased evidence of lower than desired college completion rates (among those who ever enroll), there is an acknowledgement that differentiation in career pathways is important, and that college for all policies may not have done as well as they might in creating awareness of the myriad of educational and workforce options that may be available to people. I anticipate that technical education will continue to garner some substantial attention in the near term. However, unless states and districts do a good job of defining educational options and articulating how they can transfer into higher education and employment, there may be under utilization of these educational pathways.

5. What are the advantages of vocational training and how can it improve employment outcomes?

Poster Board from the Centre for Vocational Education Research Conference in London, England

One of the benefits of technical education is that it makes schooling relevant and clearly applies it to a form of learning that reflects a use in employment. A second potential benefit is that it can impart skills that may be in demand in the workforce, and that could lead to higher wages, especially early in an individual's working career. That said, there is some evidence that the long-term trajectories of those who focus on CTE in high school may not be as favorable as those who get more general skills and pursue other forms of higher education. The key is not to position the choices as binary, either/or, decisions. Students who participate in CTE in high school may get benefits that include enhanced bridges to postsecondary education. Furthermore, for students for whom college is not palatable, CTE may improve their outcomes over what they would have been in the absence of technical education.

6.What did you learn from other researchers at the Centre for Vocational Educational Research (CVER) Conference and/or at the University College Dublin (UCD) that you think could improve upon the traditional education path in the United States?

The CVER conference was a nice way to reinforce for me the myriad of ways that our neighbors in the EU are thinking about and innovating in education. One of the best reminders I received was that, while CTE doesn’t always carry a negative stigma, the social value of different forms of education is highly variable. What this means to me is that educational policy in the US has to be realistic about how it uses and promotes policies to improve educational and workforce outcomes in the US. It also reminded me that there are more variants on the models we use in the US for technical education, and that there are continued opportunities to learn from those who have been doing this longer than we have.

Dr. Dougherty's research has recently been featured in The Conversation, UConn Today, Brookings Institute and in former Vice President Joe Biden's podcast, Biden's Briefing.