The last eight years did a number on construction-related education in the U.S. public schools, but industry insiders see a ray of hope — as well as a cloud or two — in the Obama administration.

Between 2002, when President Bush signed the landmark “No Child Left Behind” law into effect, and 2008, annual funding for vocational education programs dropped from $12 billion to $7.8 billion (see chart). Annual NCLB funding peaked at nearly $25 billion in 2008, and opponents of the testing-driven program say its growth has come at the expense of hands-on construction and other programs that fall under the umbrella known as career and technical education (CTE).

Arne Duncan, the former Chicago public schools chief who is President Obama’s choice for secretary of education, has expressed support for NCLB while warning that the emphasis on test results can take “too blunt an instrument to an entire school or to a school community.” In Chicago, he strengthened and expanded CTE programs, and groups such as SkillsUSA and the Association for Career and Technical Education applaud his appointment.
“We understand [Duncan] ‘gets’ CTE and supports student organizations,” said Tim Lawrence, executive director of SkillsUSA, in response to questions from this reporter. He adds that the Obama transition team has solicited his group’s input on career and technical education, as well as on “new leadership for the CTE division at the U.S. Department of Education.

“With Mr. Obama’s emphasis on infrastructure and green careers for national economic recovery, I have to believe there will be more support for and investment in construction and other CTE programs and facilities,” Lawrence added.

In a press release issued after Duncan’s nomination, ACTE executive director Jan Bray said, “Duncan was instrumental in developing the Education to Careers program in Chicago Public Schools that provides students with a rigorous college-prep academic curriculum and hands-on training in career and technical education subjects and workforce competences.”


But not everyone is so optimistic about the prospects of real change coming to Washington’s prevailing attitude about vocational education.

“I don’t see it getting any better, but I hope I am wrong,” says Dan Taddei, a Chicagoan who is also education director for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Noting that he is speaking only as an individual, and not on behalf of NARI, Taddei says that he is concerned about Duncan’s approach to NCLB. “Teachers tend to teach to the test and are left little time to teach students how to learn,” he says. “[NCLB] has also all but disabled many of the voc-ed programs due to administrators’ fears that voc-ed students will not pass the required exams or meet NCLB goals.”

On the other hand, Taddei notes that the Chicago public school system “has some very good career academies.” Duncan closed 61 low-performing schools, and opened 75 schools, during his seven-year tenure in Chicago.


Percentage of high schools that offered a construction program in 2002
Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Average earnings increase immediately after graduation of students who took four high school CTE courses
Source: 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education

Lifetime earnings difference between high school dropouts and graduates
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census

Percentage of students in the Chicago public schools who met “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) standards in reading in 2008

Target percentage of U.S. public high school students who will be proficient in math and reading by 2014
Source: U.S. Department of Education