General Problem

My research consists of two questions: First, what are the learning needs of the postsecondary vocational student? Second, how do these learning needs relate to the principles of democratic education? Postsecondary vocational education (PSVE) essentially uses the same teaching theories and methods as traditional primary and secondary education. Illich (1971) as well as Stecher, Rahn, Ruby, Alt, and Ward (1997) wrote that these approaches to teaching were the result of the Industrial Age and the need to mass produce students who would be ready to work in factories and businesses. Factory and clerical jobs mostly required rote tasks and called for very few critical thinking skills.

The original goal of apprenticeship models of education was to ensure that all students entering the journeyman stage had the same basic knowledge and skills (Scott & Sarkees-Wircenski, 1996). In today’s technologically advanced and constantly changing world, this goal alone is insufficient to meet the demands of society. Equally significant is the evidence that shows that although top-down approaches have a place in teaching children, adults such as those who attend vocational schools have very different learning styles and needs than children (Knowles, 1973; Wlodkowski, 1999). There is an inherent conflict between andragogy (the teaching of adults) and the principles of trade apprenticeship (the teaching of a specific set of skills and tasks in a certain manner through repetition, rote memorization, and observation; Knowles, 1973).

The objectives of rote memorization and imitation for teaching and learning that continue to be used to teach trades have been criticized by scholars like Hecht (2009), Jacobs (2009), Mercogliano (2009), and Hirsch (1996). Many of the students attending postsecondary vocational schools today are expected to learn by the same traditional, industrial, mass-produced teaching methods that did not work for them in their primary and secondary education.

According to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) (2008) 67% of those enrolling in a vocational or technical program in 2006 graduated, in 2007 the number declined to 66%, and in 2008 the percentage dropped to a 65% graduation rate. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)  (2009) reported a 78% graduation rate for 2009 in non-degree-granting programs and a 72% graduation rate for students in a bachelor’s degree program. In the same report ACCSC (2008) shows that employment in the field of study has remained constant for the 2006 through 2008 period at 81%. ACICS (2009) reported a placement rate of 73% for the non-degree-granting programs in 2009. The problem that needs to be addressed is not the 65-78% of the students graduating, nor the 73-81% of those students that obtain related employment. The problem that needs to be addressed is the 22-35% of those students that do not complete their training, and the 19-27% of those that complete that do not obtain employment in the field of their studies.

It is easy to blame the failure of these students on their prior education, as ACCSC (2008) reports that 92% of those enrolling have a high school diploma or an equivalent. In 1983, the U.S. government published a report that documented evidence that schools were graduating students who could not read, write, or do basic math (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). As a follow-up, in 2001, the U.S. Department of Education completed a research study that tested adult literacy using a sample of adults across the United States. This research found that only 21% of high school graduates and GED recipients were proficient in prose, only 31% of those tested were proficient in documents (reading and generation), and only 31% were proficient in basic quantitative (math) skills (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2001). Moreover, only 74.7% of the freshmen who began high school in 2000 graduated in 2005 (Snyder, Dillow, & Hoffman, 2008).

If any part of this picture of American education can be blamed on a system of education that does not adequately encourage critical and independent thinking or stimulate a desire to learn, then looking at alternative education has value (Gatto, 2009). If changing the way we teach will better prepare any of the 35% not completing a vocational program and help them to learn a trade then looking at alternatives has value. Those who attend colleges and universities have a chance to experience more effective models of teaching; however, this scenario is unlikely for students enrolled in PSVE as it is based on the apprenticeship model of teaching that has not changed much since the industrial age (Scott & Sarkees-Wircenski, 1996).

If students who want to learn a trade must overcome the baggage of a less-than-effective model of education as found in the high stakes testing environment in today’s schools, they should at least be able to leave this baggage at the school doorstep (Llewellyn, 1998; The Conference Board, 2006). Based on my experiences as a vocational instructor some of the students who enroll in postsecondary vocational programs are unable to read a ruler in spite of having graduated from high school. Many, however, are highly motivated and want to learn a trade. If students are given more freedom to learn in a way that feels natural to them, they might overcome the problems they face, such as lacking good learning habits, and be able to fulfill their dreams (Gatto, 2009; Llewellyn, 1998).

Additional evidence of the need for change comes from future employers. Twice a year, as an instructor, I facilitate a curriculum advisory board meeting for the adult vocational program that I teach. The board is made up of employers, graduates, and instructors. At this meeting, we ask local contractors how we can improve the quality of our graduates. At a recent meeting, all six contractors had the same concern: In addition to wanting graduates to show up for work on time, dress properly, and follow directions, they wanted students to solve problems on their own, which requires them to have critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The PSVE curriculum needs to include teaching these skills.

If PSVE students continue to receive the same pattern of top-down, authoritarian education, their chances of succeeding in their chosen field are less likely than if they were allowed to participate in more adult approaches to teaching and learning, such as those promoted as part of a democratic education (Illich, 1971). A democratic education is education for all students and encourages self-directed learning options (Bennis, 2009; Morrison, 2007). Democratic (noncoercive) education is inclusive and based on a respect for human rights and the freedom of students to organize their daily school, work, and life activities to create their own interpretation of what learning is (Bennis & Graves, 2008). Thus, there is a conflict between adult educational theories (andragogy) and the traditional nature of vocational education being taught by rote memorization and imitation.

Student retention is also a problem for postsecondary vocational schools. The accrediting bodies have set minimum standards for student graduation and employment rates as a benchmark of program quality (Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, 2008). Although publicly funded career and vocational schools exist in the United States, PSVE and career training is big business for major U.S. companies such as Lincoln Technical Institute, Porter and Chester Institute, Culinary Institute of America, ITT Technical Institute, and others. Along with these large companies, there are many smaller schools. In California alone, there are over 1,500 vocational schools serving 40,000 students (Holober, 2009). The common theme of these for-profit schools is the business of education. Accreditation, reputation, placement, and graduation rates are key to keeping the school in business, and continuing to provide jobs to their faculties. Could stepping away from the traditional teaching methods and looking at alternatives have saved any of the 35% of those students that enrolled in PSVE from not graduating? It is possible that alternatives to traditional vocational education may be the future for many of these institutions and resolve the dropping graduation and employment rates.

All for-profit schools, including colleges and universities, understand the importance of keeping students happy (Kirp, 2003). Tinto (1987) suggested that although student dropout is based on personal issues, financial issues, and lack of interest, it is also based on student engagement. Students must be part of building their educational experience.

Bennis (2009), Dewey (1997), Mercogliano (2009), and Kohn (1996/2006) explained that democratic education is about teaching the students critical thinking skills, accepting differences, and involving them in their own education. According to Bennis (2009) this is because the students are directly involved in planning their own education. Mercogliano (2009) described the democratic school as being inclusive of all students and allowing the students to find their way through the learning process. Appleton (2000) wrote about the democratic school as being a place to grow, explore, and make a difference. Posner (2009) described a democratic high school as being a place to find the important things, grow, learn new skills, and become independent. All of these promises of democratic education may be applicable to postsecondary vocational education.

Study Focus and Purpose

The purpose of this dissertation was to present one possible solution for improving the training and quality of life of students attending a postsecondary vocational program. In my research I focus on the students’ learning styles, their beliefs, their difficulties, and their voices. I use a student survey, student interviews, and classroom observations to identify the learning needs of the PSVE student. I then present the idea of using inclusive democratic education in PSVE to meet these needs while ensuring that the students’ voices, opinions, and thoughts are heard during their vocational training and that students become a part of their own educational process.

Study Importance

There is an urgent need for professional craftspeople in our world today. In the United States of America, Singer  (1989) wrote, “Good jobs are going begging. And the shortage of workers needed to fill them is expected to become even more severe in the next decade, because the number of 18-year-olds entering the job market will drop by 8 percent” (¶1). The problem may be more critical in developing nations, for example Amoru and Muboka (2009) explained that in Uganda students need more vocational training in order to find employment once they leave secondary schools.

Hartl (2009) explained that technical and vocational education is a pathway for many out of poverty in rural areas. Hartl wrote, “Education, skills development, and technical training are central to agricultural and rural employment” (p. 2). Hartl explained that it cannot just be any education, because “the better the training and the more refined the skills are in terms of human capital, the higher the income and returns and the better the rural livelihoods” (p. 2). Hartl wrote that both the public and the private providers of training poorly serve the rural youth because of urban bias in education, the urban areas receiving a significantly better level of training. Hartl demonstrated that not enough is being done in vocational and technical training in rural areas where it is most important for agriculture and well-paying jobs.

Vocational education is vital, not just for repairing air conditioners, but for teaching people how to grow food, build shelter, and perform a myriad of other critical functions. The United States Department of Labor projected that employment in the construction-related trades will increase by 1,337,000 workers between 2008 and 2018, and will offset a loss of 1,206,000 manufacturing jobs over the same period (Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, 2010). The same report describes the need for electricians between 2010 and 2018 increasing by 12% or by 83,000 employees. The need for HVAC technicians is expected to increase by 28% or by 86,600 jobs in the same time period. Plumbers, pipefitters, steamfitters jobs are also expected to increase by 16% or 86,300 employees. This need could possibly be filled by some of the 35% of students ACCSC (2008) reported as not graduating from accredited vocational programs, and possibly the 21% of students that have graduated and not found employment in their chosen fields. Because of these statistics it is worthwhile to study alternative approaches to post-secondary vocational education. This all calls for change, and while studies have shown the need for change (Brown, 1987; Marklein, 2010; Ren, 2009; Smithers, 2002) a working solution has not been found.

It is my goal that this dissertation will add to the existing knowledge and help close that gap. I have used student interviews, student surveys, classroom observations, and journals that I have kept of my experiences in the classroom to identify learning needs of the postsecondary vocational student. I have compared those needs to the principles of democratic education to explore the possibility of using democratic education in postsecondary vocational education to help meet these needs and enhance vocational training.

Study Boundaries

As I have stated, the purpose of this dissertation was to see if another path or set of ideas could enhance vocational education. This dissertation was not designed to prove or disprove existing educational philosophy or to prove a theory; it was designed to provide a starting point for further research and study. At this time, to my knowledge, there are no democratic postsecondary vocational schools. However, this study may form the basis for creating such schools in the future.

This research was based primarily on existing literature, student surveys, limited student interviews, and my own experience. It would be unfair to say that the same problems and solutions exist for every classroom, postsecondary vocational school, or country around the world. Therefore, I intend for this study to be a starting point for further thought, research, and conversation on the topic of PSVE.


Students enrolling in postsecondary vocational education are looking for a path toward a career. For many, vocational education is a path toward a livelihood without attending college, and for many it is a new job after having been displaced from the manufacturing industry. In many parts of the world vocational education is the difference between having food, shelter, and water or not.  In the United States there is a great need for vocational education as the economy continues its shift from manufacturing industries to services.

Based on the large percentage of students not completing vocational education, and the slightly smaller percentage of students not finding employment in their chosen trade I believe that there is a problem with postsecondary vocational education and that this problem has not been solved. We still teach vocational education in the traditional method; it is an exercise in rote memorization, imitation, and observation. The critical thinking skills are not being taught. These are the problems that need to be addressed.

In this research I focus on the learning needs of postsecondary students. By using interviews, surveys, and my classroom observations as a postsecondary vocational educator I have identified some solutions to the problems found in PSVE and evaluated the use of democratic post-secondary education as a solution to these problems.