Vocational education in high school: What you need to know

At a glance

  • Vocational education can be academically rigorous and prepare kids for college.

  • States differ in how they offer vocational education.

  • Program requirements and the credentials students graduate with also vary by state.

Vocational education used to be thought of in a very narrow way. It was considered simply an alternative track for high-schoolers who weren’t going on to college. Students often didn’t graduate with a standard high school diploma. But career and technical education, as it’s often called, has changed a lot in recent years.

In many states, these programs no longer limit the opportunities after high school. In fact, a high-quality program may expand your child’s options. Students in a good program should be able to graduate from high school with a standard diploma so they can go to college if they choose.

Vocational education can be a good option to consider for some kids with learning and thinking differences. Here’s what you need to know about these programs.

What vocational education is

Vocational education, or career and technical education, is exactly what it sounds like. Students learn skills that prepare them to work in a particular field after high school.

Vocational schools still offer training in trades like carpentry and culinary arts. But they also feature programs in fields like health care, technology, and graphic design. Most have advisory committees that help them focus on programs that have the most employment opportunities.

Good programs also include regular academic classes. That allows students to graduate with standard diplomas, and gives them the option of going on to two- and four-year colleges.

States differ in how they offer vocational education. There are three standard models:

  • Self-contained schools that are separate from the traditional high school.

  • Schools that operate in a separate wing within a traditional high school.

  • Programs where kids attend traditional high school in the morning and then take a bus to a technology and career center in their area.

Planning for vocational education

If your child has an , you’ll both meet with the IEP team in eighth grade for a transition planning meeting. That’s a good time to discuss vocational education. (This is a good time to explore vocational education if your child doesn’t have an IEP, too.)

Some states offer vocational education for all four years of high school. Others have two-year programs that begin junior year.

The school may raise the topic of vocational education if it seems like college might not be an option for your child. But if you think it might be a good path to explore regardless, you can bring it up yourself.

There are a few reasons you might want to consider vocational education for your child. One is if your child has a strong interest in an area of study that’s offered. Another is if your child is highly motivated by hands-on learning that relates to the “real world.”

Still, it’s important to ask what happens if it turns out your child doesn’t have the skills or the interest in that field.

How to spot a quality program

Career and technical education differs from state to state. That leads to a wide range in the quality of programs and what’s expected of students. So it’s important to make sure the program matches up with your child’s goals. (Keep in mind that no matter where you live, IEP and 504 plan supports and services should stay in place in vocational education.)

Here are some things that occur in a quality vocational program:

  • Students graduate with a standard diploma. Programs should prepare teens for college. That means students should take all of the standardized tests and classes their district requires. Doing that makes them eligible for a standard (academic) diploma. Make sure this is the case in your state. Students may also be able to graduate with a certificate or license in their field of study in addition to their diploma. Requirements for these vary by state.

  • Students can take foreign language classes. Most four-year colleges require two years of foreign language in high school. If your child is enrolled in vocational education, these classes should be built into his day.

Another thing to consider is how well graduates of the program do after high school. There are a number of questions to ask to find out how well the program prepares students for life after high school:

  • How do standardized test scores compare with those of the regular high school?

  • Can you share any statistics on job placement after graduation?

  • How many graduates go on to four-year colleges?

  • How many graduates go on to two-year colleges?

  • Can you tell me what kind of professional experience the teachers have?

Watch as an expert talks about choosing a vocational high school for your child.

Vocational education is directly tied to what your child might pursue after high school. Help your child think about possible careers. And explore potential careers for kids who don’t want to sit behind a desk.

Key takeaways

  • Vocational education may be a good option for students who like hands-on, “real world” learning.

  • In a quality vocational program, students take all standardized tests and classes their district requires. This makes them eligible for a standard diploma.

  • As part of your research, ask about job placement and what types of colleges the graduates attend.


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