Book Finds Massachusetts Voc-Tech Schools Are National Model, Calls for Expansion

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

Schools mix strong academic performance with world-class training, but excellence is threatened by recent changes to admissions policy.

BOSTON (June 8) — Massachusetts vocational-technical schools — boasting minuscule dropout rates, strong academic performance, and graduates prepared for careers or higher education — should be expanded to meet growing demand, according to a new book published by Pioneer Institute.

“Holding voc-tech students to the same academic and graduation requirements as students in comprehensive public high schools was one of the most transformative elements of the Commonwealth’s 1993 Education Reform Act,” said Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios. “Massachusetts is now the unquestioned leader in vocational-technical education, with graduates among the best-prepared to compete in the global economy.”

Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools” traces the history, development, and status of the state’s voc-tech sector.


“Today, manuals used by plumbers and major appliance repair personnel are written at up to a grade 14 level,” said Jamie Gass, Pioneer’s director of school reform. “Auto technicians aren’t just ‘gearheads’ anymore. They do more analysis of computerized diagnostic equipment than turning wrenches.”

The state’s more than 52,000 voc-tech students alternate weeks between academics and shop work. With only half the academic instruction time, they match or exceed the academic performance of students in the state’s other public high schools.

Voc-tech schools in Massachusetts:

  • Teach more students with special needs (24% 19% statewide)
  • Enroll more low-income students (44% 39% statewide)
  • Have lower dropout rates (0.6% 1.8% statewide)

“Massachusetts voc-techs have succeeded thanks to a combination of operational autonomy, being schools of choice, rigorous instruction, and relationships with local businesses,” said co-editor David Ferreira, a former executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.

Voc-tech schools have advisory councils and enjoy close relationships with local business communities that provide state-of-the-art equipment, training, co-op programs, and a direct career path for many voc-tech graduates.

Among the book’s recommendations:

  • Expand voc-tech education to serve the 52 communities, primarily in Berkshire and Hampshire counties, not currently in a regional voc-tech district.
  • Utilize available public-school space to accommodate the 5,000 students on voc-tech waiting lists.
  • Grant all voc-tech schools the same autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and staffing currently enjoyed by regional voc-tech districts.

“Hands-On Achievement” also warns against recent changes to voc-tech admissions policies that threaten these schools’ success, such as disregarding applicants’ behavioral and attendance records, which are critical considerations at schools where students need extensive training on operating sophisticated machinery.

Moving toward lottery admissions runs the risk of a mismatch between students and schools, undermining the principle that students actively choose the voc-tech model and potentially misallocating public resources, given that it costs taxpayers about $5,000 more on average to educate a student at a voc-tech school as opposed to a traditional high school.


For more information or to schedule interviews with the authors or editors of the book, please contact Lizzie Nealon at 202-471-4228 ext. 103 or

About Pioneer Institute

Pioneer Institute is a think tank dedicated to developing ideas that advance prosperity and a vibrant civic life in Massachusetts and beyond. The organization produces research almost exclusively through outside experts to ensure credibility, and acts as a resource for legislators on Beacon Hill and for staff in the State’s executive offices.

Get Updates on Our Education Research

Related Content

Study: Systemic Failure in IDEA Implementation for Private School Students with Disabilities in Additional States

On the heels of a $3.8 million settlement for private school students with disabilities in Massachusetts for the state’s failure to comply with provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that require provision of equitable, publicly funded special education services to students in private schools, a Pioneer Institute study finds that two states and three school districts around the country for which data are available also appear to be out of compliance.

Charter schools leading the way with in-person instruction

Massachusetts charter public schools have lived up to their decades-long record of excellence during the pandemic, developing innovative ways to continue providing high-quality education by maximizing the number of students who can safely learn in person.

Key Madison Park Program Lags Other State Voc-Techs, but Shows Signs of Improvement

The co-operative education program at Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, which places students in paid positions with local employers, lags far behind other Massachusetts vocational-technical schools in terms of both placements and number of employer contacts.  But with the school as a whole beginning to improve after years of turmoil, the co-op is also showing promising signs, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Tax credit scholarship program would give Catholic schools fighting chance

I am among the countless individuals whose lives have been shaped by Catholic education; in my case, it was attending high school at Austin Prep. Despite a stellar record, Catholic schools are facing a grim financial picture. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gives new hope to the schools and to the many Massachusetts families with children who would benefit from attending them.

New Book Offers Roadmap to Sustainability for Massachusetts Catholic Schools

Catholic schools in Massachusetts must focus on the characteristics that make them academically successful and distinguish them from traditional public schools, but must also seek new models and governance structures that will help them achieve financial sustainability, according to a new book published by Pioneer Institute. The book, "A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts," will be the topic of a webinar co-sponsored by Pioneer and the Catholic Schools Foundation to be held on Wednesday, January 27 at 2:00 pm. 

Tax Credits, Religious Schools And You

Six years ago, I met with Erica Smith of the Institute for Justice in a Montana coffee shop, where I agreed to be the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit about the use of funds from a state education tax credit program for children attending religious schools. This past June, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Montana’s highest court and ruled that if parents use funds from the program to access private education, religious school options cannot be excluded.

Voc-tech schools thriving despite pandemic strictures

HANDS-ON EDUCATION plays a critical role at Massachusetts regional vocational-technical high schools, where students alternate weekly between academics and shop classes. Given that reality, you’d think the schools would be particularly hard hit by the switch to hybrid models under which students are in a physical school building only half the time. But thanks to innovative approaches to coping with pandemic-related restrictions, voc-techs are successfully bucking statewide public-school enrollment trends.

New Study Provides Toolkit for Crafting Education Tax-Credit Scholarship Programs

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key impediment to private school choice, Pioneer Institute has published a toolkit for designing tax-credit scholarship programs. Now available in 18 states, nearly 300,000 students nationwide use tax-credit scholarships to attend the school of their family’s choice. TCS policies create an incentive for taxpayers to contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid families with tuition and, in some states, other K–12 educational expenses. This paper explores the central design features of TCS policies—such as eligibility, the tax credit value, credit caps, and academic accountability provisions—and outlines the different approaches taken by the TCS policies in each state.

Education tax credits don’t cost taxpayers a cent

This op-ed has appeared in WGBH News, The Providence Journal,…

MCAS testing essential to address falling test scores

Amid the chaos that was created by schools suddenly being shuttered in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it made sense to cancel administration of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests. But supporters of pending legislation that would place a four-year moratorium on using MCAS as a high school graduation requirement and create a commission to study alternatives to the tests are no longer responding to a crisis; they are using it to advance their anti-reform agenda.

Study: Signs of Progress at Madison Park, but Still a Long Way to Go

Four years after it began to implement a turnaround plan, Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School is showing clear signs of progress, but its performance continues to lag behind that of other vocational-technical schools in Massachusetts, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

When ignorance and violence are permitted to trump justice

This week marks the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who was killed by two white Mississippians for whistling in the presence of a white woman.