The result of a recommendation by the Commission on National Aid to Vocational Education, the Smith-Hughes Act, enacted in 1917 and named after its sponsors, Rep. D. Hughes (D-Georgia) and Sen. H. Smith (D-Georgia), was the first federal legislation to provide nationwide funding for vocational training. Congress had realized that the United States was falling behind other industrialized countries in training skilled technical workers and that a concerted national strategy was needed to make sure American industry remained internationally competitive. This conclusion went hand in hand with the thinking that if vocational education was indeed of national importance, the federal government should help state governments promote vocational teacher education and also pay for such programs.
Under the Smith-Hughes Act, the federal government provided grants to individual states for the salaries of teachers of trade and industrial subjects and home economics; the training and salaries of teachers, supervisors, and directors of agriculture subjects; and teacher training in home economics, trades, industrial education, and agriculture. States were required to match such funds to pay for all other expenses. A Federal Board of Vocational Education was to conduct the research needed to implement the ideas of the Smith-Hughes Act, advise states on curriculum content and school administration, and supervise the proper use of funds.
The federal scope of the act also tried to address some of the issues that had been plaguing vocational education for decades. To resolve issues of curricular and instructional control, schools were put in charge of vocational education under the stipulation that some training be conducted in the workplace. Arguments over the appropriate philosophical orientation for vocational education between Charles Prosser and John Dewey were addressed by decreeing that students be given an education that made them good citizens and prepared them for gainful employment. On the question of a unified educational system, the act placed control of vocational education within the public education system but made vocational education separate from common education. Each state had to create a State Board of Vocational Education, whose members were often not the same as the members of other boards.
The separation of vocational and common education had major repercussions throughout the twentieth century. It led to separate administrative structures, curricula, teacher training and certification programs, teacher and student organizations, and teacher pay scales. The different board members and funding mechanisms as well as the requirement that vocational teachers have extensive industry and work experience, but not necessarily a college degree, served to isolate vocational education further and contributed to the view that it was inferior to an academic course of study. On the positive side, many current alternative certification programs can be traced back to the alternative certification channels created by Smith-Hughes.
Although planned as an indefinite grant program, the Smith-Hughes Act was repealed in 1997.
1. Carleton, D. (2001). Student’s guide to landmark congressional laws on education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
2. Public Law No. 347, 64th Cong., S. 703 (1917) (enacted).
3. Retrieved August 31, 2006, from http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agexed/sae/smithugh.html
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