Smith-Hughes Act of 1917

[The Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917 promoted vocational agriculture to train people "who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm," and provided federal funds for this purpose. As such it is the basis both for the promotion of vocational education, and for its isolation from the rest of the curriculum in most school settings.]


The strongest influence on the establishment of an instructionally-segregated system was the Federal Government itself. Its instrument was the first vocational education act, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. Several specific elements of the Act contributed to the isolation of vocational education from other parts of the comprehensive high school curriculum.

Separate State Boards for Vocational Education

In order to receive Federal funds under Smith-Hughes, each State was required to establish a State board for vocational education, "...having all necessary powers to cooperate... with the Federal Board for Vocational Education." Each State board was required to establish a plan:

" showing the kinds of vocational education for which it is proposed that the appropriation shall be used; the kinds of schools and equipment; courses of study; methods of instruction; qualifications of teachers;...plans for the training of teachers....Such plans shall be submitted by the State Board to the Federal Board of Vocational Education. The State Board shall make an annual report to the Federal Board for Vocational Education...on the work done in the State and the receipts and expenditures of money under the provisions of this Act." (Section 8)

The term "State plan" has been a misnomer from the outset. The plan does not arise from State policy and leadership, but from the mandates contained in the Federal law. The plan was not intended, and did not serve to establish State priorities, describe organizational systems, identify State goals, activities, or accountability mechanisms. Instead, the purpose was to serve as a contract between the State and Federal governments, assuring adherence to Federal requirements and procedures.

The requirement to establish a Board of Vocational Education in some States led to the establishment of a board separate from the State Board of Education. Thus two separate governance structures could exist at the State level. This in turn fostered the notion of vocational schools as separate and distinct from general secondary schools, and of vocational education as separate from "academic" education.

Separation of Funds

Smith-Hughes spelled out the Federal Government's intent that vocational teachers should be "...persons who have had adequate vocational experience or contact in the line of work..." (Section 12) in which they were to hold classes. Federal funds, as well as State and local funds for vocational education, as specified in the State plans, could be spent on salaries of teachers with vocational experience, but not on salaries of academic teachers. Although the Actís intent was to avoid "raiding" of vocational funds by other segments of the comprehensive high school, the result was to separate the vocational education program from the mainstream of a schoolís operations.

Segregation of Vocational Education Students

The key restrictive section of the Act applied, however, not to teachers but to students. Smith-Hughes required that schools or classes giving instruction "to persons who have not entered upon employment shall require that at least half of the time of such instruction shall be given to practical work of a useful or productive basis, such instruction to extend over not less than nine months per year and not less than thirty hours per week." (Section 12) Thus, the law required the following: if a high school student was taught one class by a teacher paid in full or in part from Federal vocational funds, that same student could receive no more than fifty per cent academic instruction. The Federal Vocational Board was quickly able to extend the control of students' time to what came to be known as the 50-25-25 rule: 50 per cent time in shop work; twenty-five per cent in closely related subjects, and twenty-five per cent in academic course work. This rule became a universal feature of State plans from the 1920's to the early 1960's.

The 1917 Act was virtually silent on manpower projections and on centralized assignment of training quotas to school districts. If the driving force of the Act was labor shortages, one would expect to contain processes to identify shortages and time-controlled means to meet them. Surely the 50-25-25 pro-ration of students' time fits the development of some kinds of skills better than others. The inflexibility of the provision was a handicap, not an advantage, in a national policy of work force preparation. The ultimate effect of the Act, although never stated explicitly, was to identify certain students and teachers as "vocational," and to protect the salaries of the latter through reserving for them (exclusively) certain amounts of Federal money matched by State and local contributions. One may reasonably assume that the authorities saw programs of practical instruction so endangered from a dominant academic elite that they required such protection by Federal law. The end result, however, was to segregate academic teachers and students from vocational teachers and students and to strengthen the social alienation that early critics of these steps had feared.

Segregation of the Curriculum

Predictably, vocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age. Another result was that students so trained were ill-equipped to pass skills along in the workplace or to learn new skills when their jobs disappeared through technological change. High schools in the United States then, offered little to students who were interested in technical subjects (conceived as subjects that offer close harmony in the more or less simultaneous interplay of theory and practice).

In addition, programs were established within vocational education which further segregated students by subject matter. This segregation into Agriculture, Homemaking, and Trade and Industrial Education segments in the initial legislation has persisted for most of this century. The effect of this separate designation was more than basic distinctions among academic classes such as history and mathematics. These programs were distinguished not only from the "academic" but were implemented in such a matter as to distinguish each program from all other vocational programs. The impact of this separation has been felt through subsequent decades in the development of separate teacher training programs, separate teacher organizations, and separate student organizations. Even within vocational education, the impetus in the original Act led to splintered programs.

Smith Hughes Through the Years

The policies and positions taken by the Congress in their enactment of Smith-Hughes have been extraordinarily powerful forces in determining the current status of vocational education. Remarkably, these central segregating and separating provisions have proven to be largely impervious to change in spite of the large-scale shifts in emphasis which have occurred since its original enactment. In fact, these provisions were later augmented and reinforced by subsequent actions. It will be useful to examine briefly how the emphasis on vocational-technical education has been altered through the years.

While the policy emphasis at the Federal level moved from the original focus on national defense to the severe unemployment problems in the 1930s, Federal influence in vocational programs remained largely unchanged. However a significant change did occur in the 30ís -- the emphasis on vocational courses in what were then called "junior colleges" (which later evolved into community colleges).

In the next decade, the War Production Training Act, as implemented by the War Manpower Commission introduced the concept of "open-entry, open-exit" programs. A collateral Federal effort was the Rural War Production Training Act which emphasized agriculture related programs. By this time it had become abundantly clear that within vocational-technical education three restricted and restrictive program tracks were in force: a general education effort, a vocational education program, and various job training programs.

During the 1940s and 50s, the program of vocational education which had developed in the early 1900s from the need to "train boys and girls for work," envisioned as national defense strategy in the 20s, focused on unemployment in the 30s, now encountered both the need to assist with the war effort during the 40s, and the need to provide a transition to a peace-time economy. During this period and into the 1960s, States experienced first the burgeoning of industry related to the war effort, and later, growth in the junior college system and adult education.

Influences on vocational education during the 1950s were characterized by light industries springing from new technology, the emergence of the health occupations careers, and the inclusion of work experience as an appropriate part of public education. In addition, social policy at the Federal level led to two amendments to the George Barden Act of 1946. The first amendment, Title II, Vocational Education in Practical Nursing, was a reflection of a Congressional interest in "the health of the people." Several years later, Title VIII sought to stimulate technical training programs in the wake of the launching of Sputnik.

During the 1960s, vocational education experienced especially heavy enrollment growth. All the while, technological advances were producing increasing employment dislocation. The gap between the affluent and the disadvantaged widened; poverty in areas of economic depression could not be ignored. Congress responded by enacting the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1961 (MDTA), followed by the Vocational Education Act of 1963 (VEA). It is surprising to note that almost 50 years after the Smith-Hughes Act, in spite of all the intervening changes, the definition and purpose of vocational education as set out in the new VEA remained largely the same.

In sum, the essential nature of Federal vocational education remained constant from 1917 until 1963, though authorizations for Federal allocations were raised under both the George-Barden Act of 1946 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Measured in terms of dollars and enrollment, this early form of categorical assistance was successful. In 1917, just before implementation of Smith-Hughes, there were 200,000 vocational students in the United States and something less than $3 million dollars was spent annually on their training. Forty years later, enrollment had increased to 3.4 million students and expenditures stood at $176 million. Smith-Hughes required dollar for dollar matching of Federal money by the States, local governments, or some combination thereof. As the decade of the 1950's closed--the last decade for the Smith-Hughes version of categorical intervention--Federal funds were over-matched by both State and local funds, taken separately.

On the central, most traditional dimensions, the Smith-Hughes formulas had to be considered an enormous success by its strongest advocates. It had directly pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the vocational education system. Its matching requirements had generated hundreds of millions of additional State and local funds all devoted to vocational education programs. Even more impressively, vocational education enrollments had grown seventeen fold.

During this period of phenomenal growth, the whole arena of vocational education policy was left pretty much to the vocational education practitioners. There are several reasons for this phenomenon. Historically, vocational-technical education has not been a high priority area for the typical education reformer. Much more attention has been given over the years by education reformers and policy makers to concerns over the quality of preparation for postsecondary education. Several factors contributed to this "benign neglect." Most educators in positions to exercise authority at Federal, State or local levels have little or no experience with vocational education. Additionally, the academic research community has shown scant interest to the issues facing vocational education. Finally, until recently, there have been few pressures from the community to materially change the way vocational education is offered. As a result, policy influences affecting vocational education have been left, almost by default, to vocational educators. Because the Federal purposes in vocational education appeared to coincide so closely with the wishes of the vocational education community, i. e., to protect and expand practical training in secondary schools in the United States against the assumed opposition of the academic elite, the Federal acts were, practically speaking, self-enforcing.

Source: http://inet.ed.gov/offices/OVAE/VocEd/InfoBoard/2.html#smith hughes, 1998.