Texas FFA News  
The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917    
Saturday, March 14, 2015 | Author: Morgan Gadd, Texas FFA News Staff

FFA members prepare for the future by participating in the organization’s three-part education model encompassing classroom instruction, supervised agricultural experiences and the FFA. This method of developing students’ abilities for real demands in the professional and academic world is incredibly relevant today. However, its roots date back to the early nineteen hundreds when the Smith-Hughes Act was passed, providing federal support for vocational education. This legislation largely established the workings of career and technical education as we know it today.

The Smith-Hughes Act was the cornerstone that joined prior legislative actions and granted the educational system the ability to do its job properly. After all, some form of agricultural education existed prior to the Smith-Hughes Act. Yet, this education was not systematic.

The Morrill Act of 1862 provided federal funding and grants in order to build state universities. These land grant colleges were created to provide education focusing on agricultural and mechanical subject areas.

Unfortunately at that time the content in those subject areas were not developed enough to make viable education programs. Additionally, there wasn’t an existing structure for research topics. Out of this problem, the Hatch Act of 1887 was born to provide research experiment stations which would work with the land grant system. The goal was to solve problems relevant to each region’s industry needs.

The Smith-Lever Act followed, and established extension services as a component of land grant universities and research stations. The goal was to create agents in every county of the United States who would take the information collected through research and provide it to the producers at a local level.

With a federally funded infrastructure in place, the next obstacle was the lack of students who would take advantage of vocational education opportunities at the post-secondary level. Charles Allen Prosser of Indiana recognized at the time high school systems were fostering only scholarly preparation for college. Frustrated, Prosser outlined the relevant problems with secondary education and published a paper titled Report of the National Commission on Aid to Vocational Education. His conviction that students shouldn’t merely be prepared for education, but for gainful employment, acted as a catalyst for the Smith-Hughes Act.

Senator Hoke Smith and Representative Dudley Hughes of Georgia recognized the validity in Prosser’s report and together, they developed the Smith-Hughes Act. The Smith-Hughes Act provides federal support for vocational education in general, but vocational agriculture in particular. It dictated that states develop a plan for vocational education. It aimed to prepare high school students to add value to the industry by preparing them for more practical applications of learning in daily life and at the university level. The act was passed and approved by state legislators. On June 15, 1917 it was decided that the Smith-Hughes Act was to be put into effect 90 days later.

The idea was that young people have always excelled because of their open minds and curiosity. They would learn things at school, take the information home, implement the practices and gain their relative’s attention. This way, more people involved in agriculture and mechanics would see the value of research-based methods and implement them in their own practices.

“The idea was that since you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you ought to talk to the puppies and see what they can accomplish,” Tom Maynard, Executive Director of the Texas FFA Association said.

Students began receiving educational materials that focused on preparing them for vocations, and was reflective of the hands-on learning that characterized research and extension since the 1800’s.

This is what led the National FFA Organization to be the program we are familiar with today; coursework, competitions and activities which are all designed to develop and grow young people into capable and confident future contributors to society.

Despite its remarkable intentions, vocational education acquired a less than pleasant image during the early 1980’s. “Throughout that era the term ‘vocational education’ became associated with programs that were not academically rigorous,” Maynard said.

While this is certainly not reflective of all vocational education programs and students during the early part of the decade, it was a prominent enough issue for the Texas Governor Mark White to establish a committee on public education chaired by Ross Perot. There is speculation about some of the information Perot may have been fed. Still, this helped improve the outlook for vocational education with a transformation into career and technical education. This shift made vocational education, now career and technical education, more respectable and even prestigious in academia.

The late 1980’s were rife with agricultural industry developments and brought awareness to the importance of non-production jobs in agriculture. In 1988, the Future Farmers of American began doing business as the National FFA Organization, to combat the idea that the organization was only for farmers. This transition was positive in terms of public image and benefited membership and partner relationships. In 1989, the FFA emblem changed the words “Vocational Agriculture” to “Agriculture Education.” The Organization’s stigma for being all about “sows, cows, and plows” transformed into a group of young people dealing with “plant genes, vaccines and computer screens”.

The Smith-Hughes Act helped vocational education evolve from pigeon holed objectives into the borderless process of developing life-long learners. For the National FFA Organization in particular, the transformation associated with vocational education translates into a strong network of students and alumni who are prepared for gainful employment.  

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