Students need more than college prep

Students are bored by college-prep classes might be motivated by good career and technical education, writes Liam Julian. They deserve a choice.

Imagine a 17-year-old who does not want to attend college (or at least not right away); who finds parsing Macbeth maddeningly immaterial; who yearns to learn a practical skill and put it to use; who feels his personal strengths are being ignored and wasted; who is annoyed by his school’s lackluster teachers, classroom chaos, and general atmosphere of indifference. Too often, such a pupil has no other options. He has no educational choice.

No surprise, then, that a recent Civic Enterprises survey found that 77 percent of high-school dropouts quit school because they were bored. Past surveys have reported similar findings. According to a 2006 Gates Foundation study, for example, 88 percent of dropouts had passing grades—i.e., they didn’t abandon school because they couldn’t do the work; they abandoned school because they thought the work was unchallenging and pointless.

At many high schools, the choice is between college-prep classes — often watered down for the minimally motivated — or dropping out.

The worry that a that a plumber’s life is determined by early manual training arises from the popular but skewed 21st-century dogma that the ideal worker must be able and willing to hop from job to job and industry to industry—that “knowledge workers,” as they’re called, must be highly adaptable, mobile generalists. But the current recession has illuminated the expendability of precisely this type of white-collar worker. Those who work in the skilled trades (the kind taught in today’s CTE classes) are far less dispensable: The New York Times reports that although unemployment is at 9.4 percent, certain “skilled trades like welding and pipefitting are in high demand now, among the jobs that cannot be filled with unskilled labor or outsourced overseas.”

The new Career and Technical Education courses combine thinking and doing, he writes. Some 80 percent of CTE students graduate with as many math and science credits as non-CTE students; 60 percent go on to college. And at-risk students are much more likely to graduate if they’re enrolled in CTE.

Standards for college and career readiness are essentially the same, argue drafters of common core standards. Therefore, the college-prep track serves students who plan to go into vocational training. Not true, writes Michael Kirst on The College Puzzle. Some jobs require high-level reading, writing and math skills, but others demand a lot less.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Totally. What’s more valuable for a student, studying electronics rigourously including how to interpret — or even write — schematics, or snoozing through yet one more English class where the basic goal is to analyze literature. If what we seek is engagement (and all the good things that go with it, like good behavior, becoming an independent learner, etc), then we have to respond with a high-class curriculum built around what the student shows motivation for.

    Vis-a-vis Michael Kirst: some careers do require lower reading, writing, and math skills. And some require (especially) math skills that many college students don’t have.

  2. The challenge is to design high-quality vocational ed programs. Where I grew up, there was one really good vocational school that prepared its students for lucrative jobs in fields such as biotechnology, allied health, and high-tech manufacturing. Then there was a more traditional vocational school that prepared its students for low-wage jobs like cosmetology, food service, and childcare. We need more schools like the former and fewer schools like the latter if we want to compete in the global economy.

  3. Bill Leonard says:

    Through the late 1950s, most cities of any size had a vocationally oriented, or “tech” high school. Those fell by the wayside with the advent of the notion, cast in stone from the 1960s on, that everyone should be tracked to go to college, or should expect to hold some minimum-wage job. But the truth has been otherwise.

    I know, this is anecdotal, but: The general contractor who remodeled our kitchen and other parts of the house seven years ago had a degree in art history. Our niece’s husband, a man in his mid-30s, found college boring, and dropped out after a semester. He is now a general contractor. The landscaping service owner who mows our lawn and those of rentals I manage started out mowing lawns when he was in high school. He was and is entrepreneurial, his business continued to grow, he saw no need to go to college, and 15 years later he’s still in business — now with five employees and growning.

    And over the past 40 years I have encountered any number of men and women in construction and related trades who are making a quite comfortable living. In many cases, they are second- or third- or fourth-generation members still working in the family plumbing, electrical or similar business. None of these people are dim bulbs, but like the example Anonymous cites, neither were they interested in snoozing through another English lit, sociology or whatever course, when they could be doing something useful that interested them more.

    The plain fact is, the “college for everyone” (or at least, for most) paradigm is not and never has been a fit for those who are temperamentally unsuited to sitting in a class room in order to spend the rest of their lives sitting behind a desk.

    Perhaps one day the education establishment will again acknowledge that fact.

  4. LAUSD just opened a fancy new arts high school. Here in LA–entertainment is a huge industry. Do these students learn anything technical? Editing, lighting, directing–all of which are highly paid, union gigs–but no. They learn to sing and dance, paint, throw pots–lots of artistic education but nothing that prepares you for an actual career in the arts as anything but a performer. And that’s secure field.

  5. 77 percent of high-school dropouts quit school because they were bored.

    Not true. The truth is that the survey reveals that 77 percent of high school dropouts (who responded to the survey) SAID they quit school because they were bored.

    Don’t get me wrong – it ticks me off that career-oriented classes often get the rep of being the “dummy” classes. Many technical classes are incredibly challenging – just in a different way from academic classes. But I am somewhat leery of statistics based on self-reporting, particularly when it comes to analysis of one’s successes or failures.

    I think it’s quite probable (and understandable) that people prefer to take credit for what they see as their successes and externalize blame for what they see as their failures.

  6. Anonymous – some people prefer jobs in cosmetology, food service and child care. I am very happy with this; I like having my hair cut by someone who knows my hair and can cut it appropriately. What I DO find objectionable is the idea that someone who wants cosmetology, food service or child care is forced to sit in high-school classes of no interest to them before they can graduate and PAY THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS FOR TRAINING THEY COULD HAVE RECEIVED IN HIGH SCHOOL.

  7. I think that this is really a naive argument. The vast majority of students who drop out of HS would also drop out of a rigorous voc ed course.

    Which is not to say at all that we don’t need rigorous voc ed courses; we certainly do…but the people who would benefit would be the people Bill described – people who were able to finish HS and in most cases even get into college.

    HS drop outs are mostly bored of being told what to do, and that won’t change in a vocational environment.

  8. mof4- would you rather your child become a dental hygienist (median earnings of $32.19/hr according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) or a hairdresser (median earnings of $11.13/hr)? A lab technologist (median earnings of $25.99/hr) or a daycare worker (median earnings of $9.12/hr)? Of course, we need folks trained to do all of the above, but most vocational schools in the U.S. focus on low wage service jobs rather than on preparing kids for jobs that will earn them a decent living.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Crimson Wife – if the lower paid options were something my child was interested in, yes I would support them. The hope would be the entry level jobs would eventually lead to one owning their own business…we cannot force our children in the direction we want them to go and expect them to be successful. We need to give them all the tools, training, education they need to pursue their own interests, step back and watch them soar…

    Our district’s high schools in the SLCs at least are offering both opportunities for the kids — lower and better paying routes that need post high school training…

    For Peter W — do you have data on why kids drop out? For some sure, they are already viewed as the adult at home and heaven forbid they be told what to do by a “dumb” educator who has no clue what they are already responsible for day in and day out. Sadly many of these kids end up in MIP-Conduct because no one understands what is truly happening in their lives nor do they care to take the time to find out. Others, yes, get caught up with gangs and cannot get out.

    Still…I imagine there are kids that drop out because they were never allowed to pursue the main, productive area they were interested in. Our district is seeing success with these kids in the Big Picture School. Hopefully other alternative ways to a high school degree will prove successful as well.

    If anyone has the data please share…

  10. Our district seems to encourage the lower performers to transfer to the local voc. tech. high school. They make an active effort to persuade the parents of the brighter children to remain in the academic high school. That’s my concern about those who push vocational training in high school. Yes, it can be well done, and it really can prepare students for careers as support staff in technical fields. However, it’s much more expensive to do that sort of training well.

    Without a realistic commitment to high-level vocational training, the mantra, “some kids don’t want to be in high school,” leads to training for low skilled work.

    I am concerned about the sorting process. If students and their parents are able to choose freely between the vocational and academic tracks, and both types of schools are well funded, then I have no objections. Lacking that, however, it’s very easy for the voc/tech schools to become the dumping grounds for the difficult to educate.

  11. Andrew Bell says:

    Whether students “train” for a vocation or for college isn’t really the important point. Whatever interests the students is fine – there’s plenty to learn.

    The bigger issue is that kids are graduating without being able to write a decent letter, never having read anything other than the few books that they were assigned (probably just used Spark Notes for those too), and unable to do basic algebra. You can teach the basics in the context of ANY curriculum, but you have to do it.

  12. > The vast majority of students who drop out of HS
    > would also drop out of a rigorous voc ed course.

    I don’t think this is true, at least it wasn’t true 25 years ago when my father taught high-school drafting in inner-city San Antonio. I’ve been with my father several times when former students came up and thanked him for keeping them in school.

    Vocational education has an additional benefit, too. Back in those days, students often HAD to drop out. They didn’t want to, but their families were poor and needed for them to go work. The ones with a couple of years of vocational education already behind them were often able to get entry-level jobs in their field, as bricklayers or drafters or plumbers, even though they hadn’t been able to graduate.

    Some of the students did go on to college, a couple even became architects. The college-is-for-all concept is one of the worst ideas of the late 20th century.

    > You can teach the basics in the context of ANY curriculum,
    > but you have to do it.


  13. Crimson Wife – I am not suggesting that the kinds of higher-paying fields you mention should not be offered, quite the contrary. I am just saying that there’s good reason to offer options before kids leave high school and have to pay for such training.

  14. Roger Sweeny says:

    HS drop outs are mostly bored of being told what to do, and that won’t change in a vocational environment.

    Hmmm. Let’s see what’s different in “a vocational environment.” THEY GET PAID. These people may not be real interested in their jobs but they are generally very interested in making money (which they can then use to do things they really are interested in).

    Though that may be selling them short. I have had a number of uninterested, poorly behaved students who got interested in what they were doing for pay, and began to want to “do a good job” at it. The difference in how responsible they were was kind of amazing.


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