School choice: college or career prep?

Students need a choice of college prep or trade school, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches high school in the Bronx, in the Huffington Post.

Uninterested in learning to spot the symbolism in Animal Farm, tenth-grader Danielle announces she doesn’t plan to go to college.  Instead, she’s taking community college courses to qualify as a massage therapist. “I want to have something ready to go when I graduate,” she says.

A few years ago, I would have been horrified at this pronouncement. . . . But these days, I’m more inclined to be impressed by Danielle’s self-awareness, foresight and her implicit understanding of a fact I wish our system leaders would see: that perpetuation of the current “college for all” trend in education is neither economically viable nor beneficial to all students.

Career tech students would need strong literacy and math skills, Garon writes, but not necessarily the same skills required to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Curricular emphasis in trade schools would perhaps be shifted from traditional literary analysis (themes, symbols, etc.) to literacy in functional documents, perhaps teaching students to read technical articles or to use math-based software programs that would be applicable to our tech-reliant workforce.

Queensland, Australia has introduced a “learning or earning” program after 10th grade, a commenter writes. Students can take academic classes to prepare for university, train for a job at a technical college or start a trade apprenticeship.

Students must be either enrolled in the program full-time, or working a minimum of 25 hours per week and studying part-time.
. . .  ALL young people receive a statement of learning detailing their achievemen­ts when they turn 17.
Parents and students decide on the “senior phase of learning.” Students can change paths, if things don’t work out.
In high-scoring Finland, about half of students go to vocational school at the age of 15 or 16.
Of course, developing high-quality career tech programs on this scale would be a challenge.
About Joanne


  1. Cranberry says:

    Our area has voc/tech high schools. Local school systems treat them very differently. The voc/techs surrounded by blue collar towns are thought to be providing a better education than the local high schools. The voc/techs have the luxury of more applicants than spots. Their programs are reputed to be quite strong.

    The voc/techs near affluent suburbs, though, are not thought by the residents of surrounding towns to offer a better education than their local high schools. There are fewer applicants from the local high schools than available spots. They will take anyone, and the local high schools use it as a dumping ground for hard-to-handle students.

    I’m also leery of career prep created by education officials. I’d be much happier with career prep created by unions and industry. I don’t think the education system’s response to career prep would be useful. It would be a watered-down progression of bare minimums. Instead, I suspect career prep for this century would demand carpentry. Physics and chemistry. More math–geometry and fractions. Bookkeeping. How to write business letters. Employment law. Professional etiquette. In many ways it would be harder and more expensive to provide than a college-prep curriculum.

  2. Genevieve says:

    My district has a very well thought of Career Prep program in a separate building. The students attend this school for 2 to 4 hours a day and their neighborhood school for the rest of the day. The school also serves surrounding districts. The programs include nursing and welding as well classes that are less career prep like Marine Biology.
    The problem is that in order to attend students can’t be behind in their core classes. Additionally, most students can’t take classes until they are in 11th grade. This means that the students most likely to benefit from this program are unlikely to qualify. I think that any Career Prep program needs to have some classes start earlier, perhaps even middle school, in order to engage students. By 11th grade, many students have already decided school isn’t for them.

  3. Elementary schools need to do a far better job making sure that kids acquire appropriate behviors (DO NOT TOLERATE MISBEHAVIOR), work ethic and a solid foundation in reading, writing, math and the other disciplines. Kids who enter middle school without this knowledge and skill base have great difficulty catching up enough to enter high school ready for either serious vocational training or college prep. Even though it goes against prevailing wisdom, I believe that kids should choose a program that fits their academic background and interests and freshman year is not too soon. However, from kindergarten onwards, teachers and administrators should explicitly tell kids and their parents what their current performance level means in terms of future choices and what they have to do to improve.

  4. Yeah! It’s about time that voc-tech education receive the status they deserve. College and academics are NOT for everyone. Vocational and techincal training are NOT for everyone. We need all options. Vocational/technical education offers much promise to our country. We need to promote excellent programs and students in communities that value them.

  5. Belinda Gomez says:

    Unless she’s going to be a real physical therapist, Danielle is living in a dream world. Giving massages to Real Housewives in pricey spas depends on a robust economy. Better she should look at physical rehabilitation skills with an eye towards an aging population. Still not a college degree program, but more in tune with earning a living. Her teacher might point that out.

  6. Being a physical therapist requires a degree, and apparently it’s harder to get into PT school than med school. Certificate nursing positions are also starting to go away, and many students wait for a year after taking the 2-year prerequisite sequences before they get into a 2 year nursing program. I teach intro biology to students who are looking at several years of schooling for PT, respiratory therapy, EMT/paramedic, or nursing training.

    I’d love to see programs that started students down these roads sooner, though. The prerequisite classes are not easy, but many students in them didn’t think that they’d be doing something requiring a college degree and weren’t on the college-prep track. My students have to work a lot harder than they should need to in order to get through.

  7. There used to be, and likely still is, such a thing as a PT tech, who would work under the direction of a physical therapist. There are also pharmacy techs, dental techs, OR techs etc. The miltary provides training in a huge variety of fields (including all of the above) and many translate well to civilian jobs, but the kids who don’t have solid basics won’t get into these fields because admission depends on aptitude testing.

  8. I would have to agree with momof4 in this case. A student who lacks basic skills in math, reading, writing, and work ethic is going to have a very hard time succeeding in a career prep/track type of environment.

    A dental hygiene program at a junior/community college is a limited entry program typically requiring 72-80 credit hours, with required coursework in math through at least pre-calculus, science including biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology, and classes in english, including technical writing (not to mention the dental specific courses).

    Many students who do not have a good grounding by the time they reach high school are going to find themselves at a disadvantage even wanting to join the military, as the lower your ASVAB score is, the more limited your career choices will be in any branch of the armed forces.

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    Yes, lots of these vocational programs take a long time and require a lot of preliminary coursework. The question that has to be asked is, “How much is necessary, and how much serves primarily to make work for the course-giving institutions?”

  10. Under no circumstances should votech be provided by the government.

    And you all have to stop kidding yourselves that votech is harder than college prep. Once votech is open to everyone, the deadwood will go there. It has to. Tht’s the point.

  11. There’s a difference in the skills needed to do well in Cosmetology and the skills needed to do well in Robotics and Automation Technology or in Nursing. A vocational/technical high school can have a wide range of student ability.

  12. The other problem which is often overlooked is that most school districts simply do NOT have the funding to fully implement such programs (while they might be able to offer a great many courses, very few could actually turn out fully qualified hygenists, network engineers, etc).

    IMO, far too many students leave elementary and middle school lacking the needed skills to succeed in either a regular, vocational, or college prep track (and this will continue for at least another decade or so, until all the current students in the system are gone).

  13. We should offer tiered high school diplomas. Votech schools should accept kids as early as 16 if they have achieved a particular skill level. BUt high schools should stay out of auto shop classes.

  14. J. D. Salinger says:

    Once votech is open to everyone, the deadwood will go there. It has to. Tht’s the point.


  15. The kids who have no skills and no desire to work.