The death of vocational ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.


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  1. I wonder if there is a relationship between the ed world’s attitude toward that kind of serious voc ed and the fact that teachers in such programs are likely (I’m guessing) to lack academic credentials and may, therefore, be called “unqualified.” I’m sure the teachers in the tech HS of which my f-i-l was principal were highly competent in their fields but I doubt that any of them had CC degrees, let alone college degrees. The ed world seems to have disdain for any kind of manual skills.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      NCLB sets 100% staff certification as part of the “highly qualified” requirement. Schools can’t hire uncertified shop teachers anymore. Ours are certified in something else, like math.

    • CTAE High School Teacher says:

      As a ‘vocational teacher’ with multiple certifications and four college degrees, I must suggest that most teachers I know that are in traditional ‘vocational’ teaching careers have at least a bachelor’s degree in addition to two or more years industry experience. Legislation drives education ‘NCLB’

  2. Joanne…I have read and enjoyed your blog since it’s inception some 10 years ago.

    This post…the dying/death of vocational education…is a subject I’ve been discussing with whoever will listen for years. Vocational education/training…along with military service…are viewed as last options for bad students. We’ve come full circle…us boomers’ fathers (yes, because our mothers in general didn’t work while raising us) worked with their hands, in the trades…and they believed that education would help us to ‘move up’ to working with our minds…in business, government, the arts. Now, with jobs markets so much more competitive today than they were 50 years ago, I’m not hesitant to say that learning a trade…electrician, plumber, mechanic, carpenter…today will offer students far more opportunities, that pay better, and are more secure, than anything that the ‘college preparatory’ studies most high schools push their students into (replete with politically correct emphases on environmentalism, diversity, and other such feel good nonsense). Besides…ever try to get a plumber quickly while your basement is filling with water, or an HVAC technician when the AC craps out in the middle of July?

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Joanne, don’t you realize people with diplomas are just better people (and the more diplomas, the better the person). If we keep kids in school until they’re 18, maybe we can knock it into their head to get the diploma. But if they don’t, then we know they are undeserving people. If they can’t get a steady job at a decent wage, it serves them right for not doing what we did.

    (And since we have not only a high school but a college diploma (and maybe more!), we deserve much better, higher paying work that those failures.)

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    i am a huge supporter of Voc-Tech…but after reading Thinking for a Living it (voc-tech) needs to stay current or forward looking. Would love to have it back in many high schools along with apprenticeships…

  5. dangermom says:

    20 years ago I spent a year at a Danish school, and was very impressed by the vocational options. I had never seen a school or a society that treated blue-collar work as a perfectly legitimate career choice. It was so obviously a much better system than the one we have, that falsely elevates college prep over vo-tech and then fosters contempt for the many students who are not cut out for BAs in English. I’ve been wishing American schools would do that ever since.

    (I don’t know if it’s ironic that at my 10-year HS reunion, the most successful attendee by far was the guy who became a plumber.)

  6. Many people have been saying this for years, and nobody is listening.

  7. MagisterGreen says:

    As the university stranglehold over what constitutes “higher” education in this country implodes with the out-of-control costs and the lack of jobs finally compelling people to seek other options, I’d wager true vocational ed will return in force. It’ll be a painful return in many ways, no doubt, but I’d put money on it happening sooner rather than later.

  8. I have a relative who is finance director of a county road commission. High school grad, very intelligent; takes one-off courses when needed. Never went to college, never considered it. Not his thing. Today, that could not happen. Pitiful.

  9. I thought vocational education was an earlier incarnation of the theory that it was more important to go to school than to learn anything. At best, it’s a matter of taking students who would normally be apprentices and having them learn the same things from unionized civil servants instead of their employers.