Future prep

College prep for all is failing many students, writes Time‘s Joe Klein in Learning That Works, a rousing endorsement of vocational education. Seen as “a convenient dumping ground for minority kids,” voc ed was abandoned. Schools adopted “the theology that every child should go to college (a four-year liberal-arts college at that) and therefore every child should be required to pursue a college-prep course in high school.”

The results have been awful. High school dropout rates continue to be a national embarrassment. And most high school graduates are not prepared for the world of work. The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates who are not in school is a stratospheric 33%. The results for even those who go on to higher education are brutal: four-year colleges graduate only about 40% of the students who start them, and two-year community colleges graduate less than that, about 23%.

“College for everyone has become a matter of political correctness,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University. “But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a quarter of new job openings will require a bachelor of arts degree. We’re not training our students for the jobs that actually exist.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun to run out of welders, glaziers and auto mechanics–the people who actually keep the place running.

What’s now called career and technical education (CTE) can be done so well that it motivates low and average achievers and attracts high achievers, Klein writes.

About 27% of the students in Arizona opt for the tech-ed path, and they are more likely to score higher on the state’s aptitude tests, graduate from high school and go on to higher education than those who don’t. “It’s not rocket science,” says Sally Downey, superintendent of the spectacular East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Ariz., 98.5% of whose students graduate from high school. “It’s just finding something they like and teaching it to them with rigor.”

Auto dealers, who are desperate for trained technicians, donate cars and high-tech equipment to the school’s auto shop classes. “If you can master the computer-science and electronic components,” Downey says, “you can make over $100,000 a year as an auto mechanic.”

As college costs soar and college dropout rates remain high, career tech is looking better and better.

About Joanne


  1. “If you can master the computer-science and electronic components… you can make over $100,000 a year as an auto mechanic” – and if you can’t, you’ll fall in with the vast majority of auto mechanics and make substantially less. Why are we pretending that the outlier jobs and outlier qualifications are the norm?

    Do you know any auto mechanics? It’s tough work, and can be dangerous. The typical mechanic is working with hydraulic lifts, hydraulic tools, and large, heavy pieces of metal, not punching buttons on a computer console.

  2. That’s no argument against providing training in high school, though, is it, @Aaron? It would seem to be the opposite. We are the only industrialized country that disdains career-technical education and promotes the fantasyland notion that all students must go to college (or be shamed as failures and offered no options).

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Even average mechanics make a decent hourly rate. And in much of the vast middle of the country, you can support a family on 40K a year. Even MDs and Jds don’t make 100K in most of the country.

  4. theUnpaidBill says:

    “It’s tough work, and can be dangerous. The typical mechanic is working with hydraulic lifts, hydraulic tools, and large, heavy pieces of metal, not punching buttons on a computer console.”

    Aaron you say that like it’s a bad thing. As the supply of trained mechanics shrinks, the amount people are willing to pay will go up. Simple supply and demand.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    According to the BLS, median pay for an Auto Mechanic is 35K, for a diesel mechanic 40K. Meanwhile, the median HOUSEHOLD income for the entire state of Indiana is 47K, so a mechanic married to a woman who works part time at Walmart would be living pretty decently. (40K in this area easily covers mortgage, transportation, food, medical, clothes, and entertainment, especially if you have no student loans!)

  6. The other point is that providing this kind of training in high school doesn’t just benefit the student — it benefits all of society when we have workers trained in skills we need. And, conversely, it’s crazy and hurts us all when that doesn’t happen.

  7. dangermom says:

    Ever since I spent a year in Scandinavia in high school and realized that other countries support and respect blue-collar work, I’ve thought that our college-prep-only system is ridiculous. Bring back vocational education!

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Bring back quality vocational education!

      Vocational education was available when I was in high school, but it was a bit of a joke. We need to get industry involved like they do in Germany and respect their input and skills. Unfortunately, folks in US higher education have little love for the working class or industry – they disdain them.

      • Sean Mays says:

        An attitude rooted in our English heritage. Time was when a “surgeon” stood back and lectured while a butcher actually cut meat (yes, people); wouldn’t want to get the threads dirty with something as crass as blood and guts.

        I don’t know Stacy, I don’t see alot of warm fuzzies for the intellectuals in America; thought we were a “can do” country; pioneer spirit and all that. Or are they proper nouns?

        Perhaps we’re unsane?

  8. First, cutting voc-ed had as much to do with cost as it does with college prep for all (an admittedly big part of it). Voc-ed is extremely expensive, and should be centralized, not part of general high school.

    Second, as long as people keep pretending that the high-end of voc-ed is anything but the high-end, then we’re getting nowhere. Some kids don’t need voc-ed. What they need is a job at the 7-11 where all the Bangledeshi or Pakistani owners aren’t hiring their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. Or a job at the Department of Sanitation, with a non-tax-payer-punitive retirement.

    But since all those jobs will be disproportionately held by URMs, this will be unacceptable.

  9. SteveH says:

    Many vocational schools now offer associate and bachelor degrees. They are flexible, career oriented, and provide help with job placement. You can even transfer to the state university with little or no loss of credit. Our community college system also offers a no-credit-loss path to the state university. There is a lot more flexibility, but I don’t care for the emphasis on getting the piece of paper.

    The upside is that you can get an associate’s degree piece of paper while taking vocation-specific courses. The downside is that you might need that piece of paper just to get a job as a machinist. With more applicants than jobs, employers will look for that piece of paper. In areas where companies need employees, they will actually give everyone a fair shot at the job.

    It’s an old story. My father came back from WWII and didn’t go back to college. He ended up being very annoyed about the “college boys” who got promoted over him. My brother ended up programming at EMC even though he had no training. He did, however, have a college degree. Many were successful even without the piece of paper. It’s harder to do that now. I don’t like the institutionalizing of the piece of paper at almost all levels, even overriding experience. Educators want kids to become self-motivated life-long learners, but they place a lot of importance on getting that piece of paper. What’s so special about getting your GED after dropping out of high school? It seems as if the only goal is to make high schools feel better about themselves when they look at their dropout rate. What jobs are high school kids unprepared for because they don’t have their high school degree yet? What’s the real difference between a high school graduate and one who is missing four classes?

    It’s rather ironic. Getting the piece of paper is sort of like rote learning. It’s a way of showing an employer that you can take instructions and follow through. It’s kind of like direction instruction and large homework sets. Educators just hate direct instruction, but they love the “real world”. Welcome to the real credentialized world they are creating.

    • I disagree that it’s “educators” who are placing so much importance on the piece of paper. Education policy (and the culture around it) is being driven largely by non-educators in today’s world.

      • So it’s “non-educators” that changed our different tiers in high school so that the lowest level is now called “College Prep”? Was it a “non-educational” motivational speaker (that kids AND parents had to hear to be able to do extra-curricular activities and sports) who told us in no uncertain terms about the importance of going to college. (He taught at a college.) There might be many things forced on schools, but pressuring all kids to go to college needed no help.

        “Education policy (and the culture around it) is being driven largely by non-educators in today’s world.”

        Are you talking about the part that tries to get schools to show whether “authentic learning” adds any value whatsoever?

        • Disagree, SteveH. All teachers know that pressuring all kids to go to college, and taking away all their other options, is pointless and counterproductive. It’s the people who set our education policy — who have no contact with classrooms or kids, who send their own kids to elite privates — who push these idiotic policies.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I completely agree that “All teachers know that pressuring all kids to go to college, and taking away all their other options, is pointless and counterproductive.” However, the organized profession–unions, ed schools, etc.–hasn’t opposed the push to make all high school courses college prep, and to practice “inclusion”: to put all students, no matter their interest or intelligence in those classes. Quite the contrary. They have largely been in favor.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “Educators” will criticize lots of things about what schools do –but 99.99% of the time, they think more highly of someone who has that piece of paper than of someone who doesn’t.

      Actually, that 99.99% is probably low.

      • I contemplated that for a while. My kids’ high school is a public arts school, and contracts with many specialized artists-in-residence to provide deeper training in specific areas. They are recruited and overseen by the heads of each arts discipline, who are credentialed teachers. I don’t think it’s even on the radar whether the artists-in-residence have degrees — what they’re looking for is working artists with rapport with the kids. I know that the jazz bandleader who has taught both my kids doesn’t have a degree, just a lot of experience as a working jazzman. So, here’s a real-life example where educators are doing the hiring (not technically hiring; they’re contractors) and are interested in the skills and experience, not the degree.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Agreed. I’ll revise my estimate downward.

        • “…and are interested in the skills and experience, not the degree.”

          Do they get teacher wages and benefits? Education is all about credentials and the piece of paper. When RIF’s happen, it’s based on seniority. I guess experience is OK if it’s for someone else. Adjuncts are a big example of how schools want it both ways. It shows the manipulation of supply and demand. You need the piece of paper to play the game.

          Nobody would ever believe that K-12 schools are docile when it comes to curricula and educational philosophy. The us versus them argument doesn’t work unless the “us” are parents. As a parent, don’t expect me to hop on board some teacher versus administration and government agenda. I don’t look to ed school grads to define a proper education for my son.

          • No, the artists-in-residence at my kids’ school are independent contractors. I’m pointing out that it’s credentialed teachers who hire them and who pay NO attention to whether they have college degrees, as an anecdotal example to rebut the baseless claims that teachers overvalue college degrees.

            It’s politicians who make those rules about pieces of paper. But it’s inherent that employees themselves value seniority protections, and obviously that’s not limited to teachers.The appeal of job security shouldn’t need to be explained. And even the most avid so-called education “reformers” agree that high teacher turnover harms students, so it’s not just the employees who benefit from seniority rights.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Peace Corps makes a good point. One of the reasons teachers value credentials is the same reason they value seniority systems. It increases job security.

        • Peace Corps says:

          This is interesting. These contractors are qualified to teach things that the credentialed teachers either could not or ?? I’ll bet if someone suggested that the contracted “teachers” be hired as teachers, that all of a sudden the credential would be VERY important (required).

          I am an engineer by university training, taught undergraduate classes in grad school, but without a teaching license, I can’t teach high school math. (I went through a program to teach me to teach, hah)

          • Yes, Peace Corps, these are specialized teachers in an arts school. They include “sectional” teachers for individual instruments, such as a high-level trombonist teaching groups of trombonists once a week. They also include high-level working artists in specialty areas of visual arts, costume, makeup and circus arts professionals in theater tech and so forth.

            What I’m disputing is the claim that teachers value a college degree above all else and are the driving force behind the unrealistic and destructive “everyone must go to college and get no other options” notion.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Teachers are not ” the driving force behind the unrealistic and destructive ‘everyone must go to college and get no other options’ notion.” We are only enablers 🙂