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.

 

Dutch test

Teaching to the test is the norm in the Netherlands, writes Joep of Dancing Crocodile.  Students conclude secondary education by taking the national exam. If the don’t pass it, they retake it the next year. He’s all for it.

The results for the exam are proof of the student’s level per subject, regardless the school where he has studied. The results of all students per school give relevant information about the school’s efficacy. And I have to accept that the results of my students at the national exam for my subject gauge the quality of my teaching.

It goes without saying that school has to offer more than just a highway towards an exam. The exam result is only one of many features that make a good school. But our national exam definitely makes the teacher accountable for intellectual attainment measured with a yardstick that is not homespun.

I do not trust teachers, nor schools, for that matter, to devise their own goals and have them decide which level is sufficient. I would not entrust myself with such responsibility.

I have to deliver the goods and services that society needs. School is not a playground in which we are given leeway to implement our best intentions for the benefit of other people’s children. Education at school is an essential part of the real world.

Joep teaches art and design in an English immersion school. Note that English is his third language after Low Saxon and Dutch. And he does not, as he fears, write “Dunglish.”