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.


Obama pledges job training, lower college costs

Community colleges will become “community career centers” working with employers to train 2 million Americans for skilled jobs, said President Obama in the State of the Union speech, which also promised to make college affordable for middle-class families.

States cut funding for colleges and universities by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, a new study finds. The federal stimulus money ran out and state budgets couldn’t make up the difference.

Also: More on free and cheap online college courses’ challenge to traditional higher education. It’s all about the credentials.

Send more kids to college

We need to send more students to college, writes Marcus A. Winters on National Review Online. The U.S. has “too few college-educated workers to meet the challenges of our increasingly complicated society,” he argues.

The case that too many students are going to college comes through two arguments: that we have reached the zenith of our ability to produce students with the skills necessary to succeed in college, and that for marginal students, the economic returns from college are not as good as advertised. Neither of these critiques stand up to scrutiny.

Low-income students may fail in the typical low-income school, but there are many well-organized schools with good teachers that enable these students to suceed, Winters writes.

. . . if we could improve the quality of our ineffective teachers or replace them with effective ones, we would dramatically improve educational outcomes. There is plenty of room for schools to get better, particularly those where low achievement is the norm.

Furthermore, “the wage premium a year of college coursework yields has been increasing at a rapid clip since about 1979,” Winters writes.

. . . in the middle-to-late 1970s, educational attainment stalled, though technology continued progressing. Since 1977, high-school-graduation rates, college-attendance rates, and standardized-test scores have all plateaued. Now too few educated workers chase after a growing number of skilled jobs, allowing them to command ever-higher wage premiums.

Not every student can benefit from college, Winters concedes. But if we did a better job in K-12, many more could learn the skills for 21st-century success.

‘Ready for work’ is just a slogan

While educators agree that students should be prepared for both college and the workplace, career skills often get short shrift, reports Education Week.

“Industry after industry is going after high-skilled labor[ers] and cannot find them,” said Robert T. Jones, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of labor in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is now the president of Education and Workforce Policy, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting company. Even in the current recession, he said, many skilled manufacturing and technician jobs ­­— such as for welders and electricians — go begging.

Most students now assume they’ll go on to college. But the C, D and F students (and some of the B students) will find they lack the skills to pass college courses or qualify for apprenticeships.