Vocational education's moment in the sun
March 30, 2011 — To college-educated parents, the term “vocational education” may conjure up images of desultory high school wood shop classes, dead-end jobs, and classmates who couldn’t hack college work. But vocational education — or, as it is known today, career and technical education (CTE) — is finding new champions. Pathways to Prosperity, a report published in February by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, argued that America’s fixation on four-year college degrees was failing its students and young workers, and looked to Europe — where vocational programs are traditionally stronger — for inspiration. The Harvard report kicked off a flurry of debate, including a vow from Arne Duncan, the federal Secretary of Education, that vocational education would no longer be “the neglected stepchild of education reform.”
But for all the attention the report attracted, the vision it outlined remained constrained by an assumption that career success in the modern economy depends on higher education. A re-imagined education system with a strong vocational component, the Harvard team wrote, would still require “at least one year of post-secondary education or training” for every student. That message was reinforced by Duncan, who warned that contemporary vocational education is not about “earning a diploma and landing a job after high school,” but rather preparing for “a postsecondary degree or an industry-recognized certification.”
The proposition that the high school diploma earned by most students today, by itself, is insufficient preparation for most careers that secure a berth in America’s middle class is probably sound. But Duncan’s argument raises another question: why should American students — almost uniquely among the children in the world’s developed economies — have to wait until after high school to receive serious vocational education? And should the idea of preparing 18-year-olds for the world of work really be out of bounds?
The origins of ‘college- and career-ready’
The debate over the future of vocational education is, inevitably, shaped by its history — in particular, by the “slow, anguished death” it experienced in the last decades the end of the twentieth century, in the words of Marc Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Vocational programs were first introduced into American high schools on a significant scale toward the beginning of the century, and by the post-World War II era, according to Tucker, many larger communities had selective, free-standing trade schools for high school students. These schools — which in effect represented a “career track” that existed alongside both a selective college-prep track and a general curriculum — often had close connections to local industry, which viewed them as “training partners” and provided access to instructors, equipment, and information about labor market demands, Tucker said.
By the 1970s, though, school districts began to abandon this model and moved toward “comprehensive” high schools, which offered college prep, career prep, and general education in one building. In Tucker’s telling, by undermining the logic that concentrated training resources in one place, that move broke the link between industry and high schools — and, in turn, weakened the quality of many vocational programs.
At about the same time, another development threatened to undercut vocational education. A Nation at Risk, a landmark report produced in 1983 by a commission appointed by Ronald Reagan, issued dire warnings about lackluster achievement of American students. The report helped kick off a wave of standards-based reform, which produced “a nearly three-decade-long increase in traditional core academic requirements,” said James R. Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. The push for more hours of academic instruction squeezed vocational instruction out of the school day, and helped entrench a college prep curriculum as the only legitimate pathway through high school.
Meanwhile, with vocational programs stripped of their former institutional home in the selective trade schools, and sidelined in comprehensive high schools, they “became a dumping ground for the kids who were not succeeding in academic studies,” Tucker said. The “career track” still existed, but now it did as much to track students — especially those who were racial and ethnic minorities or hailed from lower-income households — away from opportunities as toward them.
Eventually, this downward trajectory forced a reconsideration on the part of the vocational education community. This rethinking was forced by feedback from employers, who made it clear that the declining quality of vocational programs was not preparing high school graduates for high-level work, said Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.
But it was also a response to trends in education reform, which had continued to emphasize academic achievement. In effect, Green said, career and technical educators concluded that, “in order to make sure we don’t get pushed out of the high schools, we have to look at what we’re teaching and make sure we’re able to demonstrate that we’re rigorous.”
This renewed commitment to rigor was signaled, in many cases, by forging rhetorical and programmatic connections between vocational training and the college prep route. High school programs with vocational themes now often boast of their success in sending students on to college — a goal that is very different, Tucker notes, from directly providing economically useful skills and credentials. Meanwhile, the phrase “college- and career-ready” — a concept that holds that every student should obtain a common set of skills that will prepare him or her for both higher education and the workplace — has become an educational buzzword. And a new idea emerged, one taken up by Duncan’s boss early in his presidency: every high school student should obtain at least one year of post-secondary education.
In the most complete articulation of this vision, President Obama and others say that it can include apprenticeships or workplace training experiences. Oftentimes, however, the vision is simply expressed and understood as a call for more formal education — an impression that is reinforced by Obama’s parallel goal of leading the world in the share of college graduates. And in either case, it reflects an assumption that Americans of high school age cannot be prepared for career success on any significant scale.
That assumption, said Green, is probably well-founded, given the current structure of our education system (and at least at present, her group is not focused on rethinking it). But she added: “Do I believe that we could in the United States graduate kids at the end of 12th grade who are highly successful and ready to transition to careers? Yes” — if we had a system that was designed to do so.