Throughout most of US history, American high school students have systematically learned vocational and vocational skills as well as the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Indeed, readers of a certain age are likely to have fond memories of huddled on wooden workbenches to learn a craft like woodworking or perhaps metalworking, or one of the projects practices that characterized the once ubiquitous workshop class.
But in the 1950s, a different philosophy emerged: the theory that students should follow separate educational paths according to their abilities. The idea was that college students took traditional academic courses (Latin, creative writing, science, math) and received no vocational training. Students not heading to college would take basic academic courses, as well as vocational training, or “workshop”.
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Ability tracking did not sit well with educators or parents, who believed that students were assigned to tracks not by ability, but by socioeconomic status and race. The result being that by the late 1950s, what was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream, educational path came to be seen as a catch-up track that restricted minority and working-class students.
However, the backlash against tracking has not brought vocational education back to the heart of education. Instead, the focus has been on preparing all students for college, and college preparation is still central to the high school curriculum in the United States.
So what’s wrong with preparing kids for college? Won’t all students benefit from a four-year high-level university program? In fact, not really. On the one hand, people have a wide and diverse range of different skills and learning styles. Not everyone is good at math, biology, history and the other traditional subjects that characterize work at the college level. Not everyone is fascinated by Greek mythology, or enamored with Victorian literature, or thrilled with classical music. Some students are mechanical; others are artistic. Some focus best in a conference room or classroom; still others learn best by doing and would thrive in the studio, workshop, or workshop.
And not everyone goes to college. The latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that about 68% of high school students attend college. This means that more than 30% of graduates have neither academic nor professional skills.
But even the 68% are not doing so well. Nearly 40% of students who start four-year college programs don’t finish them, resulting in a lot of wasted time, wasted money, and heavy student debt. Of those who complete college, a third or more will find themselves in jobs they might have had without a four-year degree. The BLS found that 37% of currently employed college graduates do work for which only a high school diploma is required.
It is true that income studies show that college graduates earn more over their lifetime than high school graduates. However, these studies have some weaknesses. For example, more than 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. And the income of college graduates varies greatly from one discipline to another – philosophy graduates do not earn at all what business graduates earn. Finally, income studies compare university graduates to all high school graduates. But for the subset of high school students who graduate from vocational training—those working in skilled, well-paying jobs—the non-graduation picture is much rosier.
Yet, despite mounting evidence that four-year college programs are serving our students less and less, states continue to cut vocational programs. In 2013, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has more than 600,000 students, planned to cut nearly all of its CTE programs by the end of the year. The justification, of course, is budgetary; these programs (which include automotive body technology, aircraft maintenance, audio production, real estate, and photography) are expensive to operate. But in a situation where 70% of high school students don’t go to college, nearly half of those who do fail, and more than half of graduates are unemployed or underemployed, vocational education is- is it really useless? Or is it the smartest investment we can make in our children, our businesses, and our country’s economic future?
The American economy has changed. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a multitude of challenging, well-paid and highly skilled jobs for those with the necessary skills. The disappearance of vocational education at the secondary level has created a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a multitude of career opportunities for underemployed college graduates and high school students looking for jobs. direct pathways to meaningful and lucrative careers. Many manufacturing jobs are accessible through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. They don’t require expensive four-year degrees that many students aren’t suited for.
And contrary to what many parents think, students who learn vocational skills in high school and choose professional careers often go on to further education. The modern workplace favors people with strong, transferable skills who are open to continuous learning. Most young people today will have many jobs over their lifetime, and many will have multiple careers requiring new and more sophisticated skills.
Just a few decades ago, our public education system offered many opportunities for young people to learn about careers in manufacturing and other professional occupations. Yet today, high school students barely hear a whisper of the many doors the career path can open. The “college for all” mentality has pushed the awareness of other possible career paths to the margins. The cost to individuals and the economy as a whole is high. If we want everyone’s child to succeed, we need to put vocational education back at the heart of high school learning.
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