Is Vocational Education “Unconventional”?

Do college graduates make more money? Not always, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Do college graduates make more money? Not always, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2015, the average plumber or electrician made only about $3000 less annually than the average K-12 teacher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Electrical and electronics installers and repairers earned about the same as teachers, and aircraft mechanics and service technicians made several thousand dollars more than teachers. Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels made tens of thousands more than the average teacher.

Given that reality, why do we continue to short-change students by cutting back on vocational education and insisting that college is the only worthy goal for high school graduates? School systems determined to end up on the lists of the most challenging schools have largely abandoned such programs.

Hillary Clinton’s recent attempt on the campaign trail to change this narrative is a welcome departure from years of neglect by school systems more concerned about attracting the wealthy to suburban neighborhoods than about preparing students who need an effective education most.

But Clinton’s views on this issue appeared only fleetingly in an article on the Washington Post homepage:

Exploring relatively unconventional ground, she called for greater support of vocational training, contrary to the “commonplace view, which is everybody needs to go to college.” More than half of jobs projected to come open in 2020 do not require a degree, she said.

Though the Post’s editors acknowledged the uniqueness of this proposal, it was not the focus of the editorial itself, which criticized Clinton’s failure to provide specifics on the economy in her stump speech. Clinton’s suggestion for expanded vocational programs has largely been made in towns devastated by the nation’s economy in recent years, where it is received with applause and cheers. But this is not the audience that most needs to hear her message—academics and liberals who are in the business of making educational policy. Sadly, these audiences often value college above all else—and not just college, but the exclusivity of the college—those that are filled with “legacy” students, whose parents give lucrative gifts.

While it is a worthy goal to open the doors of higher education to a more diverse range of students, that alone is not enough. While we try to push students through that narrow gate, more and more students graduate from high school with low grades and even lower interest in higher education. We can’t afford to keep losing these students. We need them. And they need us to offer them options in careers they may find more rewarding than working in an office or a classroom.

That doesn’t mean that we need to return to the days when students who struggled were enrolled in vocational schools as a last option, tracked into courses where they didn’t gain the skills they need to read, write, and speak well—skills that are needed in every profession.

Because reading and writing can be more easily measured on high stakes assessments than speaking ability, we have also in recent years turned away from speech and communication classes. In fact, the school system where I worked not only cut the Oral Communications requirement, it largely eliminated the speech component from the required tasks in the curriculum. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards, we have returned to a focus on “student-to-student discourse”—informal and structured class discussions. This is a welcome change from the teacher-centered classroom. But nowhere in the curriculum do students focus on the skills on which potential employers first judge them—how they present themselves from the moment they open their mouths to speak.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland is the 15th largest school system in the United States, serving over 156,000 students, and yet this district where I taught has only one vocational school, the same as much smaller school systems. Two of my former English teacher colleagues now work at this school, the Edison High School of Technology, where they’ve seen many success stories. One colleague has taken it upon himself to make communication skills a part of his curriculum. He believes that we should stop viewing vocational schools as merely a pathway for those who will never go to college and that we should offer these programs to a wider array of students, even encouraging students who know they are college bound to take advantage of some courses.

These are not, however, the classes that carry “quality points” that increase the weighted grade point average of students who aim for the most selective colleges and universities. According to the district’s grading regulation, if the course is designated as “an honors or advanced level course, the weighted grade point average will be computed by adding one quality point to the grade of A, B, or C.”

In fact, when I worked in the curriculum office, we sometimes got requests from the schools at the top of the Challenge Index to allow advanced designations for elective courses that most students take simply because of their personal interest. Without those designations, schools risked not having enough students enrolled to continue the courses.

This is a situation that serves none of our students well. When students with the highest GPAs consider quality points before interest, they avoid valuable classes that might engage them for reasons other than a number on a transcript. When students who have lower GPAs are sent the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that dedication to skilled work is not of value, they might not choose a career that could be a perfect fit. And when all those students in the middle are pushed toward college, whether it is the right fit or not, all of us lose, especially if they accumulate large debts.

Far too often, educational reform efforts have focused on how to ensure that every student will be successful in college. While well-intentioned, that goal is unrealistic and unfair to those who aren’t interested in college. It is a form of intellectual snobbery that we can ill afford if we want all our children to be good citizens who can take pride in whatever line of work they choose.

3 thoughts on “Is Vocational Education “Unconventional”?”

  1. I’ve advocated this since I started at Wootton High School in Rockville Maryland in 1978, and often supported this through the years by hanging out with the shop teachers and students in my free periods. I grew up with my grandfather and father running an electrical contracting business, building numerous hospitals, schools, libraries, etc. At one time they steadily employed ~15 IBEW Union electricians, who got good wages and whose children have grown up to be well-educated and successful. You can’t import good on- site labor from overseas. I want the technician who walks in my front door to be well-qualified, and I’m willing to pay him a fair price to good work.

    1. In fact my first summer there I worked with the special education teacher who also taught shop, and we took the students out for 1/2 of the day doing landscaping jobs (my specialty) then into the woods shop for the afternoon. Hopefully by the end of the summer they had learned some saleable skills.

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