The Death of Vocational Education and the Demise of the American Middle Class

Cross-posted from Education Week

Francis Fukuyama has an incisive article in the current Foreign Affairs titled, “The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracies Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?”  By “middle class” he means people who are neither at the top nor the bottom of their societies in terms of income.  He points out that Aristotle was only the first of a long line of commentators to point out that stable democracies depend on the presence of a broad middle class. Without a broad middle class, countries from the beginning of time have descended into oligarchy, with a small elite getting all the goodies and lording it over the impoverished others, or been consumed by populist revolution.  Democracy withers in such situations. Fukuyama worries what may happen if our middle class becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of our republic’s population.  We all should.

In our 2006 report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, NCEE documented the decline of that middle class.  We contrasted the triangle-shaped distribution of the American income up to about 20 years ago with the emerging hour-glass shape of today.  The fat middle of that triangle was the middle-class.  The thing that gives the new hour-glass shape of our income distribution its singular pattern is the rapid disappearance of the middle class.  Increasingly, those who used to be in the middle are dividing their destinations; a few are rising into the realm of the upper classes and many more are descending into the lower class.

Many global economic forces are at work contributing to inequality of incomes in the liberal democracies, but none is more important than differences in education levels within and among nations.  We wrote about that in Tough Choices, and I will not repeat it here.  What I want to focus on is something we have done to ourselves, something many of our most astute competitors have not done, something that is coming back to bite us big time.

Few Americans are aware of the extent to which our civilian economy used to depend on the breadth and quality of the vocational education system in our Armed Forces prior to the inauguration of the voluntary service following the Vietnam War.  Millions of young people who were taken in by the Army had basic skills that were a bit shaky and very little in the way of vocational skills.  They were trained as truck drivers, diesel mechanics, aircraft engine maintenance workers, road builders, computer system managers and quality system analysts.  After their tour was over, they entered the civilian economy, ready to be far more productive than they were before they entered the Army.  The services still train the people they recruit.  But now, they aim to keep them, and the rate at which they become available to the civilian economy has been drastically reduced.

Years ago, when I was in high school, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools.  They were hard to get into, like Boys Latin and Girl’s Latin. That’s because the students who were admitted were virtually assured good jobs when they graduated.  That was true because the number of slots in these schools were matched by the high schools to the number of estimated openings and those openings were limited.  There were very close relationships between the high schools and the firms that looked to them to meet their employment requirements.  So the firms made sure that the high schools had competent instructors and up-to-date equipment.  After the Vietnam War, many educators concluded that it was morally wrong to have selective vocational high schools.  Local boards of education asked all high schools to provide vocational education to anyone who wanted it.  The close relationship between the supplier of highly trained youth and the companies who needed them was severed.  The companies no longer provided the new equipment as the old became obsolete, and the high schools could not afford to do so on their own, so the equipment the students trained on prepared them for nothing.  Nor did the companies any longer make sure that the vocational training programs were staffed by competent instructors.  It was impossible to obtain such people anyway, because the equipment was no longer current.  So the quality of instruction declined precipitously.

This was followed by increasing concern among reformers that the academic performance of American students was falling relative to that of students in the top-performing countries.  The response for those high school students not already in the college track was to expand the number of academic courses, crowding out the time available for vocational education.

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.

It was as if the United States felt that it had to choose between making improvements in students’ academic skills and maintaining a system to provide robust vocational skills.  We chose the former, and, with the inauguration of career academies in our high schools, substituted programs intended to motivate students to stay in school for serious vocational educational programs.  We solved the problem of the low prestige of vocational programs the way we always deal with such problems, by renaming it, calling it career and technical education instead.

The trades unions still do a good job of preparing a handful of young people for certain skilled trades.  And many of our community colleges have developed strong skill training programs, though, in most states, those programs are under threat because they are more expensive to operate and less prestigious than academic programs.  But, in any case, the end result of the developments I have described is the virtual destruction of vocational education as a serious enterprise in our secondary schools.

Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries lived in the midst of the same global economic forces we did, but they did not do what we did in response.  They doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.  They built education systems designed to support the middle class as well as an elite.  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.

We, on the other hand, appear to be blind to the devastation we have caused by our inattention to this vital part of our education system–and to the implications of that devastation.

I recommend to those who are interested: Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.  This report, issued last year by the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard University, contains a plan for redemption in this arena.  If Francis Fukuyama is right, what we do about the future of our middle class workers may be just as important for our political future as it surely will be for our economic future.

For a glimpse of what our high school will have to do to enable high school students to have the skills required to keep manufacturing in the United States, take a look at the Austin Polytechnical High School in Chicago.  To see what it might look like at the community college level, see at what is going on the Advanced Technological Education program of the National Science Foundation.  To compare what this country has now to our most successful competitors, read the descriptions of the national vocational education systems in the Netherlands, Australia and Singapore.