Cross-posted at Education Week.
After many years in the wilderness, career and technical education—AKA vocational education—shows signs of awakening from a long sleep. The victim first of a revulsion against tracking and then of a virtually exclusive focus on academic achievement (thought to be at odds with the acquisition of vocational skills), career and technical education is enjoying something of a renaissance. We read that it was a major focus of the most recent meeting of the nation’s chief state school officers. And the Fordham Institute, long one of the major sources of support for a demanding academic curriculum, has just released a paper extolling the virtues of career and technical education.
I am of mixed minds about this. On the one hand, I see this development as long overdue, desperately needed by students who have been largely forgotten, who are leaving high school with few skills and no prospects in an environment in which jobs for such people are fast drying up, and no less desperately needed by employers who would pay well for young people with the skills they need but who cannot find them. That part of me applauds this reawakening interest in career and technical education.
But there is another part of me that sees the United States once again more than willing to settle for a third-rate system, when it could have a first-rate one. The Fordham study of the career and technical education system in Arkansas finds that students who take a sequence of career and technical education courses in high school are more likely to complete high school than similar students who have not participated, more likely to attend two- and four-year colleges, more likely to succeed in those college settings and more likely to earn more after high school.
Yup, that is what you would—or should—expect. These students are being matched against students who typically struggle in school and often drop out. They are often barely able to read the 7th or 8th grade level texts they are expected to read in high school. They might have a job in a fast food restaurant in high school or do some other unskilled work and expect to keep doing the same after they graduate, so what is the point of staying in except to hang out with their friends? But, when offered an opportunity to do something that looks like it might lead to something better than making pizzas, or delivering them, why not jump at it? The three career and technical education courses they are taking may or may not deliver economically valuable skills, but they probably can engage the young person, give him or her a reason to work harder in school and to learn more, to complete, and, having had some success in school, go on for more education.
There is nothing wrong with any of this and much right with it. It is a lot better than nothing at all. It can be made even better by requiring that course sequences lead to employer-recognized qualifications. Even better if it comes with some sort of work experience, so that the student finds out that the employer expects the worker to show up on time, put in some serious work, dress decently and be civil with colleagues.
But then I ask myself: “Is that all? Are we going to be satisfied with that?” We know that the typical high school graduate reads at the 7th or 8th grade level, that the majority of high school graduates have trouble with Algebra I, the majority of high school graduates write poorly and the students we are talking about here typically do less well than the average student. These students typically leave high school four or five grade levels below where they would have be in mathematics and English literacy to take advantage of a demanding technical education curriculum of the kind I see being talked about. I know of community colleges shutting down their programs in advanced welding and computer systems management—two year programs leading to careers paying very well—because they cannot find enough students who can read and do math at the level required by these programs. So let’s not kid ourselves. If our high schools develop career and technical education programs that really will prepare students for the kinds of rewarding technical careers that will be increasingly available, those students will have to be much better prepared for them than they are now. If such programs are created and nothing is done to radically improve their preparation for them, the students will fail in large numbers and the standards will be lowered to a point at which they can meet them, which is what we usually do.
The nations that set the international benchmark for career and technical education are Singapore and Switzerland. Singapore has a streaming system that begins at the end of the fourth grade. Most of the students in the lowest stream wind up in the Singapore Institute for Technical Education, which is their upper secondary career and technical education system, the one that is done in the last two or three years of what we would call high school. The students in that lowest stream, on average, score above the median score for all students taking the PISA tests. That means that they score above the average for all American high school students in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving. That means that they are going into a career and technical education system in which they are expected to read texts set to literacy levels several years beyond what our high school students are expected to read. They can do both mathematics and science at the same level. The same thing is true in Switzerland.
In the Swiss and Singaporean apprenticeship systems, both of which are the subject of reports by NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, government and the business community work together to set very demanding occupational skills standards that are used to contract training programs, evaluate the accomplishments of and hire trainees. Trainees get extensive experience working either in actual businesses or in school-based businesses that look for all the world like the real thing. Their instructors, in school and on the employers’ premises, have to meet a stringent set of qualifications, both in the field being trained for and in the relevant pedagogy. Those qualifications include recent experience in the field in which they are training. Employers are obligated to provide training in the full range of skills demanded by the field or to contribute to an employer association that will train in the areas the employer cannot. Employers are also required to pay the apprentices on a schedule that is agreed nationwide. Singapore relies more heavily on school-based apprenticeships and Switzerland on employer-based apprenticeships, but both are able to provide students with state-of-the-art industry environments in which to train.
In the United States, we count students as being in career and technical education if they have taken a three-course sequence in a technical field. That would be regarded as some kind of joke in Switzerland or Singapore. If you are a career and technical education student in Switzerland or Singapore at the upper secondary level, you are engaged in a multi-year, multi-faceted program designed to provide a very high level of preparation for a demanding technical career.
These two countries have built a demanding system of career and technical education on the foundation of two of the most successful basic education systems in the world. Their career and technical education systems are set to globally benchmarked standards of student performance, deeply involve their employers, and provide authentic state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained instructors with deep and recent industry experience.
Massachusetts has a widely admired system of upper secondary career and technical education. That it is Massachusetts is, in my view, no accident. Its elementary and secondary education system has topped the NAEP league tables for years.
There are two big messages here. The first is we will fail our students if we pretend that we can provide them with valuable technical skills in high school if they failed to acquire world-class basic skills before they get there. The second is that if we end up providing our career and technical education students only the routine skills we usually provide them with, they will be of no value to the employers who are buying the automated equipment that is making those routine skills irrelevant. If we fail to provide our global firms with the workforce they need, they will leave the United States for countries that can provide the much more complex skills now demanded. Either way, whether you look at it from the point of view of what our students need to live rewarding lives or what our employers need to stay competitive, we need to completely rethink not just our career and technical education system, but also the basic education system on which it rests. I would commend to your attention the Pathways to Prosperity Network, which is building a network of states interested in doing much more than providing three occupationally related courses to students who might otherwise drop out of school.