Let’s Get Serious About Career and Technical Education

Cross-posted at Education Week.

I tried to make three points in last week’s blog about the renewed interest in career and technical education.  The first is that if career and technical education is to be useful, it has to be built on a sound command of the basic skills; much sounder than that possessed by the typical American high school graduate.  The second is that it is important to reevaluate the kinds of careers we train students for in light of the speed with which advancing automation is destroying work that is routine, which covers many of the trades and occupations for which young people have traditionally trained.  And the third is that modern career and technical education cannot be provided at scale without a complex institutional architecture of a kind that only a few nations have yet built.

I commend to your attention two responses I received to that blog.  The first chided me for embracing a 1950s conception of career and technical education, for implying that career and technical education is only for the students at the bottom of the distribution, for ignoring the plight of the college graduates who have few employment prospects and mountains of debt to show for their investment in a four-year college education and for ignoring the current conception of career and technical education as integrating academics and a career/industry focus.  The other commenter points to the inclusion of a career and technical education option within the International Baccalaureate program as a good example of a curriculum that combines a career and technical focus with serious academics.

The author of the first of these two comments might be surprised to discover that I have long advocated breaking down the barriers between career and technical education, on the one hand, and academic education on the other.  Academic education should be more applied for everyone, and career and technical education has to be much more academically demanding, for everyone.  The pathways we create for students should make it possible to move much more easily between career and technical education and academic pathways, in both directions. We may agree on that, but it is not clear how much else we agree on.

All education is, at least to some degree, career and technical education.  We want students to enter the workforce with skills they can use to earn a decent living, whether those are the skills of a carpenter or a surgeon.  Both the surgeon and the carpenter need both “theoretical” skills and practical skills.  Both need book learning and an opportunity to learn on the job from someone with real expertise. The only difference between the carpenter and the surgeon is that it takes about 12 or 13 years of formal education and training to give a new carpenter a good start and it takes at least 19 or 20 years to do the same thing for a medical doctor.  The question on the table here is what part of this trajectory has to be run in high school.

I have argued that the dynamics of global competition have combined with advancing automation to endanger growing numbers of occupations toward the lower end of the skill continuum.  That has two effects on the way we need to think about what sort of education our students need.  Because there is growing uncertainty about the half-life of any given job or career line, it is becoming necessary to provide all students with the skills and knowledge needed to learn new skills quickly and easily.  This implies not just more skills and knowledge but also a deeper command of the underlying structures of many bodies of knowledge.  And that implies a much better general education than most people needed to earn a living up to now.  The second implication is that the initial level of technical skills needed to enter the labor market will be much higher, because the labor market demand for people with only basic skills and few if any technical skills is already low and declining fast.

What this adds up to for our schools is a need to raise dramatically the floor level of basic academic knowledge and skills needed by high school graduates. In addition, they must ensure that all our students either leave high school with a formal qualification that will enable them to begin a career requiring much higher levels of technical skill than the well-paying jobs of 30 years ago or provide students the high level of academic skill needed to go on to the next stage of an education that will eventually result in highly marketable occupational skills of the kind that the surgeon, the accountant, the engineer, or the teacher needs.


In my last blog, I was writing about the student who graduates or fails to graduate high school now with only a 7th or 8th grade literacy level, poor writing skills and a poor command of middle school mathematics.  I was pointing out that the outlook for these students—who constitute the majority of all of our high school students—will not be improved much by giving them modest vocational skills if we do nothing to greatly raise their basic skills. Most will be eaten alive by advancing automation and the waning effects of outsourcing.

But the author of the first response to my blog is also right.  The situation is also grim for high school graduates who went to college with only 7th or 8th grade literacy, a poor command of middle school mathematics and weak writing skills who then leave college, if they make it through, with “no marketable skills and a mountain of debt.”

The author of that first response offers a solution to these challenges, namely integrating academic education with career and technical education.  To which I would say, well, maybe.  It depends on what that actually means.  If it means a high school program that produces more students who cannot read at least at a 12th (not 7th or 8th) grade level, cannot write well and cannot do algebra, probability and statistics and are not qualified either to get the equivalent of a journeyman’s certificate in a skilled trade or to succeed in a typical college program leading to a rewarding career, then I would say I am not interested.

I do not want to be misunderstood on this point.  I think that most students who are good at academics would benefit from a much more applied form of education, mixing theory and application seamlessly in their curriculum.  And I am absolutely convinced that students in strictly vocational programs will fail economically if they have not had an intellectually demanding curriculum in school.  Yes, we can agree on that.

But I have no use for curricula that are applied and engaging for students and academically undemanding and vaporous.  They can lead to more engagement for students and a real buzz in the school, less retention and higher graduation rates.  But they will cheat these kids when as adults their initial jobs are automated and they do not have a strong enough education to make it worth anyone’s while to invest in their further education.  They will be left in the dust.  It is a form of fraud for the student, who has been led to believe that they have been given something of value that turns out to have little value when the chips are down.

And I do not have much use, either, for something that is called career and technical education but does not lead to a qualification.  Students who have had some time in a career cluster and some work experience have exposure but they do not have what the Europeans call a qualification.  You have a qualification if an employer looks at your certificate and says, yup, you have passed a demanding written and practical evaluation that people in my company think is a good measure of your ability to hit the ground running in a career that demands a high level of technical skill.

Last week’s blog asked what our goal ought to be for career and technical education.  From my point of view, it has to be both to enable the student—sooner or later—to get a widely recognized certificate saying that the student has the qualifications needed to embark on a rewarding career when the student enters the workforce and an education that will enable that student to learn how to do another kind of challenging and rewarding work easily and quickly when the need arises, a kind of work that automated equipment is not likely to be doing anytime soon.  The International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme probably does that for some students.  But few students anywhere take the IB Programme in the early and middle grades, even fewer in schools serving mainly students from low-income and/or minority families.  And the vast majority of IB students go on to four-year college.  But what about the more than half of all students who do not go on to a four-year college?  It is very important that we ask ourselves what we are doing for them.  At the moment, the answer is very little.