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What Happened to Vocational Education (and Why We Need It Back)?


From benchmark assessments to Common Core standards, data teams to school improvement plans, SATs to ACTs, high schools across the nation are preoccupied with college readiness. It’s the story we’ve been told our entire lives: work hard in school so you can get grants and scholarships to go to college so you can get a good job and be happy. Our desks and hard-drives are filled to the brim with accountability measures created to assure student preparedness for higher education. In fact, in many cases, school funding and prestige is directly married to college-readiness data and the percentage of the student body accepted into four-year institutions. In short, we’ve advertently or inadvertently set up a system where prosperity in college is the litmus test for defining a successful life. But is this fair?

There was once a time when we gave more options to our students. With four-year public college tuition running an average of $112,000, it is no surprise that only about 70% of high school students attend college. Of those that attend, 40% of students who begin four-year college programs don’t complete them. Thirty percent of our students will not attend college at all. And 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required. Does this mean we have failed them? Are they not successes? Many students find long-term employment in any number of vocational fields - fields of education that have been increasingly ignored by the education system over the past half century. And yet, only about a third of the high schools across the United States offer vocational education programs. In 2012, funding for CTE dropped from $ 1,271.7 billion to $1,007.9 billion, and Trump’s budget cut proposals do not offer any more encouragement. Today, Education World examines current trends around vocational training and employment, suggesting that perhaps we should start rethinking how we measure a student's success.


There’s a Market

“Vocational education” is a broad term often used to describe any number of fields and programs, ranging from agriculture, marketing, health, and occupational home economics, to trade, industry, technology, and communications. Many of these professions generally do not require college, and in fact, historically, they were never intended to. The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, the law that first supported federal funding for vocational education in American schools, quite specifically described “vocational education” as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree. Over time, however, a stigma we know all too well developed over these programs, where “vocational education” meant “not good enough.” But when was the last time we reassessed this line of thinking? Because in our current economy, the data suggests we’re very, very wrong in making such hasty assumptions.



Computer programmers make an average salary of $74,280. Electrician’s pull a median pay of $51,880, up to $88,000. Network Systems Administrator? $77,810. Dental Hygienist? Over $70,000. Why are we discouraging students from pursuing these fantastic employment opportunities? And here’s the thing: not only do these jobs pay well, their demand is currently on the rise. Healthcare and social assistance, construction, computer support, veterinary technology and manufacturing are all looking at impressive increases in demand over the next few years.


The Experience in the Classroom

We’re all feeling the pressure from the federal, state, district, and building level: college, college, college. We’re supposed to get our kids accepted to college at all costs (and in the end, theirs). Our school depends on it. And yet, the general idea that there are no jobs out there for young people without a college education is clearly not true! You need a plan, certainly. A desire for lifelong learning, absolutely. But there are multiple routes to learning new things these days. It isn’t magically contained solely within the walls of a multi-million-dollar state institution. “But data shows that those with college degrees generally make more money,“ you retort. We’ve all heard that data as the “end all, be all” for the defense of a college education. But have we thought about the implications of that conclusion? What variables add to this outcome? Well, at the current price tag, who can afford college? Those, generally, that already come from financially-stable families. If you can afford an extra $28,000 a year for education, statistically, you’re not doing so bad. And if you’re growing up in a more financially stable environment, chances are you already have a handful of privileges and connections that could lead seamlessly into the world of gainful employment. In other words, what is the likelihood that our college graduates were already in a position for future economic security anyway, and where does that leave our students that simply can’t afford it? Perhaps we need a follow-up study.

And our language in the classroom is discouraging. The answer to “why are we doing this” is increasingly being answered with, “to get you ready for college.” Why this assessment? Why this skill? Why am I being asked to reflect on this data? What are we indirectly telling our students that already know that college will not be an option? We’re telling them they can work as hard as they can, pray and hope that they will be able to snatch up the handful of scholarships and grants available, and if they don’t secure that funding, they will never reach any financial security. All the while, as vocational programs are cut across our nation, we are clear keeping them from the training that will give them alternate options. To a 14-year-old with dreams of a better life, this feels devastatingly hopeless, and the very existence of this system is just as bad as telling them directly: “this is not for you.”

In this climate, kids who might be passionate about a particular craft or vocation are often discouraged from pursuing it. Sure, it is fair to say we don’t wish to pigeon-hole a student at such a young age. We don’t want to limit a student’s ability to expand and explore new interests and fields. And yet, who’s to say we can’t do both? Why shouldn’t my student be allowed to pursue a current passion in automotive repair, potentially putting her in a position for an apprenticeship post-high school that would allow her to choose whether or not saving money for higher education is a part of her life goals? There’s a reason why dropout rates are lower at vocational education schools. They made the choice to be there! Why isn’t this sort of realistic, long-term career planning a celebrated part of our curricula? Because we’ve decided to embrace the portrait of an “American Dream” job market that is simply no longer the only path to success. And worst of all, we’ve institutionalized that belief.

We have an opportunity to better help our students to be prepared for - as well as navigate - their own future. Our obsession with college readiness is grasping to an idealized world that might never have existed in the first place. It makes promises to our students that we can’t always deliver on. It’s leading to unpayable debts. It’s even leading some students away from reaching their actual potential. It’s time to embrace the present. Vocational education programs give our students so much more than a skill - it gives them an option. A choice in how their future could unfold from here. We need to redefine “success” in our government and education systems, at all levels. Without a drastic shift in perception, the institution we value so much runs the very real risk of becoming a future resentment of our nation’s young professionals.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.