Learning Matters

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Is There a Place for Vocational Education in Tomorrow's High Schools?

There is a general climate of dissatisfaction with the state of the American high school. That's not surprising since it is nearly a half century since the Conant Commission and the rise of the comprehensive high school. And it's not just an outside perspective. NASSP's Breaking Ranks initiative is now in its second phase. Last month, several governors held a High School reform summit where Bill Gates keynoted on the lack of equity and rigor in high schools today.

Two themes that are increasingly heard are the need to provide a rigorous, pre-collegiate academic program for all high school students and a questioning of the value of vocational education in high schools. The Bush Administration is proposing to redirect funding from the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. Girlonthescape has been posting about this a few times. Meanwhile, Jenny D. has jiggled some jello in asking why shouldn't we have many more students in AP courses.

This morning, I noticed this article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel citing business concerns about a lack of skilled workers in the trades.

So what is the world that you are seeing? Are we all going to be programmers, lawyers, engineers, and marketing specialists? Or will there still be a demand for welders, carpenters, drafters, and computer technicians? If the trades aren't going away (and they aren't), should vocational training be situated in our high schools? I say yes, because these educational opportunities can engage many students who can also benefit from coursework that prepares them for democratic citizenship. I also reject the idea that there is a choice to be made between rigor and Voc-ed. Granted, there are trade-offs in designing a schedule, but there is no reason why students can't take ag and bio, or welding, engines, and physics. Why is vocational education on the chopping block?


  • Speaking as one who took the most rigorous courses my high school had to offer, graduated 20th in my class of 600+, and was a National Merit Finalist, I wish I had taken some vocational courses in high school.

    I was born with brains, but little ambition and no competitiveness. It's taken me years to accept that it's OK that I have no desire to be a doctor, scientific researcher, CEO, or to have any of the other brilliant careers my teachers and peers expected me to have. I was considered a disappointment for choosing to major in elementary education. I was told by a few peers that I was wasting my abilities. Perhaps that is so, depending on how one defines "wasting."

    I quickly learned that brains are not a requirement for a successful elementary teacher; dedication, energy and an acceptance of the total absence of solitude ARE.

    Since high school I learned that I have a fondness and a knack for carpentry. I wish very much that someone would have encouraged me to take a woodshop class, instead of leading me to feel that such things were so far beneath me that it was absurd for me to even think of "wasting" my time on a class like that.

    Taking shop wouldn't have kept me from going to college, and I would have learned a lot of things I have since discovered by trial and error. Who knows what else I might have learned, what career paths I might have seen that I didn't know existed? I'm currently unemployed and at a loss for what I want to do with my life. Only now, in my late 20s am I shrugging off the assumptions of my educators and parents and looking around to see what else is out there, besides a desk job.

    I'm smart, creative, and I learn quickly. I was always told I could be whatever I wanted to be, but a whole range of work was, in effect, closed off to me based on the assumption that I was "too smart" for that stuff. Brains are supposed to open up possiblities, not shut them down.

    By Anonymous Amelia, at 11:53 AM  

  • American Educators must wake up to the fact that not all of our students are "college" material. There must be an option for the students who are not going on to college; voc-ed. is important. There are a multitude of jobs out there that do not require a college education; plumbing, electrician, carpenter, secretary, data entry, receptionist, records clerks, sales clerk, stocker, grocery clerk, heavy equiptment operator, truck driver, delivery, on and on. ALL STUDENTS need to be able to read for comprehension and do enough math to be able to do their own basic taxes, understand their pay stub and figure out "20% off" sale prices. There was a time when there was more voc. ed. in public high schools, but somewhere in the 1960's and 1970's it was reduced or just disappeared. I personally believe that students need voc ed. and that it should probably start before high school (like learning a foreign language, but that is another thing to debate). Thanks for the discussion.

    By Blogger Polski3, at 1:58 PM  

  • I've been missing your posts... Hope to see some soon. Bye the way, I've added L.M. to the EduSphere.

    By Blogger EdWonk, at 6:56 PM  

  • It's not Voc-ed that makes me apprehensive...well, yes it is. As a historian of education, I know the roots of voc-ed. It was designed to shuffle the riff-raff and low-testing kids out of regular education classes and offer them manual training. One of the reasons given by educators was that having them try more difficult work "might leave them discouraged." So better to let them learn other things.

    I'm more likely to think it's a good idea when I see evidence that educators are treating voc-ed like that today.

    By Blogger Jenny D., at 4:22 AM  

  • Jenny,

    In our High School there is a mandatory career workshop course where students learn about job searches, interviews, and develop a portfolio.

    Depending on the vocational offering, there is quite a mix of students in classes. I am reluctant to generalize based on individual experience, but I think you would like much of what you would see.

    By Blogger Stiles, at 7:55 PM  

  • The business Roundtables in various states have hijacked the education agenda.

    As our nations' governors try to outdo one another with who can get more "rigorous, the course choices get more and more limited for students.

    Vocational, practical and fine arts are going by the wayside. Our students have less and less practical experiences every day.

    I believe that there will eventually be a backlash to this but it will take a parental firestorm before it happens.

    Indiana Public School Superintendent


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    By Blogger Jenny D., at 6:26 AM  

  • I think it might be more useful for all parties concerned to stop thinking of advanced education as sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone talk about theories of something. It can take several differing forms.

    The fact is that most students will go on to some sort of educational facility to prepare for work, whether it is physician or carpentry. In fact, they will probably attend some sort of 'class' at many stages of their life.

    The question we need to be asking ourselves is what are schools supposed to be preparing students for? Vocational classes are all well and good, but I seriously doubt that any school has the money (or space) to be able to offer a competant welder program as well as carpentry, culinary, secretarial, medical/dental, and so on. There is a finite amount of resources - where do they go and where would they make the greatest difference?

    We all know that the student - no matter what the career choice - will need to know how to read and write and perform basic math functions. A good citizen should probably know something about the history of their own nation and maybe something about those nations around it, but I suppose it's not all that necessary. Should science be requirement? How many times in your life do you need to know the parts of a cell? Should health or physical education?

    Do we start requiring students to choose a career when they enter into high school or prepare them for the greatest chance at success no matter what they choose? Where is the line drawn and who gets to choose it?

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