Could Vocational Education Be the Answer to Failing High Schools?

Well-designed programs can prepare students both for college and for skilled jobs—the Holy Grail for success in today’s economy.

Current Alamo Academy students training to be aircraft structural mechanics
National Journal
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Sophie Quinton
April 15, 2015, 5:29 a.m.

For years, vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion was dis­missed as a path in­to blue-col­lar jobs for stu­dents who wer­en’t go­ing to col­lege. But as ca­reer-train­ing pro­grams have be­come more di­verse, and edu­cat­ors have ac­know­ledged the be­ne­fit of prac­tic­al skills-train­ing for a wider vari­ety of stu­dents, per­cep­tions of vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion are chan­ging. Now poli­cy­makers are point­ing to vo­ca­tion­al train­ing as a cure for what ails many Amer­ic­an high schools.

That’s be­cause well-de­signed pro­grams can pre­pare stu­dents both for col­lege and for skilled jobs — the Holy Grail for suc­cess in today’s eco­nomy. Over the past few years, states from Cali­for­nia to Geor­gia have in­ves­ted in build­ing con­nec­tions among high school course­work, post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, and job ex­per­i­ence. Some em­ploy­ers, seek­ing skilled work­ers, have in­ves­ted in part­ner­ships with loc­al school dis­tricts to de­vel­op more ro­bust train­ing pro­grams.

The re­ces­sion — with its com­bin­a­tion of high un­em­ploy­ment and skilled jobs go­ing un­filled — helped re­new in­terest in ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion, says Kim­berly Green, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of State Dir­ect­ors of Ca­reer Tech­nic­al Edu­ca­tion Con­sor­ti­um. “That com­bin­a­tion really star­ted a new con­ver­sa­tion,” she says. “It’s a con­ver­sa­tion where em­ploy­ers are much more en­gaged.”

The un­em­ploy­ment rate for young people has tra­di­tion­ally been high­er than the rate for all work­ers. But dur­ing the great re­ces­sion, it skyrock­eted and drew at­ten­tion to a longer-term trend.

Middle-skill jobs have been van­ish­ing from the U.S. labor mar­ket, and many jobs re­quire more ad­vanced edu­ca­tion than in the past. The surest route to a high-pay­ing job today leads through col­lege and tech­nic­al ex­pert­ise in areas like sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, or math (STEM).

Ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion no longer means guid­ing stu­dents away from col­lege. Some pro­grams give stu­dents the chance to earn com­munity-col­lege cred­it. Some com­bine ad­vanced aca­dem­ic work with an oc­cu­pa­tion­al fo­cus or hands-on learn­ing — think study­ing bio­logy with a fo­cus on medi­cine, build­ing com­pu­ter­ized ro­bots, or es­tab­lish­ing a stu­dent-run cred­it uni­on.   

Yet many high school ca­reer pro­grams aren’t yet liv­ing up to their po­ten­tial. “Ca­reer edu­ca­tion in too many of our sec­ond­ary schools re­flects an out­dated mod­el that tol­er­ates low ex­pect­a­tions and is of­ten mis­aligned with the evolving needs of the cur­rent labor mar­ket,” the Coun­cil of Chief State School Of­ficers warned in a re­cent re­port.  

The re­port re­com­men­ded that states work with em­ploy­ers to cre­ate edu­ca­tion­al path­ways in­to high-de­mand in­dus­tries. While many states have em­barked on such ef­forts, it’s a chal­len­ging task. It can be hard to know what skills em­ploy­ers will be look­ing for five or ten years down the line, let alone en­sure that what hap­pens in a giv­en high school classroom aligns with col­lege and ca­reer re­quire­ments.

This month, Next Amer­ica will ex­plore a range of strategies for help­ing stu­dents pre­pare for the work­ing world, in­clud­ing close part­ner­ships between high schools and em­ploy­ers. 

“Every­body thinks that ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion and course path­ways will be the an­swer to many of our prob­lems,” says Gene Bot­toms, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of the South­ern Re­gion­al Edu­ca­tion Board. “Part of the struggle we’re in­to is simply this: what, in the 21st cen­tury, what would qual­i­fy as high-qual­ity ca­reer and tech­nic­al stud­ies in high school?” 

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

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