Vocational Training Is No Substitute For High School

Internet 1My Comments: Some of you are aware of my continued interest in the welfare of the magnet programs across Alachua County. I’ve been a member of the advisory board to the two programs at Buchholz High School since the mid 90’s. They are, respectively, the Academy of Finance and the Academy of Entrepreneurship.

The original intent in the early 90’s, from the perspective of the business community, was to encourage work related skills in these two generic disciplines, such that upon graduation, students who were unlikely to continue on to college, would graduate from high school with a skill set that would help them be more employable by members of the business community.

It didn’t work out that way. For one thing, the idea of “vocational education” went out of favor as “demeaning” to those less blessed with raw intelligence. Never mind that those students would likely benefit in later life had they had a high school education more suited to their intellectual capacity. Some of us are fast and athletic; some of us are slow and uncoordinated, which describes me. Same with our brains.

The other thing that happened, in large part thanks to the respective program directors, was due to something else that surfaced. Namely, that if a middle school student already had a reasonable idea which academic track they wanted to follow, there was now a high school program somewhere in the district that allowed that person to get a leg up on competition when it came to leaving high school and entering college. As a result, over time, the profile of the students in the respective academies became more and more advanced, to where today, virtually 100% of the participating students are going on to college as they are academically advanced. But they are not necessarily “employable” in the context of our original intent.

The dilemma for the business community, and Buchholz High School, is that we have identified the best and brightest with an interest in economics and marketing and finance, but we still don’t have a pool of students with high school diplomas and job related skills that we can add to our list of employees. They are moving on to college and will be overqualified for what we need today.

By Matthew Yglesias

A growing chorus of progressives, ranging from Rick Pearlstein to Dana Goldstein to Kevin Drum are suggesting that maybe Rick Santorum was right and instead of trying to give everyone a college prep education, we need a return to vocational schooling. After all, as Drum says “American high schools ought to be as good at turning out plumbers as they are at turning out future English majors.”

It’s true that we need plumbers, but I don’t think this has the implication that Drum thinks it has. For starters, as Kevin Carey notes it turns out that “most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters get their training in jointly administered apprenticeships or in technical schools and community colleges.” This is similar to his point from a little while back that a large and growing fraction of auto mechanics have post-secondary training. In other words, while it’s true that we don’t necessarily need a large increase in people with traditional liberal arts degrees a large share of the career-focused education we need still has to occur at the post-secondary level. That’s for two reasons, the most fundamental of which is simply that as we grow more technologically sophisticated as a society all kinds of work becomes more complicated, technical, and specialized. The kinds of colleges that offer good training to be policy-focused journalists probably don’t offer great training to fix the automobiles of tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean car mechanics don’t need additional training.

The other issue is that if you look at countries that have successful high school level vocational training (Germany always seems to come up) you’ll note that kids go into the training with a solid grounding in the basics. Dana and I both visited a vocational training high school together in Finland, focused on teaching people hairstyle and makeup skills. What struck me is that the girls (and they were basically all girls) to the best I could tell were competent in algebra, literate in Finnish, and had an okay grasp of a foreign language.

The kind of low-achieving American 15 year-olds who’d be put on a “vocational track” generally don’t have those kind of skills. What they’re getting out of high school (ideally) isn’t so much college preparatory work as it is remedial work designed to put them on track to receive career training. That’s not an ideal function for high schools to be serving, and oftentimes they don’t do a good job of it, and arguably remediation could be better-integrated with vocational training but as is often the case in education it’s a problem with earlier roots. If the outputs of America’s K-8 education keep improving (which they do in fact seem to be doing) and we invest more in quality preschool, then we’ll have more latitude to talk about moving kids into job training sooner.