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Unacceptable Options for Our Most Vulnerable Students

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute posted a piece on the Slate web site a few months back that made me wince.  Not because I disagreed with him, but because his post highlighted how appalling the options are for the kids our system has failed.  Petrilli takes on those who have focused all their energies on getting poor and minority students into college.  His point is that, even if we were somehow to vastly increase the proportion of high school graduates who go on to some form of college and succeed, there would still be a large proportion of high school graduates who would not succeed in college and who would be much better off if they left high school with some solid vocational skills that would enable them to earn a decent living.  He characterizes his opponents on this point as those who would view a policy based on this point to be a form of tracking that would inevitably create a vocational track to which a disproportionately large number of minority and poor student would be assigned.  From his point of view, as a practical matter, these vulnerable students are the ones suffering most from the present policy and most likely to be helped by the kind of policy he is proposing, so he suggests that laudable--but unreachable--aspirations are driving out the policy that would, in the end, help vulnerable kids the most.

I don't like the choices, and I don't think our country should, either.  First, let's look at the facts.  Our high schools used to offer solid vocational education leading to good jobs in the building trades, auto repair and maintenance and so on.  In our cities and larger suburban systems, many of these programs were in selective high schools run by people who matched the training slots available to the number of jobs projected, so a student who did well in one of these programs could be assured of a well-paying job.  That is not true anymore.  The reality is that many--though certainly not all--high school career and technical education programs are little more than dumping grounds for students who are failing out of the regular academic program.  For the most part, solid vocational training programs that lead to industry-recognized certificates are not offered in our high schools anymore; they live in our community colleges, although they are often threatened there because they are more costly to operate than academic programs and bring lower status to the institutions that offer them.

In any case, if the idea is that we need to offer solid vocational training to students who are not willing to undertake further academic study or do not wish to do so, they will, for the most part, have to do that in our community colleges, not our high schools.  Which means that they will have to leave their high school with sufficient academic skills to take credit-bearing courses in their community college.  But readers of this blog will recall that, about a year ago, I reported on a study my organization did on what it takes to succeed in the first year of our community college programs.  Very little writing of any kind is assigned to first-year community college students because their instructors have discovered that their writing skills are very poor.  The most challenging math that is assigned to first-year community college students is about Algebra I and a quarter and a large fraction of high school graduates do not have enough mathematics to succeed in an Algebra I college class.  The textbooks in the average first-year community college occupational program are written at the 12th grade level, but most high school graduates who arrive at community college cannot read at that level, because their high school textbooks are written at an 8th to 9th grade level, so their instructors create PowerPoint presentations to convey the main points in the text.  Community colleges are shutting down programs for welders, not because there is no demand for welders--there is very strong demand-- but because the students in those programs cannot do the mathematics needed to be successful in them.

If the graduates of our high schools cannot do the reading, writing and mathematics needed to be successful in core vocational programs in our community colleges, I can assure you that the least able of high school sophomores will not be able to be successful in them if they are offered in the junior and senior years of their high school programs.

The United States economy will not succeed without an ample supply of young people who have the skills and desire to become skilled technicians in large numbers.  The young people coming out of our high schools who have neither the interest nor ability to pursue a career requiring a long academic preparation will have no future if they do not have a viable vocational and technical career option.  But the hard fact is that the lowest performers in our high schools do not have the academic preparation to pursue either a vocational or an academic option.

It does not have to be this way.  I recently completed a two-week study of the vocational education system in China.  That system faces a lot of challenges.  But the Chinese have an advantage over us that is inestimable.  At least in Shanghai, the only place for which we have this kind of data, the high school students who rank lowest in academic performance are light years ahead of ours in the same rank.  The majority of these students come from migrant families, a large fraction of whom live in appalling conditions in Shanghai.  If Shanghai can do this, there is no excuse for us.

There is a shining exception to the point I have made here about high school vocational programs and it can be found in Massachusetts, which has a strong program of vocational high schools in its regional vocational high schools.  But Massachusetts is actually not an exception to my point; it proves my point.  Massachusetts leads the nation in high school academic performance across the board.  Massachusetts' children do not have to choose between an adequate academic education and vocational education.  They can get both.

The United States needs a strong vocational education and training system.  American students need a strong vocational education and training option.  It may once have been possible to provide a vocational education and training option that required little or no formal education.  Those days are long gone.  Whether we provide our vocational education in regular high schools, regional vocational high schools or in our community colleges, that education and training will not succeed unless the students who participate in them enter them with much stronger academic skills than they now have.  End of story.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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