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What, Exactly, Should the Purpose of Career and Technical Education Be?

For those of us who spend a lot of time comparing education in the United States to education in other countries, career and technical education (CTE)—usually called vocational education and training (VET) in other countries—is an interesting case.  One might say that the differences between our conception of what CTE is or ought to be and the dominant conception in other top industrial countries are profound.

In the United States, the phrase "career and technical education" at the secondary school level connotes an endless variety of options for students that range from what might be called themed high schools (e.g., a performing arts high school), to a three-course sequence taken over four years of high school in a particular career cluster, to a program in auto mechanics that might get the graduate a job in a garage (although less often in a dealership), to a program leading to the ability to wire a house that meets code.  In the minds of most Americans, this cornucopia of possibilities is a good thing, a way for students, many of whom have struggled in or have disliked their academic courses, to make their way into a future they might not otherwise have had.

But much of the rest of the industrialized world takes a very different view.  This view was summed up when, in 2010, the OECD concluded that the United States had virtually no students in vocational education and training.  The Americans were astonished, and not very happy.  When they reminded the OECD officials that 20 percent of American students take a three-course sequence in career and technical education, and 75 percent take at least one course, the OECD was not impressed.  In Switzerland, to take one example of the countries the OECD included in their list, the typical student spends three full eight-hour days, 40 weeks a year for three years in a highly-structured apprenticeship at a work site, with at least one more day each week in a school learning the theory behind the work (this based on a draft chapter by Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman in a book I am editing).

The key point here is the difference in objectives.  In countries with what the OECD regards as serious vocational education and training programs, the aim is to enable the student to acquire a credential with real value in the labor market.  Put another way, it is to enable the student to start work with a credential of enough value to future employers that those employers are willing to pay the student a good deal more than to a student who doesn't have the credential.  If we use that definition of career and technical education, there is good reason to believe that no more than three or four percent of American junior and senior year high school students are in career and technical education.  That's why the OECD didn't think we had a serious CTE system.

So now let's look at the gulf between the three or four percent who are in programs leading to economically valuable credentials and the far larger proportion who are experiencing some form of career and technical education.  What are they doing and why are they doing it? 

In many—though certainly not all—school districts, the primary purpose of many performing arts high schools and the health professions high schools is to keep students in school who might otherwise drop out.  Themed high schools make school more engaging.  When the leaders of such schools are asked to talk about their accomplishments, they often talk about the reduction in dropout rates and increases in college applications and acceptances, rather than the placement of their students in jobs consistent with that theme or in programs of further education and training in those occupations.

In other cases, students are offered courses, some with work experience but most without, in career clusters—the health professions, for example—that help them understand what kind of work people do in that career cluster, what sort of preparation is required to get those jobs, where they can get that kind of preparation and so on.  A program of this sort might include opportunities for job shadowing or at least a chance to talk with people who do this sort of work.  There are endless variations on these themes.  The aim in all this is not so much to provide the student with the qualifications to do the work, but rather to explore different industries and kinds of work before committing to a particular line of serious preparation.  The vast majority of American high school CTE programs fall into some combination of these categories.  Most do not require the commitment of a lot of a student's time.  And, as I said, few indeed result in a real qualification. 

Here is the problem with this picture.  Because the American system of career and technical education at the secondary school level does not focus on the goal of providing credentials with real economic value, it therefore offers a program with little or no economic payoff for the student.  Students and their parents know that.  Even if they cannot recite the statistics, they know that, with every passing year, the gap between those with a four-year degree and a two-year degree grows and the gap between those with a two-year degree and those with just a high school diploma grows.  How could it be otherwise when the high school diploma by itself has so little value in the marketplace?

And that, of course, is why, on the street, career and technical education is widely thought of as the place where the struggling students go.  The reality is that our career and technical education system is more often than not where we send the students who we think are not very good at academics to get an education that, more often than not, is not even intended to confer the skills they need to make a decent living.  Because of CTE's low status, students with stronger academic skills who might have preferred a more applied form of education avoid it.  Employers who desperately need well-educated students who are well trained in highly technical occupations requiring less than a four-year college education can't get them and the community colleges can't find enough well-educated high school graduates to fill their more demanding technical certificate and degree programs. 

This is what makes it so different from the way that vocational education and training is thought of in many other countries.  In those countries, the academic standards for beginning a secondary school's career and technical education program are considerably higher and the preparation for technically complex careers much more demanding.  The occupations students prepare for include the traditional ones in machining, construction and cosmetology, but they also include a rapidly increasing range of complex, high tech occupations of the future, too.  What distinguishes these programs from those leading directly to university is not a low academic bar, but a much more applied pedagogy, which many very gifted students find more attractive than the typical university-prep program.  What seals the deal in these countries is the fact that they are usually carefully designed to make sure they have no dead ends.  A student can leave high school with a qualification that is valued in the marketplace by employers but can go on then or later for more education and training to qualify for better and better jobs, all the way up to and into university. 

My point here is not to go into the details of the design of such systems but rather to call your attention to one key point: the importance of designing high school career and technical education systems on the principal that we should distinguish sharply between "career exploration" on the one hand and "career preparation" on the other hand. It is important to create the best career exploration programs we can for far more students than have access to such opportunities now. And many students who will go from high school directly to college and university would benefit from an academic program that uses an applied methodology.  But we will not, in my view, have a serious career and technical education system in our high schools until we make a major new commitment to the creation of career and technical education programs intended to result in a credential with real economic value in the marketplace, either on graduation from high school or in a community college program that builds directly on a fully aligned high school technical program.

When we provide programs of that kind that earn the enrollment of at least 40 percent of our students, career and technical education will be a very attractive option for my grandchildren, and that, from my perspective, will be a good thing.

The danger in this course of action is that we condemn a large fraction of our youth to narrowly conceived training programs at the very time that advances in artificial intelligence and related disciplines are on the verge of wiping out entire industries and transforming the jobs in others beyond recognition.  Yes, it is important to make sure that we are helping students develop the skills they will need to be employable in an age when a growing number who graduate with only what we now think of as the basic skills will be unemployable, but it is just as important that they be broadly and deeply educated if they are going to be able to roll with the punches that the swiftly evolving job market is likely to throw their way.  Recreating the CTE of our parents' time will not work.  We need CTE curricula that are broad and deep in their academic component, heavily applied in their pedagogy and include plenty of opportunity not only to learn by doing in real work sites while carrying real responsibilities but also to earn a credential that is highly valued by employers.  That is a tall order.

Fortunately, there are good examples in the United States and abroad of what such schools and programs can look like.  You can find individual CTE programs in individual high schools in the United States that are among the most impressive in the world.  Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the American interest in problem- and project-based curriculum, combined with our historic aversion to narrowly focused training may have positioned the United States to develop a form of CTE that is particularly well-suited to the kind of economy that is now emerging globally.  But we have a long way to go to parlay that into an impressive system, at scale, for all the students who will need it.  The United States will never overcome its growing crisis in income inequality or be fully competitive in world markets until we do this.

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