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Vocational Education on the Right Track

It's so rare today to hear of high schools that understand the importance of vocational education. One notable exception is Boys Town High School, which is returning to its original mission of preparing its students for careers ("Boys Town's Rehab Vision Remains, Now Sharpening Minds and Skills," The New York Times, Jan. 19).

Started in 1917 as an orphanage, Boys Town grew into a juvenile rehabilitation center. For years, the military was the destination for as many as half of its graduating class. But as the military became smaller and more selective, fewer and fewer students followed that route.  Prompted by a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommending technical training as a way to reduce the number of unemployed young people, Boys Town decided to redesign its curriculum accordingly.

I don't understand why more high schools don't accord vocational education the respect and status it deserves.  The obsession with a four-year bachelor's degree is shortchanging so many students whose interests and talents are not academic.  Manufacturers complain that they can't find enough workers to fill well-paying jobs ("Skills Gap Bumps Up Against Vocational Taboo," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2014). Nevertheless, high school counselors continue to point almost all their students toward a four-year college.

I don't buy the argument that vocational education is a "dead-end" track for students from low-income families and for students of color ("Researchers Urge Caution Regarding Expected SOTU Push to Expand Career and Technical Education," National Education Policy Center, Jan. 20).  That may have been true at one time, but things are different today.  Vocational education can be as rigorous as academic education.  Moreover, it can equip students with the knowledge and skills they need for immediate employment in well-paying jobs.  The same can't be said for other students who are unemployed or underemployed despite their academic degrees.

Other countries are more realistic. In Germany, for example, youth unemployment is below eight percent, about half of the level here. That's because Germany understands that not all students are college material. As a result, there is no stigma attached to a vocational curriculum.

We can persist in the fiction that college is for everyone.  But I expect to see more and more bachelor degree holders on the unemployment line, while holders of vocational certificates, whether from high school or community college, are working steadily.  And those in the latter group do not have student loans to pay off. That is particularly the case under President Obama's plan to make community college free for students who maintain passing grades and graduate within three years.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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