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Looking to Finland for Answers on Vocational Ed.

Noah Zeichner

Both Renee Moore and Mark Sass wrote last week about the need to move away from locking students into rigid vocational or academic tracks. I couldn't agree more. What then, might a more flexible system look like?

People often look to Europe for highly developed vocational programs. But European education systems traditionally sort students into different pathways. In Finland, whose system is touted as being one of the most equitable in the world, more than 40 percent of high school students choose vocational programs, and students attend separate schools. But as Pasi Sahlberg explains in his 2012 book Finnish Lessons, there is opportunity for mobility between vocational and academic tracks.

According to Sahlberg, because Finland has aligned the curriculum of vocational and academic programs, students graduating from vocational schools are eligible to take the university matriculation exam and enter four-year colleges. At the same time, upper secondary students are able to take vocational classes as part of their academic programs. In reality, few Finnish students appear to take advantage of this flexibility, but the structure is in place, which is a start.

More importantly, Finland invests in career guidance and counseling from a young age. Whereas elementary school students in the United States might experience a career day in their classrooms once a year, Finnish children have the opportunity to explore different options on a regular basis. By the Finnish equivalent of middle school, students have weekly interaction with career counselors. Imagine if all students in the United States received individualized career guidance in grades 1 through 9.

Writing this column has pushed my thinking about vocational education. Perhaps what is most important is not the quantity of vocational classes available. Instead, we should focus on the type of work that we are asking students to do in both academic and vocational courses. In the 21st century, students increasingly need opportunities to explore, create, and work together to solve problems. While most schools in our country are pushed to focus on raising reading and math test scores, vocational programs are teaching these critical skills every day.

How can we integrate the knowledge and skills of vocational education into our academic curricula? And what will it take to change our society's view of vocational education as a lesser alternative to a core component of our nation's education system?

Noah Zeichner is a National Board-certified teacher at Chief Sealth International School in Seattle, Wash. He also spends part of his day supporting the Center for Teaching Quality's global teacher-leadership initiatives.

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