Behind Obama’s SOTU Remarks on Vocational Education, Germany, and American High Schools

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised to create a new federal funding stream to provide high school students with technical education, to help them prepare for the workforce. This is promising. As I've reported, during the first term, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about vocational education almost exclusively in the context of post-secondary schools. That allowed the administration to dodge controversial, historically-freighted debates over K-12 "tracking," a practice that, throughout the twentieth century, pushed non-white students, girls, and the intergenerationally poor into lower-paid professions and away from college. But this political dodge also ignored some important research and innovation at the K-12 level.

For one thing, surveys of high school drop-outs show a leading cause of their leaving school is the belief that nothing they are learning in the classroom will help them get a job. What's more, a number of innovative new high schools across the country are pioneering a model for career and technical education that has little to do with the narrow vocational classes of yesteryear, in which kids were taught how to sew or operate a printing press — skills that technological change can render less relevant over time. Instead, at the MET schools in Rhode Island, Linked Learning schools in California, and at Tech Valley High outside Albany, high school students complete externships in real workplaces, exploring fields as diverse as baking, engineering, biotechnology, and train conducting. Students have the opportunity to dip into more than one profession, because the idea is less to train for a specific job than to see how adults use their own educations in the workplace each day. That helps students stay motivated to earn a degree, and introduces them to the behaviors and practices specific to the working world.

A few notes of caution. First, the school Obama referenced in his address is P-Tech here in Brooklyn — the Pathways in Technology Early College High School. Like a lot of celebrated educational arrangements in New York City (ex; the Harlem Children's Zone), P-Tech is special; it is a partnership between the New York City schools, IBM, and the City University system. To earn the combined high school diploma/associate's degree P-Tech offers, students must commit to a six-year course of study, which is time-consuming and expensive, requiring extra resources that most school districts simply don't have, especially absent the deep-pocketed corporate partners present in a city like New York. Obama's promise of more funding is desperately needed if we want to recreate schools like this one. But since the Republican Congress has demonstrated a specific interest in cutting job-training programs, I'd like to hear more about exactly where the president believes this new money will come from. (Same goes for his pipe dream of universal pre-K, by the way.)

There are certainly discomfiting curricular trade-offs at many vocationally-oriented schools, and we shouldn't overlook them. P-Tech doesn't offer foreign languages or Advanced Placement courses, for example. So I found it interesting that Obama praised the German secondary school system in his address, saying, "Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job." German "dual track" vocational education has been hotly debated among American school reformers for over a century. Why? Because this system is radically different from our own. It separates students after the 10th grade and places them on a vocational, academic, or mixed vocational/academic track. The result is that in Germany today, only about one-third of all upper secondary school students are enrolled in a course of study that leads directly to a liberal arts university. That reality deeply challenges American notions of "college readiness" for all, a major priority of the new Common Core – shared national curriculum standards that the Obama administration also supports.

The truth, of course, is that despite our romanticization of college, only about one-third of Americans under 30 have earned a bachelor's degree. Where we actually do differ from Germany is what happens to the other two-thirds of young adults. In Germany, they typically hold an occupational certification by the age of 20, while in the United States, non-college grads are often left without marketable skills or qualifications.

More on vocational education in the US and Europe:

5 thoughts on “Behind Obama’s SOTU Remarks on Vocational Education, Germany, and American High Schools

  1. Brett

    Interesting enough, the Germans I’ve met usually were negative on the vocational track, saying that its graduates had a higher unemployment rate than the population. No idea if that’s true or not.

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  2. Bruce William Smith

    We ought to be meeting the German model about halfway: their one-third proportion of students on their way to university is too small; our “college readiness for everyone” ideal is unrealistically high. Their students in the lower half of the academic achievement spectrum have better near-term futures than ours do, and better long-term futures as well, probably; but if we redesign upper secondary school properly and relieve the burden on our community colleges, we should be able to have a better educated population than that of Germany, especially with respect to that portion of students in the upper half of the academic ability spectrum who are not getting into university under the German model.

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  3. Arne-Steffen Dehler

    Being German, living in Germany and having two children in upper levels of the German secondary school brings me to add three more facts in the discussion:

    - It is not a third but nearly half of all secondary school pupils starting courses at universities (49% in 2010, link to de.wikipedia.org) and it’s 30% of all students finishing college/university with Bachelor or Master degrees. These numbers grew since year 2000 because of focussed change programs in German educational policies

    - The German educational system’s main advantage lays in a strong system of alternance and in high quality offers of apprenticeship training by German companies, especially in the German ‘Mittelstand’, the mid-sized, family-owned companies.

    - In Germany the whole educational system is heavily discussed since the 1990′s because of too much bureaucracy, ongoing changes and large differences between the policies in all german states which makes it impossible to offer homogenous educational conditions for all children and students

    - What’s still underdeveloped in Germany is a wanted and strong promotion of individual skills as well as more special learning programs for gifted students. Since the 1990′s changes are more and more focussed on helping the weakest students and to equalize the educational levels to the lowest common multiple.

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  4. Bill Eccleston

    Journalists should focus more attention on the recent history of vocational education. In my state, Rhode Island, vocational education in public high schools and middle schools in the suburban and rural areas was relatively thriving as little as ten years. (Urban systems here abandoned vocational ed earlier.) Today it is gone at the middle school level and drastically truncated at the high school level. Yet, the same elites calling the shots have been in place throughout this period and have not been held accountable for their decisions. How are we to trust that they will get it right this time? Yes, the referenced Met School in Providence does a good job with its population, but because the background is so bleak one could consider it, politically speaking, a Potemkin Village. Oh yes, all the elites love the Met School? What about Central Falls High School where there hasn’t been vocational program worthy of the name in almost a generation? Or any of Providence’s highs schools where the story is the same? What happened? Who decided what? Where did the money go? These are relevant questions journalists should be digging into from the building level up. The elites need to have their laundry inspected.

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