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: