There’s something very strange about the conversation around vocational education in the United States, well captured by the fact that Motoko Rich’s article on cuts in federal spending on vocational skills posits a disjoint between job training and reading:
In European countries like Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, vocational programs have long been viable choices for a significant portion of teenagers. Yet in the United States, technical courses have often been viewed as the ugly stepchildren of education, backwaters for underachieving or difficult students. In a speech to the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium in April, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “at a time when local, state and federal governments are all facing tremendous budget pressure” advocates for vocationally oriented education “must make a compelling case for continued funding.” In his camp are those who say students need to concentrate on basics like math, literacy and history to prepare for college and the jobs of the future, rather than learning a narrow technical craft. In this view, bright students like Mr. Kelly, who have the potential to do college-level work, should be put on that path, or schools will have failed them.
It seems to me that there’s a gaping void out there between “students need to concentrate on basics like math and literacy” (forget history) and “students need to go to college.” Literacy is a very important life skill. It’s difficult for me to think of a job for which literacy wouldn’t be a useful skill to have, and of course it’s not like you see retired people sitting around saying, “Now that I’m out of the labor force, I never have occasion to read.” Students need to concentrate on literacy so that they know how to read. Math is similar. I visited a vocational school in Helsinki where they were training people to be stylists. They were learning about makeup and manicures and haircutting. But they were also learning some accounting. There’s no reason to think someone has to go to college to someday start her own hair salon, but it helps a lot to know something about how to keep the books. And, again, not only is math a vital skill here but literacy is going to help you a lot in terms of researching the market, what it takes to start a business, etc.
It seems at least plausible that a vocational setting of some kind might be the most compelling setting for some people to learn these basic academic skills. Certainly there’s something a bit odd about some of the aspirational “everyone must go to college” rhetoric out there. But we need to keep in mind that at the low end, the outputs from the American educational system are currently really really bad. It’s not about everyone needing to have basic reading and math competency so they can go to college; it’s about everyone needing to have basic reading and math skills so that they know who to read and do basic math.