The Vocation Problem

One school district is now working to include more vocational education in high schools. Parents aren’t terribly pleased with this development, however.

According to an article by Sarah Butrymowicz at the Hechinger Report:

Career and technical education has come a long way since the days when students could be steered from academics into hairstyling, auto repairs or carpentry. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell the concept of having all students take courses in CTE, as it is known.

Take what happened this March in La Jolla, Calif. Parents rose in protest after the San Diego Unified School District proposed new high school graduation requirements mandating two years of career and technical education courses—or two to four courses. The district would have been the first in the nation to have such a mandate, experts believe. Parents circulated an online protest petition and school officials spent hours in a meeting to assure hundreds of parents that courses like computerized accounting, child development and website design could be in the best interest of all students.

Apparently every parent at the March meeting voted against mandating CTE courses.

A common talking point of education reformers is that “college ready” and “career ready” are the same thing. According to Achieve, Inc., an education policy group:

Is ready for college and ready for career the same thing? With respect to the knowledge and skills in English and mathematics expected by employers and postsecondary faculty, the answer is yes. In the last decade, research…shows a convergence in the expectations of employers and colleges in terms of the knowledge and skills high school grads need to be successful after high school.

If people take the right classes and learn enough in high school they should be prepared to succeed in college or a vocational job.

In 2010 the school began to require all students to take the courses required to be admitted to the state university system. The community supported that move. This latest development is much less popular, particularly with rich families.

As one parent wrote in an online petition opposing the requirement, “if you force the children of … highly intelligent and very academic parents to take less-rigorous VoTech coursework, you will hurt their chances of admission to undergrad and grad school.”

It’s hard to know if that’s true, but taking more VoTech coursework certainly won’t help students get admitted to selective colleges.

If career and college expectations are really the same, why offer separate vocational courses? Why not just offer the same courses and then let the kids use this to go wherever they want after high school? Part of the problem might be that it’s not really true. Perhaps in some theoretical sense the skills needed are the same, but the specific course requirements might be very different.

While secondary schools in Europe often provide sophisticated, selective vocational programs to students that really do provide them with entry into high-earning careers like banking or even law, this doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in San Diego. Perhaps what San Diego residents fear, somewhat understandably, is crappy vocational education.

If the public schools already mandate a curriculum that will get students into college, what’s the need for computerized accounting, child development, and website design? Such courses aren’t necessary for college admissions, and it doesn’t even seem that they’ll help much helping someone get a good entry level job.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer