In 2012, San Diego Unified School District officials made a minor addition to the high school graduation requirements: two to four courses in CTE—Career and Technical Education, the 21st century rebranding of “Vocational Education.” In response, 100 parents marched in protest and an online petition against the move totaled over 1,300 hundred angry signatures. Within a month, the school officials had removed the requirements.
To many in the United States, vocational education is a scarlet letter. However, this stigma is not exclusive to affluent communities like those that protested in San Diego. It pervades all levels of American society, including the government. It’s no surprise that in 2006, when the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act was up for renewal, it was quietly renamed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
Since the 1940s, the ultimate objective of the U.S. education system has been increasing college enrollment. A diploma from a university was and still is assumed to be a ticket to the middle class. By extension, the goal of the government has been a bachelor’s degree for almost everyone. The pathway seems clear: conventional high school will lead to conventional colleges, which will lead to success. Any deviation from that path can only result in hardship.
This leaves Career and Technical Education in a tough spot. Only 15 percent of CTE graduates matriculate to a four-year college; 60 percent do, however, enroll in technical colleges. Despite deviating from the standard path though, CTE graduates beat out their high school peers after graduation, earning 16 percent more each year.
Students often leave CTE programs with certifications that allow them to immediately enter the workforce. Surprisingly, some see this as CTE’s greatest failing. Yes, welders might make up to $140,000 dollars a year, but how can the government support “condemning” students to blue-collar labor? The reasoning of many against CTE programs seems misguided at best.
For a government obsessed with higher education, CTE just doesn’t seem good enough. Despite its positive results, funding shrank by 20 percent over the past decade, even as demand from students and parents has increased. There are 4,600 students on waiting lists for vocational schools in Massachusetts alone. In 2014, Philadelphia received 11,000 applications for CTE programs; it only had capacity for 2,500 students. But despite this increased interest, CTE was defunded and downplayed once more.
When asked what concrete skills students leave a four year education with, college and university presidents often point to critical thinking and writing skills. However, for many students, four year colleges don’t provide those skills anyway. In fact, sociologist Richard Arum finds that after four years of college, 36 percent of college students had no significant improvement in critical thinking or writing.
The United States’ mixed commitment to CTE, and phobia of any kind of tracking in general, is in stark relief to other countries, specifically Germany.
Across the pond, Germany has rejected the one-size-fits-all approach. After fourth grade, students are split into three tracks, and only the highest of these track prepares students for university.
Germany serves as a proof of concept. Almost twice as many students enroll in four-year colleges in the United States than in Germany. Yet, despite this apparent education disparity, Germany is prospering. GDP per capita is comparable to the United States and youth unemployment is consistently lower. If higher education is as essential as some assume, Germany should be struggling to get by.
Of course, the German system is not without its drawbacks. Germany’s approach is far more aggressive than the CTE options in the United States. For instance, in Germany, teachers decide which students are placed on which track. As a result, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students are forced into the lowest track and underrepresented in the highest track. These disadvantages don’t, however, have parallels in CTE, since in the United States the system is opt-in.
With CTE, Americans can choose to enroll in the programs if they’re the best fit for their child, as many have and many more want to. Students would never, however, be forced down a path by the government. The United States can reap many of the benefits of vocational training while sidestepping potential problems.
Germany’s focus is on employment in adulthood. And while the United States’ goal is employment in adulthood, its focus is on college. CTE lacks appeal because it doesn’t conform to the traditional path of academically focused high school, a four-year college, and then a successful middle class life. This path, however, is not the only avenue to success, and for many students who struggle with traditional education, it’s not the most viable either.
Meanwhile, the United States job market is feeling the strain of the country’s lopsided priorities. As the United States forces more students into traditional education, where many don’t excel, it’s exacerbating a country-wide shortage of machinists, welders, nurses, and other jobs CTE provides paths for. There are 600 thousand unfilled jobs in manufacturing alone.
There are positive signs that attitudes towards CTE are improving within the government. A renewal act for CTE funding currently has bipartisan support. As stigmas abate, more parents are considering this option for their kids. With the United States looking critically at its lagging education system, expansion of Career and Technical Education is a frontier worth exploring.
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