Should we go back to more vocational high school options?

by Grace

Nancy Hoffman argues that high school vocational programs should not be viewed as the “default for failing students”, but as a smart alternative to the college-for-all mentality that has become pervasive in the United States.  In her book, Schooling in the Workplace, she looks at lessons to be learned from the educational programs in six countries – Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.

While acknowledging that not everyone is cut out to “debate the big ideas in literature and in politics”, Hoffman conversely maintains that “we need a much stronger set of academic demands up to age 16”.  Amen to that!  Since we now seem to have few students able either to intelligently debate the big ideas or write a coherent paragraph, our system might be failing us on both counts.  The least we should aim for is a higher percentage of citizens who are self-supporting and able to participate fully in our democracy.

Perpetuating class and racial divisions?

One stumbling block to reinvigorating the high school vocational track is the criticism that doing so perpetuates class divisions, promoting vocational education as an option only for working class or minority children.  Hoffman responds by pointing to the European experience and expressing a pragmatic assessment of our present situation.

… Income inequality is much greater in the United States than in European countries. There is much greater mobility in the European countries than here. Secondly, my view is that I would much rather have a 3 percent youth unemployment rate and most young people having a job, than have the bifurcated system we have in the United States, [in which some kids go to four-year college, and the rest face a 22 percent unemployment rate].

I’m not sure about Hoffman’s claim that income mobility is higher in Europe than here, but in any case I am more interested in her argument that we should be looking at policy ideas that have a realistic chance of improving our dire unemployment problem.  I just don’t think we can afford to waste time with romantic ideas about how everyone one of us should aspire to get a bachelor’s degree.

My experience

I am the product of a vocational high school education.  In my last two years of high school, I participated in DECA (previously known as Distributive Education Clubs of America).  The program has morphed into something slightly different, but back then it was a way for a high school students to spend part of the day in the classroom while working at a paid job in the afternoon.  We received classroom instruction in various job skills and took part in competitions against other schools.

There were various reasons why I ended up in DECA instead of  in a traditional college prep track, but mainly it was for the money.  As it turned out I did attend college right after high school graduation, but was handicapped by gaps in my high school education.  It was only through my perseverance and aptitude that I managed to get my college degree in a STEM field.

Vocational high school could be a better option for many different types of students.

While it might be dangerous to extrapolate from my experience, I can see how disadvantaged and/or academically weak students could benefit from choosing a high school vocational education.  Several possible outcomes are likely for these students.  One is that they would start working right after graduation at a job that pays a living wage, enabled by training and experience gained in high school. That could be followed later by postsecondary training, either vocational or traditional college.  Or they might go on to higher education directly after high school, although perhaps only strongly motivated students would opt for the traditional four-year college experience.  In any case, vocational high school could be a better option for different types of high school students.

Amid evidence that most of the fastest growing jobs in this country will not require a college degree, this comment helps make the case for vocational high schools.

This country needs carpenters, electricians, auto mechanics, computer techs and all sorts of other workers, none of whom need a college education to do their job.  The last thing this country needs is another unemployed marketing or communications major!


6 Responses to “Should we go back to more vocational high school options?”

  1. We had something like DECA too, but similar to your experience, most kids who did it ended up going to college (keep in mind that the state university was just down the road, was mandated to take anyone who graduated with a D average or better, and was CHEAP – it was kind of a default). In my school, the DECA-like program was NOT part of votech. Votech was very separate from the rest of the high school – we never saw “those” kids unless specifically taking a votech course.


  2. Also, there is wide agreement, on the right and the left, that income mobility in the US is worse than in many European countries


  3. Isn’t part of the issue with Europe and income mobility that the Europeans have a tighter band of incomes, so a smaller shift in income will move a European from one band to another? In the US, there’s a much greater variation in incomes (i.e. income inequality), so it’s harder to move between quintiles (or whatever) because it’s a bigger trip.

    (I also wonder how the income inequality comparisons work–are we comparing Portuguese to Portuguese or “Europeans” to “Europeans”? If Europeans are being compared en masse (rather than by country), there have got to be enormous differences between incomes in the richer European countries and the poorer European countries. The EU now ranges from countries like Luxembourg to countries like Romania and Bulgaria and Slovenia.)


  4. “Entre les murs” is a very eye-opening French feature film. I have some old blog posts on it here:

    “Educational dead zone” is a more or less fair description of that fictional school.


  5. DECA used to be mainly business and marketing jobs, but we also had students who worked in the trades. It was a type of apprentice program, because these students didn’t receive training in school. Of the DECA students I remember who went on to college, I think most studied business at either community colleges or 4-year schools.



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