Part 4 of Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century
In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation.
When the high school where I work was built in 1991, it included four shop rooms. Only two of them are currently used, with eight scheduled classes for a student body of 2500 students. What changed in twenty years to make the forecasted need mostly disappear? As I discussed in my last post, for what seemed to be good reasons, educators became convinced that every student needed to go to college. So for the last several years, the graduation requirements have communicated to students and parents the need prepare to qualify upon graduation to meet the admission requirements of the University of California system. Shop classes would have had to be dramatically adapted to meet these standards, and so, with the exception of some specialized programs, have been largely eliminated. Essentially, we effectively doomed the chances that shop class would attract any but the least committed students.
Unfortunately, even the President has weighed in on this issue, setting a goal that by 2020 America would once again have the highest proportion of graduates in the world. I guess this is a worthy goal, but it adds to the general sense that a college degree is the only respectable choice.
Clearly, vocational education needed a makeover to survive, so now it is known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Realizing that it would be crushed by the college prep juggernaut, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education now defines the ideal CTE programs, as, "...rigorous, blended college preparatory and career oriented instruction." This mean that if you can't teach it as college prep, you can't teach it.
Look more closely at the man behind the curtain, though, and reality makes a costumed appearance. When educators say high school students should graduate prepared for college, that sounds like they mean prepared to pursue a bachelor's degree, but that's not really the case. Reading carefully, you discover a more cautious wording, something like "postsecondary education and training" is needed to secure a middle class paycheck. The result, at least in California, is that we seem to be asking students to meet the admission requirements of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, though we really only mean that they need to be ready to go to a junior college or a private vocational college. Unfortunately, this focus on college prep subtly but clearly communicates that graduating from college is the true ideal, and anything less is a fall back position.
It’s become so bad that, despite the fact nearly everyone thinks high school students should begin thinking about and preparing for a career, educators are so preoccupied with preparing students for college that we make only a token effort to have a comprehensive discussion with students about potential careers, career goals, and what they need to do to prepare for the career of their choice. Paradoxically, a better career is ostensibly the whole reason we are preparing them for college in the first place.
So, job one is to put "career" back into the high school vocabulary. We need to stop pretending that every student needs to make earning a bachelor's degree the only acceptable goal.
But we also need to make sure that career doesn't take on the old connotations that used to attach to the term “vocational.” Career education has to avoid becoming a dumping ground for students like it often used to be, which means that educators must at all costs avoid the trap of taking responsibility for making the decisions about which students pursue which track. Our job is to arm students and parents with information: which courses prepare students for admission to a university and which don’t; what do particular careers pay, and what is the market for those jobs like; what skills are required for not only the career, but the education required to achieve that career; what are the student’s academic strengths. The task for the parents and the student is to decide what is best for the student. When school staff presume to make these life-altering choices, we are asking to be blamed if it doesn’t work out. Moreover, we are asking to be blamed for bias, whether those biases are perceived or real.
The other critical task for educators is to make sure that all courses are designed with the understanding that, while the various courses may prepare students for different post-secondary destinations, all students have to emerge from high school with the ability to think and solve problems creatively. The high paying jobs that are in demand now, require workers to do more than mindlessly process parts on an assembly line–those jobs have either fled the country, are being done by robots, or pay only a dead-end wage.
High schools need to prepare students with the math and logic needed to program those robots, or any computerized equipment that manufactures the customized, small-run, high-profit products that will be the mainstay of a successful American economy in the future. Medical technology is exploding, and technicians will be needed to maintain and operate these new machines, requiring perhaps an associate degree or an industry certification, but certainly requiring understanding of math and science concepts. As energy generation and transmission systems advance, technical jobs that don't yet exist will be created that will go to workers with the ability to master new skills that build on the foundations mastered in CTE courses in high school as well as post secondary settings.
And so on.
Perhaps CTE is a better term for what used to be called vocational, but by whatever name, it needs to be perceived as more than the college-prep step child it currently is. We would serve both the present and future needs of students more effectively if we would raise the status of CTE, and that starts with admitting that it is different than college prep–not better or less, just different.
The topic for the last post in this series will be: High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College.