The Future of Vocational Education

In Iowa today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the Obama administration's new vocational education plan. The president proposes to revise the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act by investing an additional $1 billion to increase partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers, with the goal of directing students toward high-need industries such as engineering and healthcare.

But the choice of venue for the announcement — the Des Moines Area Community College — underscores a critique of the president's education and jobs agenda aired on both the right and left: that it focuses too much on post–high school occupational training, and not enough on introducing younger adolescents to the world of work outside the classroom. Indeed, the administration's policy blueprint states that high school students enrolled in career and technical education programs must still achieve "mastery of the core academic content required of all students." In many Western European nations, on the other hand, the high school curriculum is significantly differentiated for teenagers depending on whether they are headed to a liberal arts university, a technical college, or into the workforce. 

In a new book, Schooling in the Workplace, Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future argues the United States should adopt a Swiss-style vocational education system, in which students in their last two years of high school have the option of participating in highly structured workplace apprenticeships, working for pay several days per week and spending the rest of the time in the classroom. "We have a 22 percent youth unemployment rate right now, compared to 5 percent in the Netherlands or Switzerland," Hoffman told The Nation. "Among that 22 percent are young people who are going to be permanently scarred, and that's damaging to the human psyche. We don't think about what we can do to help the young people in our charge discover the role of work in our lives."

In the following interview, I talk with Hoffman about why vocational education is so controversial in the United States, what role the liberal arts should play and how emphasizing career training might change the teaching profession. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I was fascinated by your idea of providing older teens — especially "the forgotten half" that will not attend a four-year college — with an easier "transition to adulthood." You describe upper secondary school students in Switzerland working behind the counter in a cell phone shop for school credit, which will certainly horrify a lot of advocates of a college-prep curriculum. Can you talk about why you think this type of "transitional" work is so important?

In Switzerland there are whole stores run by kids, so there are multiple jobs including management, repair, all the technical jobs, plus customer service. If we have a situation in the United States where only about 20 percent of 26-year-olds have any credential, we need something for people to do to get them from 16 to 20 without landing in jail, on welfare or on the street; something that gives them a structure and lets them figure out their potential and interests.

This guy working in customer service at the cell phone shop was going to get a retail certificate in meeting the national standard. And whether he is going to make the leap forward to become a cell phone designer, who knows? But being in a setting where adults have goals, having a structure from age 16 to 19, seems like a much more positive option than what many young adults experience in our country. This Swiss person has an income. He gets paid anywhere from 800 to 1,000 euros per month. He has to demonstrate his competencies in sales. He will have the equivalent of really a year or two of community college, because he was also going to school two days per week.

What about students learning how to debate the big ideas in literature and in politics? What about gaining exposure to great art and writing about it?

In the United States, we need a much stronger set of academic demands up to age 16.  But for the large mass of young people who are muddling along between 16 and 22, trying not to land in jail, or be unemployed or on the street — or even just going from job to job — you might have to ask: What would be a good enough system? And we know people who pay taxes and have jobs and have healthcare are much more likely to vote, to use social services and to participate in democracy. As for the debate of the big ideas, the number of students who actually get to do that is relatively small. I don't like the idea of giving it up, but it's probably unfortunately very much class-based in this country anyhow.

Tags: arne duncan, dana goldstein, education, nancy hoffman, school, vocational education

    • Dana Goldstein
    • Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering education, public health, economic mobility, and women’s issues. She is a contributing writer to The Nation and The Daily Beast, and in 2010 was a recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism, a competitive award supporting the long-form work of mid-career e...

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