The Future of Vocational Education

You really like the Swiss system. What one or two aspects of it do you think are most realistic for American states to implement?

Volkswagon is starting a European-style apprenticeship program in Tennessee, but for high school graduates. The first thing that has to happen is employers have to be able to see there is some self-interest in engaging with young people in the workplace. That's a very tough sell. You probably have to start with more internships and apprenticeships at the community college level than in high school, because most people in this country just don't believe that 16-year-olds can be productive workers — though there is plenty of evidence they certainly can be.

The second thing, which is maybe boring but most important, is the combination of employer and government infrastructure to support employers in taking in young people. I was just in North Carolina talking about this stuff with business leaders, and they really sort of got it. The Swiss government particularly invests a great deal in analysis of jobs to figure out what competencies should exist. They invest in initial workplace training [for apprenticeship hosts], because small businesses can't do this on their own. It's a whole intermediary infrastructure, plus a research and support structure shared between employers and the government, which makes this possible. There are just a few institutions or non-profits, like workforce investment boards, that do this in the United States.

You are a fan of "dual systems" in which students learn theoretical subjects in school, say two days per week, and more practical ones in the workplace three days per week. But does emphasizing practical learning, as the German and Swiss systems do, make academic high school teaching a less prestigious or desirable profession? Making teaching more elite is a major goal of American education reform, and it seems like de-emphasizing the traditional classroom might have certain adverse effects on teaching that your book doesn't acknowledge.

I get where you're coming from, because you're coming from a US context. But this is not even a question in the European countries. In Finland, as you know, there are ten applicants for every place in teachers' college, and that's whether you teach in a vocational or an academic program.

It's actually harder to recruit teachers for vocational systems than for academic ones. Except in a few countries with really highly regarded systems, "vocational" still carries a stigma. And despite all the good things I say about the vocational system, I only know a couple of families in Europe [among my social and professional peers] who sent their kids to the vocational system. Their kids become economists, say, like they are.

Isn't that somewhat disturbing, because it suggests the vocational track really is the track for working-class kids?

It's not disturbing at all. 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].

The really strong countries have pathways from vocational education straight through to technical colleges. An interesting data point from Switzerland is that 42 percent of the students who get fours or fives on PISA exams [the highest scores] enter the vocational system. That's because they know that if you want to be an engineer, work in IT or any of these high-tech jobs, you're going to be much more likely to get a job after real work experience. In Norway, one young woman I met did a university degree in graphic design and then discovered she wanted to go back and do a vocational program, because she needed work experience.

We behave as though nobody needs to learn to work. We behave as if somehow education alone will launch you into a career, although we know almost everyone is going to two or four-year colleges because they want to get a job. So why one would think that between 16 and 19 years old it isn't good to get some work experience, I don't know.


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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