By Jorge Morales-Burnett
As a Policy Intern in the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I have been astounded by the positive results our nation’s students have experienced in career and technical education (CTE) programs. I have discussed these benefits on this blog before and noted how CTE students tend to perform better on standardized exams, present greater high school graduation rates and lower dropout rates, better enrollment levels in postsecondary institutions, and increased employment outcomes (when compared to non-CTE students).
Despite CTE’s merits, I have come across challenging viewpoints in respected news outlets that do not seem to view CTE so positively.
The Hoover Institution’s Eric A. Hanushek recently stated in the Wall Street Journal that “vocational” education in the United States—which he wrongly compares to “German-Style apprenticeships”—“has morphed into an alternative way to teach basic skills such as math and reading and to motivate students not doing well in the general curriculum.” He continued, “The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies. Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”
Hanushek was referring to a study he authored that explains the different “lifecycle” labor-market outcomes for a student with a general education against a vocational education. The main conclusion is that while skills developed from vocational education will ease the transition into the job market, many of these will “become obsolete at a faster rate”—a problem that is avoided with a general education curriculum that “provides students with broad knowledge and basic skills in mathematics and communication and serves as the foundation for further learning and on-the-job training.”
Similarly, David Leonhardt maintained in the New York Times, along the same lines as Hanushek’s argument, that “we shouldn’t be promoting vocational education at the expense of general education.”
These critiques, expressed by highly respected individuals in their fields, reflect the most common concerns that I have come upon—and unfortunately present a misleading argument that falsely reflects the reality of career and technical education in the United States. Here is why:
1. Vocational education and general education can be combined within a single curriculum
Hanushek and Leonhardt are based on the premise that educational curriculums are a binary issue—either vocational or general education. That is precisely the reason why vocational education was rebranded in the United States as Career and Technical Education (CTE); given the stigma that was created towards “voc-ed” as one that “tracked” students by narrowing their job prospects with programs that develop specific job-related skills for specific occupations. CTE, however, prepares students with the academic and technical skills needed to be successful in a “career cluster” or industry—not solely in a specific and restricted job path.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, describes this issue as a “false choice” between general and vocational education: “A strong academic education and vocational education that equips students with sophisticated skills are not and should not be thought of as mutually exclusive.”
Arkansas, for example, implemented the “Smart Core” curriculum in its high schools, requiring the completion of “four units each of English and math; three units each of social studies and science; half of a unit each of arts, economics, health and safety, physical education, and oral communication; and six units of career focus coursework.”
Or take Switzerland, a country that has invested extensively in vocational education reforms and has created a public education system referred to by many as the gold standard. The Swiss recognized that if they were to have the most highly educated and skilled workforce for a 21st century economy, their vocational education system had to prioritize two things: preparing students with high-quality skills for a smooth entry to the labor force, and a strong general education that would enable students to be effective in an economy characterized by unprecedented technological change and international commerce.
This kind of curriculum even has its own name: “T-shaped curriculum,” described by Tucker as “a curriculum that goes very deep in one area, but sits on top of a very strong liberal arts foundation that provides the flexibility for the entire workforce to keep learning and changing occupations throughout their entire life.”
Tucker further explains, “Modern economies, especially economies based on high-value-added manufacturing and services, cannot function effectively without a large part of their workforce engaged in highly skilled work that is not done in an office by someone sitting at a desk.” These are referred to as middle-skill occupations—professions that, as I have stated before, will be among the 8 out of 10 fastest growing occupations from 2010 to 2040, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The unfortunate issue here is a failure to recognize the skills gap in the American labor force, specifically for middle-skill jobs—i.e. the kind of jobs where CTE graduates are especially equipped to excell. In 2012, here in Texas, while middle-skill occupations accounted for more than half of total jobs, just 43 percent were adequately prepared to fill them.
2. There is no evidence of tracking
This leads to the other issue raised earlier—the concern that these programs “track” underprivileged or underperforming students, mostly racial minorities, into paths that keep them from fulfilling their true potential—creating an appearance of “internal segregation.” Arkansas, with the “Smart-Core” curriculum, disproved this claim. The CTE student population in the state was found to be highly representative of the overall student population. There was actually a slight overrepresentation in CTE concentrators among white students and those performing with mid-level academic abilities.
Critics, however, seem to ironically favor a different style of tracking; one in which 90 percent of high school students are encouraged to go to a four-year college by their counselors—an educational program that fails to fit the individual characteristics of many. As one student shared on Time, “It’s unfair to force the same notion of success on all children.”
Which leads to my final point:
3. We should not prioritize four-year colleges and universities
David Leonhardt claimed at the end of his piece, “Expanding the number of four-year college graduates…deserves to be a national priority.”
It is important to note this as one of the underlying issues concerning their critique: the obsession we have towards colleges and universities—institutions that, while claiming enhanced critical thinking and writing skills as their primordial value, have graduated 36 percent of their students with no statistically significant improvement in those skills.
After all, it is common knowledge that four-year institutions are not as rigorous as they once were. U.S. colleges and universities have sadly turned to favoring research over teaching (see p. 24); experiencing significant grade inflation (A’s being the most common grade given in college, while average student study time has diminished); and failing to halt a dangerous trend of ideology replacing scholarship (Evergreen State College being one of the most recent examples)—we should certainly not forget to point out skyrocketing tuition rates and student loan debt.
I am not stating this to discredit our nation’s university system—it has, without a doubt, had an enormously positive influence on many students, including myself. However, that does not mean we should disregard on the one hand, the thousands of bright students that have been successful due to a CTE high school or a technical/community college education, and on the other hand, the millions of students that have been mismatched into a four-year degree but dropped out or experienced poor employment outcomes later—worsening the labor force skills deficit.
In a world of rapidly advancing automation and global integration, we need a highly, properly-skilled workforce. Technical and community colleges should therefore teach the soft skills (leadership, ethics, communication, etc.) that lack in today’s job applicants so that students can be resilient in such an uncertain economy. We know that this can be done. Community colleges and technical schools can find inspiration in CTE programs that stopped pushing students in a certain pathway, but instead freed up educational opportunities and alternatives for them by offering both technical and general knowledge. Additionally, we should resist all forms of tracking in education. Just as tracking students due to race or social status into certain programs is wrong, tracking all students into four-year institutions is also wrong. Lastly, we have to eliminate the pervasive anti-CTE stigma and recognize that in a world of human diversity, diverse individual capabilities must have a wide array of educational alternatives so everyone can fulfill their potential.