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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/05/2012

Why we need vocational education

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University. This was written for his blog on Edutopia , and he also publishes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

I was hired by Norway’s Ministry of Education to train vocational education teachers some years ago . Having myself attended a comprehensive high school where vocational students were those who couldn’t make it academically it was eye opening to be in a country where vocational education had high prestige, was well funded, and included students who could have gone to medical school if that had been their preference. 

 I was reminded of this experience recently when Tony Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap and, most recently, Creating Innovators, spoke with educators and parents in my community and noted that in Finland’s highly successful educational system, 45% of the students choose a technical track, not an academic track, after completing their basic education.

 I’m sure that most of you who teach high school have had some students confide that what they enjoyed doing most was working with their hands, whether on car engines, electrical circuits in the house, hair, or doing therapeutic massage. I bet that many of these students also confided that there is no way they could tell their parents that they’d rather pursue one of these occupations than go to college to prepare for a professional or business career.

 We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. In high socio-economic communities this is even more evident. And for most teachers, if a student is academically successful, this will be seen as a “waste of talent.”

 The same dilemma often exists for students who are being helped to overcome the achievement gap. Most schools that are effectively helping kids to overcome this gap and achieve academically also place a premium on college admissions, often the mark of success for these schools. And kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school appear foolish to “throw this all away” by choosing some alternative to college.

This bias against vocational education is dysfunctional. It is destructive to our children. They should have the opportunity to be trained in whatever skills their natural gifts and preferences lead them to, rather than more or less condemning them to jobs they’ll find meaningless. To keep a young person with an affinity for hair design or one of the trades from developing the skills to pursue this calling is destructive.

  It is also destructive to our society. Many of the skills most needed to compete in the global market of the 21st century are technical skills that fall into the technical/vocational area. The absence of excellence in many technical and vocational fields is also costing us economically as a nation.

 In the early 1960s, John Gardner, in his classic book Excellence , talked about the importance of vocational education and of developing excellence across all occupations for the social and economic health of our society. Unfortunately we’ve made little progress in the intervening years. Students who don’t excel in traditional academic areas, or who have little interest in them, should not meet with disappointment or disapproval from parents and teachers.

As Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner has repeatedly pointed out, there are varied types of intelligence and they are of equal value. As one example, bodily-kinesthetic and spatial intelligence are frequently high in those who are successful in varied technical trades. And, there is absolutely no contradiction between recognizing and developing these intelligences and developing basic verbal and mathematical literacy for all students.

While changing societal values will take time, changes can take place on a school or district level more immediately. And the good news is that there are increasing models and resources to guide educators.

 Joe Klein in a recent Time magazine article described an increasing number of excellent and well-funded vocational programs in the United States, particularly in Arizona. Two of these, the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa and the Career and Technical Education Program at Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, provide both inspiration and practical models that could be implemented in many districts.

There are also more schools across the United States that are creating internship programs that help students gain workplace experiences while enrolled in an academic high school.

At City Arts and Technology High in San Francisco, all juniors and seniors secure internships in the community, where they are mentored by an on-site professional and regularly visited by their school advisor. MetWest High School in Oakland, California is one of many that place student internships at the center of their mission. And Nancy Hoffman’s excellent new book, Schooling in the Workplace looks at how six countries successfully integrate schools and workplaces, while also providing a look at where this is happening in the United States.

Finally, being able to begin to legitimize vocational education in a district may also depend on successfully re-educating parents regarding the value of occupations that aren’t high on the social status scale. Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker provides an excellent antidote to our social biases about intelligence and an eye-opening look at the combination of cognitive and manual skills needed in occupations that our society has mistakenly devalued.

 Vocational education on both a secondary and post-secondary level should be highly valued, well funded, and effectively implemented. The first steps can and should be taken on a local level.

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