Reversing vocational education failure

Jay Mathews
Columnist June 27, 2012

Many American adolescents don’t want to go to college. They reject as boring and aggravating the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other college-level courses offered to them in high school. Yet, they need reading, writing, math and time-management skills for good jobs or trade school slots when they graduate. How can they be persuaded to acquire them?

Motivating teenagers is tricky, but new ways are being tried. In Montgomery County and a few other parts of the country, the International Baccalaureate organization is launching a program called the IB Career-related Certificate. Some call it IB Lite, but it is tough enough that Rockville High School has found only about a dozen students willing to try it.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The IBCC requires only two, rather than the usual six, IB courses. But students must take four career-related courses, plus an Approaches to Learning course and a foreign language. They have to do community service and a major project analyzing an ethical issue.

IB officials hope this will attract students who have no interest in French literature or Chinese art but like developing 21st-century technical skills that might get them cool jobs. “Schools retain the ability to choose the career-related courses that are most suited to local conditions and the needs of their students,” the IB Web site says of its new program.

It is hard to imagine the IB version of vocational education being worse than what we have had in the past half-century. The mechanical drawing course I took in high school, plus the usual secretarial, culinary and auto repair offerings, have lost relevance as those fields have become more technical and more selective. Vocational courses run by companies or unions (and, to some extent, the military) lead to jobs, but public schools resist handing over the power to decide what is taught.

IB is more amenable to letting outsiders control its new career courses. Each class must be certified by an experienced organization independent of the school district. Rockville High’s new IBCC engineering courses will be monitored by Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit organization with a splendid national reputation.

High standards maintained by outside experts are what have made IB and AP popular, and so difficult for many students to complete successfully. Rockville Principal Debra S. Munk wants her IBCC kids to adjust by giving Approaches to Learning to them as 10th-graders before they face the full IBCC schedule in 11th grade, but IB has not yet agreed.

IBCC is too much for most students who reject college, Munk says. She recommends they spend half the school day at the Thomas Edison High School of Technology, a county vocational center with everything from computer coding to cosmetology. Albert Penna, principal of a New York high school that had 22 IBCC graduates Sunday, says he thinks the program can motivate many former slackers, particularly as employers or trade schools snap up IBCC graduates.

The Pathways to Prosperity Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the nonprofit Jobs for the Future are putting similar faith in the career pathways they will help establish in Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee. It is too early to know whether the public schools involved will cede authority to companies and unions that know what skills are needed.

Even if that does happen, we don’t know whether those programs can do anything about the widespread teenage resistance to serious study. Munk says many of her students — particularly boys — seem more interested in the latest computer games.

Learning how to play a video game is different from learning how to design one. It takes effort, listening skills, time management and creativity, all encouraged by IBCC. Many students refuse to embrace such adult concepts. They don’t need college, but without a willingness to work hard for something, their other choices are not very good.

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