The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s better for disadvantaged students, trades or college?

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois struggled for a solution. One state excels at both.

A student on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park in September 2020. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

I regret we can’t have Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on our TV screens. What great guests they would be live on Fox and MSNBC, displaying the cogent depths of two of America’s best thinkers.

We still have one big issue those two luminaries couldn’t resolve, and with which our country still struggles. Du Bois and Washington disagreed over whether Black children should be prepared for trades or for college. A new book illuminates that debate — now focused on all disadvantaged children — and reveals the remarkable success that vocational-technical schools in Massachusetts have had strengthening job skills and book learning.

We education writers rarely look at voc-tech, as it is called. As high school students, most of us were intent on heading to college. I took a mechanical drawing class because my Boy Scout leader said it would be good for me. But all my other courses were the standard grade-grubber’s selection of English, math, science and history.

The new book on this issue is “Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools,” edited by Chris Sinacola and David J. Ferreira and published by the free-market think tank Pioneer Institute. It has many surprises.

Public high schools advertising themselves as models of vocational and academic instruction have often been weak in both areas. But Massachusetts has made great strides since its 1993 Education Reform Act required that vocational students be taught with the same academic standards and tests used by regular public schools.

Reversing vocational education failure

At the beginning, many educators thought that was a bad idea. They said the state tests were too much of a burden for voc-tech students. But teachers across the state made it work. By 2008, 96 percent of students at voc-tech schools were passing both the English and math portions of the state tests, better than the 94 percent statewide passing rate. Dropout rates at voc-tech schools also have declined.

Vocational subjects in Massachusetts have been updated to electronics construction, medical assisting, biotechnology and other skills where jobs are plentiful. Many states are doing that. What’s different is the way Massachusetts’s voc-tech high schools schedule their classes: all voc-tech one week, all academic classes the next week, and then repeat.

The book’s experts working on voc-tech and examining the Massachusetts approach are Ken Ardon, William Donovan, Alison L. Fraser, Jacqueline M. Moore and Wilfrid J. Savoie.

The book says the state’s voc-tech students typically “spend the first half of their freshman year exploring up to 10 career and technical majors offered at their schools.” They select the ones they like and are matched with the proper small classes.

“Over the next three-and-a-half years, students proceed on an alternating schedule. One full week is spent in shop focusing on their chosen vocation, the next week in traditional academic classes,” the book says. “Students work closely with the same teachers for over three-and-a-half years.”

The book explains that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was famous for the vocational model he learned at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia and installed in the college, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, he founded for Black students in Tuskegee, Ala. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” Washington said. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin and not at the top.”

W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) focused on academics at his college, Fisk University in Nashville. He later became the first African American to receive a doctorate at Harvard. His specialty was sociology. He wanted to turn the highest-performing Black students into intellectual superstars, what he called “the talented tenth.” He said “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”

I think both of them would have approved of the methods Massachusetts is using to deepen both vocational instruction and the reading, writing and math also necessary for success in the trades. Many of those students then go on to two- or four-year colleges, much better prepared for whatever path they have chosen.

Long disparaged, education for skilled trades is making a comeback

A national survey of educators whose voc-tech students were making gains revealed their most effective teaching methods included hands-on experiments or projects that made content more concrete, having students write in their voc-tech classes to clarify and communicate their ideas, increasing the number of students using math to solve real-world problems and assigning more reading.

The book says “a majority of vocational schools in Massachusetts require that students produce a senior project and/or a portfolio in order to graduate. ... After selecting a topic, the student conducts research, keeps a portfolio, and meets throughout the year with a senior project advisor and perhaps a project mentor from the community.”

This is similar to the project-based learning used for college-focused high school students in the International Baccalaureate program’s extended essay writing and Advanced Placement program’s seminar and research Capstone courses.

High schools in the past have been reluctant to cede power over their curriculums to businesses and unions with jobs to offer. There is often a question of who is in charge. That does not appear to be a problem in Massachusetts, where local employers work closely with voc-tech schools. Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, Mass., for instance, collaborated with the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank to create a branch where full-time employees worked side-by-side with students.

Many voc-tech schools in Massachusetts have also lengthened their school year. The Blackstone Valley Regional Technical High School in south-central Massachusetts has 195 school days a year, compared to the American standard of 180. That is the longest school year for any Massachusetts public school.

Washington and Du Bois probably would have applauded the effort to enhance both of the approaches to education they emphasized. But they might also have wondered why it has taken so long.