Nov 25, 2013
Every few weeks or so, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York State Commissioner of Education John King profess and insist upon the need to ensure that more students go on to higher education. Every few weeks (via E-mails or Twitter) I ask them why.
Please don’t misconstrue what I mean when I ask them. I don’t mean that people shouldn’t go onto obtain a post-secondary education if they want to. I’m just wondering why the push. Why do we see college and university as the be all and end all of education? Why is it being pushed that Higher Ed is what everyone needs to have?
Why have we all but terminated the proliferation of technical and vocational training?
We live in a society that places a high value on white-collar jobs. You’re considered successful if you put on a suit every day, go downtown, and work in an office. If you have a blue-collar job, you’re considered a lower class. Some job that, while it’s nice for other people to do, it would be an embarrassment for you. It’s not surprising that parents want their kids to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. In upper and middle-class regions, this is even more evident. Many teachers too, I think, feel that if a student is academically successful, going into a vocational or technical career will be perceived as a ‘waste of talent.’
The same predicament is often present for underperforming students who are being helped to close the Achievement Gap. Most schools that are working to help students to surmount this gap and achieve academically also place a high importance on college admissions. By extension kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school appear foolish to ‘throw away’ college by choosing some alternative.
Post-Secondary School is danged expensive.
For those same kids that we look at as foolish for throwing away college, how are they going to pay for college? Heck, I completed my undergraduate degree in May 2002 and I’m still paying them off . . . and that’s when interest rates were low! How are we going to expect students, especially students from middle and low income backgrounds, to take out loans that will be impossible to pay off in a reasonable time to pay for an education that may or may not provide them with a job? In many cases the latter, since, as you may have noticed, unemployment has not been lower than 5% since November 2008.
The denigration of vocational and technical training is destructive to students who should have the opportunity to pursue their natural gifts and predilections lead them to. When we already agree that education isn’t always engaging enough, why should we condemning them to jobs they’ll find meaningless?
Forcing and cajoling individuals into solely pursuing an academic track is also destructive to our society. Many of the skills that are most needed to compete in the 21st century global market are technical skills that fall into the technical/vocational area. Losing the excellence in technical and vocational fields that has characterized the United States since its establishment is also costing us economically as a nation.
Vocational and technical schools provide students with training in critically important fields that will always be in demand and usually pay very well. If we keep focusing on producing cubicle workers, who will handle our utilities? Who will fix our automobiles, build our buildings, and lay our roads? That’s where the critical need is.
There’s one school that I know of in Western New York that has a one semester ‘Infrastructure’ course. In this class, students are introduced to people who work in various technical fields. Representatives of the power company, sewage processing, water pumping stations, and natural gas company all come in to introduce the students to their respective fields and show them the basics. The genesis of this class was when, several years ago, a student from that school was offered a position as a Junior Pump Operator. Right out of high school, this student would have earned ~$60,000 per year. Within four years, with the amount of older employees retiring, he would’ve been promoted to Senior Pump Operator and earned close to six figures. His mother, however, forbade it. According to her, this student had to stay home and take care of his younger siblings. As if $60,000 right out of high school wouldn’t have helped his family.
There's dignity and necessity in hard work. Vocational and technical education on both a secondary and post-secondary level should be highly valued, well funded, and effectively implemented.
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