In Iowa today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the Obama administration’s new vocational education plan. The president proposes to revise the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act by investing an additional $1 billion to increase partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers, with the goal of directing students toward high-need industries such as engineering and healthcare.
But the choice of venue for the announcement—the Des Moines Area Community College—underscores a critique of the president’s education and jobs agenda aired on both the right and left: that it focuses too much on post–high school occupational training, and not enough on introducing younger adolescents to the world of work outside the classroom. Indeed, the administration’s policy blueprint states that high school students enrolled in career and technical education programs must still achieve “mastery of the core academic content required of all students.” In many Western European nations, on the other hand, the high school curriculum is significantly differentiated for teenagers depending on whether they are headed to a liberal arts university, a technical college, or into the workforce.
In a new book, Schooling in the Workplace, Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future argues the United States should adopt a Swiss-style vocational education system, in which students in their last two years of high school have the option of participating in highly structured workplace apprenticeships, working for pay several days per week and spending the rest of the time in the classroom. “We have a 22 percent youth unemployment rate right now, compared to 5 percent in the Netherlands or Switzerland,” Hoffman told The Nation. “Among that 22 percent are young people who are going to be permanently scarred, and that’s damaging to the human psyche. We don’t think about what we can do to help the young people in our charge discover the role of work in our lives.”
In the following interview, I talk with Hoffman about why vocational education is so controversial in the United States, what role the liberal arts should play and how emphasizing career training might change the teaching profession. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I was fascinated by your idea of providing older teens—especially “the forgotten half” that will not attend a four-year college—with an easier “transition to adulthood.” You describe upper secondary school students in Switzerland working behind the counter in a cell phone shop for school credit, which will certainly horrify a lot of advocates of a college-prep curriculum. Can you talk about why you think this type of “transitional” work is so important?
In Switzerland there are whole stores run by kids, so there are multiple jobs including management, repair, all the technical jobs, plus customer service. If we have a situation in the United States where only about 20 percent of 26-year-olds have any credential, we need something for people to do to get them from 16 to 20 without landing in jail, on welfare or on the street; something that gives them a structure and lets them figure out their potential and interests.