On June 8, President Barack Obama visited Northern Virginia Community College. He rolled up his sleeves and tooled around under the hood of a hybrid car that students were learning to repair. Later, he gave a speech on the importance of more Americans gaining access to higher education—not just at four-year universities but at community colleges and occupational training programs too.
“The goal isn’t just making sure that somebody has got a certificate or a diploma,” Obama said. “The goal is to make sure your degree helps you to get a promotion or a raise or a job. And that’s especially important right now.”
The president’s remarks departed significantly from the “college for all” rhetoric that frequently dominates the education policy debate. That conversation burst open in February, when the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” The report noted that of the 47 million American jobs expected to be created between now and 2018, about two-thirds will require some sort of education beyond high school, yet a much smaller proportion will require a four-year college degree. About 14 million of these new jobs will be in “mid-skill” occupations that require just a post-secondary certificate or associate’s degree: jobs such as dental hygienist, construction manager and electrician. Such occupations can provide a path into the middle class; indeed, 27 percent of workers with occupational licenses earn more than the average recipient of a bachelor’s degree.
In the context of an economy where unemployment hovers above 9 percent, and the job outlook is particularly bleak for low-skilled workers—those who, in previous generations, would have depended on the now-decimated manufacturing sector—these projections brought new urgency to an old debate, one that has divided American social reformers for more than a century. Do poor and working-class kids have the same need for a liberal arts education as their middle-class and affluent peers? Or does the reality of inequality in America—the sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia within a single generation—call for a more practical approach to educating the poor, with a focus on technical skills that prepare a child for the world of work?
The Harvard report—warmly embraced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—set off a storm of criticism from self-declared education reformers, who rose to defend the “college for all” approach. “While I agree that all students could benefit from more exposure to the world of work, I vehemently disagree with the [Harvard] authors’ main argument: that we already tried preparing all students for college and it didn’t work,” wrote Kati Haycock, president of the Washington, DC, think tank Education Trust, which focuses on closing the achievement gap and was a major player in advocating for No Child Left Behind and, more recently, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program. “Most schools still resist the idea that all kids can and should be college-ready. By continuing long-standing, unfair practices of sorting and selecting, they create what is essentially an educational caste system—directing countless young people, especially low-income students and students of color, away from college-prep courses and from seeing themselves as ‘college material.’”
RiShawn Biddle, education columnist for the conservative magazine The American Spectator, was even harsher. Writing on his own website, Dropout Nation, Biddle accused the Harvard researchers of barely concealed racism. “The 52-page report wrongfully perpetuates a century-old philosophy—that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of high-quality, college-level education—that is condemning far too many young men and women to poverty and prison,” Biddle wrote.
In fact, it was Booker T. Washington, in his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, who made the seminal case for vocational education. “One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences,” he wrote. “The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons.”
Two years later, writing in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois famously accused Washington of opposing “the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds…. For this is certain,” wrote Du Bois, a great promoter of the university liberal arts, “no secure civilization can be built in the South with the Negro as an ignorant, turbulent proletariat.”
In the early twentieth century, the comprehensive high school, offering both college-prep and vocational tracks, emerged as a compromise between these two ideologies, intended to sift the academic wheat from the chaff while offering adolescents a more engaging, hands-on curriculum. In many ways, this model was extremely successful: as millions of working-class immigrants flooded into American cities, the public school system offered acculturation and English skills, while also providing teens with job training for the then-bustling manufacturing economy. In 1900, just 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school; by 1969, partly because of tracking policies that offered less academically demanding courses, nearly 80 percent of all Americans had earned a high school diploma.
But as soon as the vocational track was introduced, thorny social justice problems emerged. Girls and African-Americans were directed into low-paid clerical jobs and less skilled, nonunionized occupations; think shorthand instead of auto repair. University of California, Los Angeles, education researcher Mike Rose has found that a Depression-era study of high school welding programs in eighteen states discovered only a single black student enrolled. Though this type of rigid tracking was mostly phased out by the 1980s, de facto tracking by race and class remains a feature of many high schools, with low-income and minority students far less likely to enroll in Advanced Placement or other college-prep courses. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie has shown that with the decline of the manufacturing economy, the students who have the most to gain from a four-year college degree are the same disadvantaged students least likely to attend college, in part because they are counseled into less demanding courses throughout their school careers.
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These realities, however, must be balanced against the often toxic combination of rising higher education costs, aggressive marketing of low-quality for-profit colleges to low-income young adults, and staggeringly high college dropout rates and student debt loads.
Just 53 percent of students who enter four-year colleges graduate within six years. At two-year community colleges, half of all students drop out before their second year, and only 25 percent finish their programs within three years.
One fifth of all students who borrow to pay for college drop out, and nearly one in five who drop out leave only after accumulating $20,000 in debt.
Working-class parents understand the risks of too much debt for too little education—and are hungry for alternatives. Polling of low-income New Yorkers by the Community Service Society of New York has found that 90 percent believe high school vocational training would be a good educational option for their own children.
David Jones, the organization’s president, grew up in a black family that emphasized intellectual achievement above all else. He graduated from Wesleyan University and then Yale Law School, and sent his children to elite colleges.
But Jones says that in the midst of a recession, these poll results “got me off my high horse. People at the base get it and are desperately concerned about their young people. Johnny gets out of high school and basically can never leave home. He doesn’t have a skill that is in need except as a service person at McDonald’s. This is a dialogue we have to take on.”
Amid these difficult truths, some progressive education reformers have attempted to move beyond the old emotional debates about tracking and expectations, and are sounding the call for a more intellectual version of “career and technical education,” or CTE, one that infuses traditional vocational training with the academic rigor and ethic of college prep. “You can teach any given subject at multiple levels,” says Samuel Lucas, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author of Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools. “You can teach people how to fix a car where you talk about turning the screw. At that level of knowledge, they could get a job. But you could also teach them, well, what are the principles by which this combustion engine is working?”
That’s the type of education teenagers are getting at Aviation High School, a public school in Long Island City, Queens, that Arne Duncan praised in an April 19 speech. When I visited the school in February, Noel Adames, a high school junior, taught me not only how to weld but how welding works.
“Here, put these goggles on,” he said, thrusting a pair into my hands as he led me through one of the school’s more than forty bustling laboratories. Noel explained that a welding torch uses two types of gas: oxygen and acetylene. Together they heat up to an astonishing 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When the gases are in the correct proportion, we’d see two flame “zones,” Noel said, the outer and inner cone. That’s when we’d be ready to fuse together two iron plates clamped in a vise.
I was overwhelmed by all this information and scared of the bright orange flame, but Noel reassured me. “We’ll do it together!” he offered, demonstrating the technique.
A member of ROTC, Noel spends his mornings preparing to become an FAA-certified aircraft mechanic, learning the forty-three skills—from welding to air-conditioner maintenance to electrical wiring—required to service planes and helicopters. He spends his afternoons in traditional academic courses, including one college-level class, and will graduate from Aviation’s five-year program with a New York State Regents diploma. His ambition is to attend the Air Force Academy.
“If you understand how the inside of the plane works, it’s a whole other level of being a pilot,” he says. But if that doesn’t work out, Noel’s FAA certification will qualify him for a union job that pays about $55,000 per year with benefits, and could help him finance a college education.
At the policy level, the problem is that Obama and Duncan’s verbal support for career and technical education comes unmatched by any serious funding commitment to replicate schools like Aviation High. In the recent budget negotiations with House Republicans, the White House agreed to $137 million in cuts to the Perkins Grant programs, the primary federal funding stream for vocational education. But even before this belt-tightening, neither of the administration’s competitive education reform grant programs—Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3)—encouraged applicants to build curriculums in which young adults are given the hands-on training they need to enter a specific career. And although some i3 grant winners will use the federal dollars to improve instruction in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—the administration has put very few resources behind programs that develop students’ capacity to use STEM skills on the job through apprenticeships and internships, as opposed to just in the classroom.
Workforce development advocates say it is hard for politicians to champion vocational programs because of the field’s troubled history. “Talking about ‘science’ is much more appealing than saying ‘career education for struggling kids,’” says Nancy Hoffman, vice president of the advocacy group Jobs for the Future. “It would be great if we could get rid of the stigma of CTE.”
One school attempting to do just that is Tech Valley High School, on the East Campus of the State University of New York, Albany. The public school was created in 2005 by a special act of the state legislature, part of a larger, long-running effort to revive the economy of the troubled upstate region. Tech Valley admits, via lottery, just forty ninth graders per year into one of the most innovative CTE programs in the country: every student pursues an internship during January. This year, one teen shadowed an Amtrak engineer riding the Northeast Corridor; another interned at a local graphic design firm.
The flexibility of Tech Valley’s career curriculum—students can choose an internship that matches their interests, from baking to computer coding to marine biology—goes a long way toward scrubbing away the stigma of CTE as the “slow track” for working-class kids with few options. Every academic subject at Tech Valley is organized around projects intended to introduce teenagers to potential occupations. A history class worked alongside local attorneys to put Christopher Columbus and other European explorers on mock trial for decimating Native American populations. For a unit on pH levels, biology students worked with employees of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to collect Hudson River water samples and test whether the river was safe for swimmers.
Of course, there are downsides to CTE programs like those at Tech Valley and Aviation high schools. Most obviously, they are expensive. Both schools rely on private funding to provide an extended learning day: Tech Valley benefits from foundation dollars, while Aviation partners with local colleges to pay teachers overtime for offering instruction outside the workday mandated by their union contract. The longer day is difficult for kids too, and Tech Valley and Aviation have fought student attrition. Only twenty-eight of Tech Valley’s first incoming class will graduate this spring, though administrators say 90 percent of subsequent classes are on track to graduate. The typical Aviation freshman class of 500 to 525 dwindles to 400 graduates four years later.
With Washington pulling back on CTE funding, there is little hope for large-scale efforts to improve and replicate ambitious programs like these. The saddest part is, they are needed now more than ever. “The recession has helped us in terms of people understanding why this type of education is important,” says Stacia Snow, a Tech Valley social studies teacher. “Workers have to be flexible, and they have to be creative.”