While the previous mission of vocational education could often be described as a student earning a diploma and landing a job after high school, the new goal should be for students to earn a postsecondary degree or an industry recognized certification that leads to a successful career. Career readiness involves three major skill areas: core academic skills, employability skills such as critical thinking and responsibility, and technical/job-specific skills.
Joe Klein in a recent Time magazine article described an increasing number of excellent and well-funded vocational programs in the United States, particularly in Arizona. Two of these, the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa and the Career and Technical Education Program at Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, provide both inspiration and practical models that could be implemented in many districts.
Vocational education used to be where you sent the dumb kids or the supposed misfits who weren't suited for classroom learning. It began to fall out of fashion about 40 years ago, in part because it became a civil rights issue: voc-ed was seen as a form of segregation, a convenient dumping ground for minority kids in Northern cities. "That was a real problem," former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein told me. "And the voc-ed programs were pretty awful. They weren't training the kids for specific jobs or for certified skills. It really was a waste of time and money."
Indeed, the old notion of vocational education has been stood on its head. It's now called career and technical education (CTE), and it has become a pathway that even some college-bound advanced-placement students are pursuing. About 27% of the students in Arizona opt for the tech-ed path, and they are more likely to score higher on the state's aptitude tests, graduate from high school and go on to higher education than those who don't.
State regulators intend to mete out swifter penalties and tighten oversight of dozens of private vocational schools that have been operating without state approval, in some cases for months.
The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education last month directed its enforcement staff to investigate 77 schools with expired approvals.
In European countries like Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, vocational programs have long been viable choices for a significant portion of teenagers. Yet in the United States, technical courses have often been viewed as the ugly stepchildren of education, backwaters for underachieving or difficult students.
According to data from the Department of Education, about 75 percent of students who start public high school graduate within four or five years. But more than 90 percent of those who concentrate in career-oriented courses, a definition that varies by state, do so, according to statistics compiled by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (Eventually, after more years of school or passing a General Educational Development test, about 87 percent of all students complete high school.)
The responsibility of a vocational school is to offer postsecondary education that will provide students with professional and technical, career-specific educational programs. This kind of training will focus on students receiving job-specific training instead of a broad education in the liberal arts. Generally, completing a career college program can range from a doctoral or master’s degrees for postgraduate study, to bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, and down to short-term courses and diplomas.
A vocational school is also known as a trade school or career school. It provides vocational training so that students will learn the skills that they will need in order to do a particular job fairly well. This also includes knowledge about which techniques will work better to do one type of job over another, the safety procedures that need to be followed when doing a particular job, how to operate equipment and machinery in an efficient manner that will both provide support to the capabilities of its human operator and at the same time produce its optimum performance befitting of a machine, which unlike a human can consistently produce work without complaining or getting tired.
Across all of our sampled countries, employment rates are higher for youth with vocational education, but this turns around by the age of 50. The employment patterns are most pronounced in the “apprenticeship countries” with combined school and work-based education programmes (Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland in our data) and least noticeable in the countries with no formal system of vocational education such as the United States.