Of Vocational Schools, Career Tech, and Learners

Years ago, I worked for an education entrepreneur who drilled in me the notion that American high schools were fundamentally broken, built for an era that was long gone. Today, we know that postsecondary education – in some form – is a non-negotiable. For one to have a successful career, to be able to take care of a family and keep a roof over their heads, a high school degree alone was no longer sufficient. High schools needed to become passageways to the successful pursuit of postsecondary education.

It wasn’t always this way. One can look back to the post-World War II era and see a time when only a third of high schoolers went on to college. A third of students graduated from high school to directly enter the workforce or pursue military service. And yes, a third would fail to earn a high school diploma, but still were able to obtain and keep employment.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump spoke longingly on those good ol’ days, noting how America’s future economic success may very well lie with a return to vocational schools. And while most do not use the term anymore, he may indeed be correct. It’s tough to deny that career and technical education is more important than ever. But it is careerteched that is vastly different than the shop class that President Trump may remember from high schools of decades past and is calling for. And it is at a time when we now look to community colleges to provide much of what those good ol’ voke ed schools used to offer.

It’s career and technical education that today is largely delivered by community colleges, either to recent high school graduates seeking that non-negotiable postsecondary education or to career changers needing to update their skills and knowledge to compete in a digital, information economy. It’s for those who recognize that the future economy demands a strong blend of all of the educational buzzwords we’ve heard over the past decade or two, whether it be STEM, 21st century skills, or the like.

It is also a reminder that the education offered and the students pursuing it are not nearly as homogenous as we’d like to believe. Sure, we all have this picture of the “typical” college student pursuing a “typical” liberal arts education at a “typical” four-year college. But there is nothing typical about students today, their aspirations, or the pathways one takes to get there. Nothing typical about the K-12 experience, and certainly nothing typical about the postsecondary experience.

I was reminded of this, yet again, this morning when watching Good Morning America. As a transition, Robin Roberts spoke briefly with student representatives from the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA. It was an organization that the edu-wife, the product of a private high school in New England, was completely unfamiliar with. And she works in education.

But as the product of Jefferson (County Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, I knew the organization well. Or rather I knew the organization as it once was known, the Future Homemakers of America. In my high school, FHA was a more popular student group than the Future Business Leaders of America. It was almost as strong a student organization as our Future Farmers of America contingent, which spent every fall missing classes to make apple butter out in the high school parking lot.

In my day, our county high school had about 1,200 students in total. About a third of our high school graduates went on to college. We weren’t a large enough school district to have a fully functioning vocational high school or career/technical education program. At the time, we didn’t even have a community college in our part of West Virginia (my father, when he was president of Shepherd University, actually created the community college that is now the state’s largest and most successful, to meet the growing demands).

So career and technical education was largely supported by clubs like FFA, FHA, and FBLA. Such organizations supplemented what was learned in the classroom. They provided much of the “vocational” training that President Trump now seeks, and did so largely because of teachers who were willing to give their time and knowledge to do so.

In the nearly three decades since I graduated from Jefferson High, those organizations have adjusted their approach and their services to their members. They’ve continued to serve as a gateway for so many seeking postsecondary career and technical education. And they’ve turned out generations of individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to pursue a wide range of careers.

When we debate the successes or failures of K-12 education, it is easy to get bogged down in test scores and growth measures. It is easy to focus on those learners who beat the odds to get accepted into a dozen Ivy League schools. And its easy to point out how much that used to fall to K-12, from remediation to career and technical ed, has now been pushed onto our local community colleges.

It is far harder for us to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate the ways communities do come together to provide for their students. It harder to see the value in the student who will soon run his family’s farm also knowing how to code (and knowing the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare).

Preparing for a strong economic future does not mean needing to return to the bricks-and-mortar good ol’ days of voke ed. Instead, it means recognizing the importance of instilling a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability with today’s learners, and recognizing that such lessons can – and should – be taught beyond the traditional classroom in the little red schoolhouse. And it means seeing how community colleges and clubs and OST programs can contribute.

(A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

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