The working track

Oren Cass has a couple essays out that previews arguments he’ll expand on in an upcoming book. He discusses many of the themes I’ve touched on: the purposes of education, skills and job success, education standards, and the fact public education should cater to different types of students.

I sum up Cass’s core argument as: the US education system’s strong bias to college attendance does a profound disservice to the overwhelming majority of students. We thus need a vocational / Career and Technical Education (CTE) track: “We need a pathway to prepare young men and women for productive participation in the labor force that relies less on academics and more on concrete skills and real-world experience.”

As much as I love this point, my main criticism is that Cass doesn’t take this line of reasoning far enough. It’s not just CTE students that need less academics and more concrete skills. All students do. I’ve made similar points myself in the context of science literacy and education (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

A separate CTE track doesn’t address the disturbing trend where many white-collar jobs–from receptionists to doctors–require more education than needed. That’s the problem we need to fix–we’re overeducating across the board, not just the kids who ultimately end up as welders or hospital techs.

A vocational-only track will also probably worsen the “cultural imperative to push more people into the college pipeline” because–regardless of pay–the CTE track is where blue-collar workers would end up. And however much my peers praised Geoffrey “All Jobs are Worthwhile” Owens for working at Trader Joe’s, the ugly fact is that we in the educated elite don’t want our children to end up in blue-collar jobs. We’d ensure that CTE never becomes “co-equal.”

So instead of a CTE/college binary, I propose the working track and the college track. The working track would still offer “close partnerships between school systems and employers that get students in the workplace, earning money and industry credentials, while they are still completing their formal education.” But these partnerships and credentials would be for jobs in sales, marketing, engineering, as well as CTE.

Any non-college educational track would enjoy much more support if it included white-collar work and appealed to children with a range of career interests and cognitive abilities. Since people like Cass (and me!) are ultimately talking about overhauling how we think about education, we should aim for as broad a coalition as possible.

I’m going to flesh out this argument over several blog posts. But I’ll basically be expanding on what Cass wrote, and trying to explain why I think almost all jobs ultimately come down to “concrete skills and real-world experience.” That is: most jobs have a very strong vocational component, a fact our educational system should acknowledge.

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