We need more shuffling to vocational schools

I often learn that that ideas I thought were original actually aren’t–someone else got there years or even decades earlier. In 2015 Andy Rotherham chastised education reformers’ shallow definition of diversity, which excludes students who weren’t good at school:

Yet for all the attention to diversity, one perspective remains almost absent from the conversation about American education: The viewpoint of those who weren’t good at school in the first place. Of course there are people in the education world who were not good students, or didn’t like their own schooling experience. But for the most part the education conversation is dominated by people who not only liked being in and around schools, they excelled at academic work. The result is an over-representation of elite schools and elite schooling experiences and little input from those who found educational success later in life or not at all.

My post from late October is thus just a few years late.

Andy may not know this, but he has deeply influenced my thinking. When I first started learning policy in my spare time, he graciously responded to my emails and recommended a couple books that changed how I thought about politics. He didn’t have to respond, and I’m still grateful that he did.

And so it is with a bit of chagrin that I criticize these two sentences:

So shuffling poor students into vocational education is seen as good for them on the assumption most won’t be college material anyway. This is seen as admirable realism rather than a kind of prejudice.

I know it can be a bit nit-picky to isolate a couple sentences in an essay I otherwise agreed with. But I think they illustrate how much the academic approach to learning undergirds our thinking.

Even though Andy recognizes that most students are not full time, and that they zig and zag through their education (rather than going straight from kindergarten to a BS at 22 like most yupsters in education reform), and that we need to create more schools that cater to the different ways people learn…he still belittles the idea that moving off the college pathway may be the right move for some. His end goal is still to get people to engage in the academic approach to learning that colleges specialize in. He just wants to create different pathways to get to that goal.

But that’s the wrong goal. College matters now only because we’ve created an economy that often requires it to enter the middle class. We should be fighting this paradigm, not figuring out different ways to strengthen it.

Whether or not they can succeed in college, most people wouldn’t voluntarily choose to sit in a classroom for several hours a day. We shouldn’t force them to suffer through it if it’s not absolutely necessary.

Which again brings me back to the idea of a working track.* Vocational schools are viewed negatively in no small part because they are designed for those who aren’t good at school. The way these things play out in America, that means in practice they’re also designed for the poor.

Such schools would have a very different image if middle-class kids who want to work in sales, marketing or engineering were also attending them. Those are vocational jobs too!

We ultimately need to expand the idea of a vocational school and shuffle even more kids down that path. I fear we won’t really change its image otherwise.

* Testable prediction: Within 3 months, I’ll learn that some professor in Iowa wrote his 1959 dissertation on the working track.

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