Educating for Success: Reconsidering Trade School Education

Although education is certainly a factor in paving the road to economic recovery, college is not the right path for everyone.
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In my ongoing campaign to persuade students from the inner city high school where I teach that George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is a clever and amusing allegory (and not just a useful projectile), I recently had a conversation with one of my tenth graders that was particularly thought-provoking.

The student in question, "Danielle," is a young woman who I would describe as "street smart" but not "book smart." She is organized, a good note-taker and can be extremely focused when an assignment suits her. However, she's not particularly curious, becomes frustrated when work demands thinking or skills that she doesn't immediately possess and her approach to tasks tends to be one of relentless pragmatism, getting the bare minimum done as quickly as possible.

The students were working on an essay about "Animal Farm" and Danielle was complaining.

"I don't like this book," she said. "Why do I need to write this essay?"

"Because it's important to learn how to recognize symbolism and themes in literature -- those are skills you need for college," I told her.

"I'm not going to college."

That got my attention.

"No? So what are you planning to do instead?"

"I want to become a therapeutic massage specialist," Danielle said. "I'm already taking courses in community college. I want to have something ready to go when I graduate."

A few years ago, I would have been horrified at this pronouncement. I know there are plenty of teachers and administrators who still would be. But these days, I'm more inclined to be impressed by Danielle's self-awareness, foresight and her implicit understanding of a fact I wish our system leaders would see: that perpetuation of the current "college for all" trend in education is neither economically viable nor beneficial to all students.

On the macrocosmic level, there isn't enough demand in the market for every bachelor's degree produced at a four-year college. This is particularly true of liberal arts degrees, as is evidenced by the difficulty faced even by graduates of top universities in finding employment. At the same time, there's a shortage of workers who can fill high-skill manufacturing jobs that require industry-specific technical proficiency -- for example, building airplanes, cars and other large-scale machinery -- upon which our 21st century economy is increasingly based.

From the "desk-level" view afforded to a high school teacher, the question of whether it's wise to route all students towards college becomes even more complex. Students across the country are failing and being failed by the current educational system and one reason for this is that not enough is offered -- in terms of curriculum or guidance -- to students for whom college isn't the end goal.

Danielle's lack of interest in getting a traditional bachelor's degree is by no means an anomaly. Many of her peers have expressed similar disinclination because of other interests (learning trades, entering family businesses or joining the armed forces), feelings that the prohibitive cost of higher education outweighs possible career benefits, or distaste for the idea of doing a lot more studying after they graduate high school.

It's hard for me to argue with the validity of any of these positions.

So what can we do for students who are disengaged from school due largely to the fact that it doesn't offer a path that's suited to them? What can we do for kids who are sticking it out only because the job prospects for someone without a high school diploma or GED are virtually nonexistent? What can we do for kids like Danielle? We do a disservice to these students by pushing college on them, as if it were the only option. In the same vein, we must find ways to make secondary school education meaningful and useful to everyone, not just the college-bound crew.

A re-implementation of trade schools at the high school level would be one way to address this issue. Over the last two decades, with the increasing prevalence of the "college for all" philosophy and changes in the blue-collar workforce, the numbers of trade schools nationwide have dwindled. Opponents of trade school education, besides worrying about the inherent perpetuation of class distinctions if such alternative schooling were implemented (an important concern, but one that's too complex to do justice here), worry that basic literacy and math skills would fall to the wayside with such education. Additionally, they correctly cite the disappearance of the blue-collar jobs of yesteryear due to the closing of major U.S. factories.

Both of these concerns can be mitigated to some degree. While students entering any workforce must be prepared with adequate literacy and math skills, career tech programs must be held accountable to the same standards as traditional college-prep programs. Curricular emphasis in trade schools would perhaps be shifted from traditional literary analysis (themes, symbols, etc.) to literacy in functional documents, perhaps teaching students to read technical articles or to use math-based software programs that would be applicable to our tech-reliant workforce. Such instructional shifts would prepare students to take jobs in areas with strong employment prospects, such as hospitality, medical technology, computer-dependent manufacturing positions and other industries that supply jobs of the 21st century to the middle class.

In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama asserted that America needed to return to its former status as the world leader in college graduation rates. Although education is certainly a factor in paving the road to economic recovery, college is not the right path for everyone. By encouraging students to explore other educational options besides the traditional college-prep route, our system would make school more meaningful to some of the students who, in the current system, have essentially checked out.

Among my tenth graders, Danielle is exceptional -- not academically, but as a student with uncommon self-awareness and capacity to think outside the box in terms of education and career trajectory. I'd like to see more kids follow her example and, on a larger scale, for schools to offer a broader educational menu to the students they serve.

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