"Career Ready" Means Vocational Education and Technical Training


Vocational School in Buffalo, NY: 1910. Photo from the
National Child Labor Committee collection

I’d like to draw readers’ attention to an important article published last year by Boston Consulting Group on vocational education.
Most anytime I speak with someone who works in the field of special education, as I do, vocational education and technical training can be a frequent point of conversation. While we all want our students to have the option of attending an academic institution of higher education, the reality is that some of our most academically challenged students will not exercise that option.*
You’ve got to hand it to us Americans–we’re eternally optimistic and enthusiastic. But on the other side of that optimism is naivety, even willful ignorance. College isn’t always the right option for all students. And for those students who choose not to attend a traditional college, that shouldn’t be seen as a failure–it should be one choice out of many pathways to a fulfilling life of employment and citizenship.
Providing pathways for students in addition to college is not a cop-out from a rigorous academic education. When the Common Core states that it is preparing students to be “college and career ready,” we all too easily gloss over what “career ready” might mean, as distinguished from “college ready.” To be career ready, students need to have real options for training for real careers.
We need to stop thinking about vocational pathways in a derogatory sense. I have written before about the need to value hard work, craftsmanship, and service. I believe strongly in providing all students with the opportunity to work with their hands and provide a service to their society.

Anyway, enough preaching from me. Here’s what the Boston Consulting Group advised as critical factors to building viable vocational systems, based on a study of international best practices:

  • The presence of a coordinated ecosystem in which all stakeholders, including a central agency with clear oversight of the TVET [technical and vocational education and training] ecosystem, actively cooperate
  • Performance-based government funding and support
  • Parity between GAE [general academic education] and TVET and a straightforward means for students to transition between the two tracks
  • Sustained, collaborative efforts from industry
Note the repetition of words such as “coordinated,” “cooperate,” “and “collaborative.” All critical aspects of a resilient and healthy social ecosystem.

I’d like to draw your attention more specifically to the point on parity between GAE and TVET, which I feel is the area most critical for the US to focus on as we seek to provide multiple pathways for all students. On this point, BCG elaborates the following:

In part, students’ negative perception of TVET stems from the current practice of separating TVET into a distinct education “stream,” to which students who fail to meet GAE standards are sent, with no option to return. Changing this perception and increasing student interest in TVET requires increasing the horizontal and vertical mobility between the two paths.

This idea of providing “horizontal and vertical mobility” between academic and vocational pathways seems to me the very idea embodied by the phrase “college and career ready.” Providing students with diverse pathways and options, rather than a singular yellow brick road to higher education, promotes resilience and strengthens communities, rather than ignoring students who fail to conform to a given expectation.

Furthermore, providing this sort of parity and fluidity removes the denigration of TVET as a pathway for “failing” students. TVET should be a viable option for ANY and ALL students — in just the way we want college to be.

* if anyone can point me towards graduation statistics, both high school and college, for students receiving special education services, I’d be much obliged. I’ve heard 12% H.S. graduation rate bandied about in NYC, but I can’t confirm that.

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