Education Opinion

A Dirty Little Business

By Susan Graham — July 28, 2009 6 min read
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With the fall school term about to start, the superintendents of Long Beach and Pass Christian school districts are busy trying to find replacement classes for vocational students. “It’s a very good program and the community college did an outstanding job with it,” Long Beach Superintendent Carrolyn Hamilton said,” but we have budget problems and we have to balance our budget.…… That left us no choice but to cut the vocational classes. Running a vocational program is expensive…..”

But not running a vocational program may be even more expensive in the long run. The vocational classes no longer funded by these Mississippi school systems included allied health, culinary arts, aquaculture, metal trades and auto mechanics. They are industry certification programs and sucessful completers would walk out of high school with the credentials to begin jobs in fields where workers are needed. In communities that are still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, that would be worth a lot. But that’s not going to happen in Long Beach.

It’s not going to happen in Pass Christian either. Pass Christian and Long Beach shared the Workforce Development program at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Long Beach site, and Pass Christian can’t sustain the program without Long Beach as a partner.

Instead of acquiring marketable job skills, students who had clear career goals and were on track to achieve them will be taking “replacement classes.” Career and Technical Education programs such as these are at least two- to three-hour blocks, so that means that these students will have to “choose” two or three other courses that are thrown together in the next couple of weeks. Seniors in these programs often need only a Government and Language Arts class to meet their graduation credits, so it is likely that many of these students will opt for a Work Release and head out midday to work in fast food or some other entry level job.

These sacrificial lambs will graduate with a diploma, but will be neither workplace nor college ready. And the probability is, with the lost opportunity to develop marketable skills, some will drop out. Their future options will be limited as well. Without the articulated curriculum agreement with the local high schools, the Workforce Development program at the community college is likely to flounder.Twenty-five years of program development will be put at risk.

Even if the program survives, waiting until after high school graduation will delay entry into the workforce and increase cost for students. If the community college program folds, taking out student loans and enrolling in a private technical school may be their only option.

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. The majority of students who complete HS college prep programs never complete college. Jobs that require technical certification or associate degrees represent the best opportunities for employment across the country right now. While high-end outliers distort the mean, income for skilled jobs often pay equivalent or near the median earnings of jobs that require an undergraduate degree but do not result in a certification or licensure. In light of these realities, it seems only logical that stakeholders would support and promote high quality vocational education.

But there are some practical issues:

Vocational programs are expensive to start up, equip, and keep updated to industry standards. College prep programs, with the exception of lab sciences, require minimal equipment and consumable supplies and virtual labs are being promoted as a cost efficiency. While academic course enrollments are often limited only by the number of desks that can be squeezed into a classroom, vocational courses require low student/teacher ratios. This is due, in part, to equipment accessibility, but a huge factor is the need for supervision and safety concerns.

A 16-year-old operating equipment represents a much greater risk than a 16-year-old sitting in a desk. When CTE teachers are advised to acquire liability insurance beyond the coverage their employer provides, and when practicing a trade or skill is more often lucrative than teaching, it is difficult to recruit and retain qualified career and technical educators.

Cost containment is a reality of public education. The initial capital expenditures and the necessity for constant program improvement and updates constrains our commitment to career path programs. Instead our schools are pushed toward implementing a Wall Street model of short-term return on investment and bottom-line operational costs. Measuring the success of our schools on their ability to prepare students for a four year university degree--even though we know most of those students are probably not going complete college--supports those goals.

Simply put, conceptual learning that is measured by a content recall assessment is more cost efficient to deliver and less complicated to measure than the ability to apply knowledge and skills in the workplace. Preparation for college is the right choice for many, but to market it as the best choice for everyone because it is the only sure path to future employability and financial security borders on false advertising.

College prep program involve less financial outlay and lower physical risks than vocational education. But there is an unacknowledged accountability issue below the surface that we don’t talk about. Preparing student for college actually represents a lower risk to education policy decision makers in terms of outcome. Students in vocational programs that result in certification and/or licensure must sit for industry benchmarked examinations. These are objective measurements of knowledge of theory and also demonstration of skills, measured against criterion based competencies. To get that certification, the applicants must demonstrate that they know and are able to do something well enough for an employer to bet his reputation and money on the performance. Receiving or failing to receive a license is an absolute and concrete measurement of the efficacy and reliability of an education process.

College prep programs often encourage all students to enroll in Advanced Placement courses. But taking, much less earning a passing score, on The College Board AP assessment often remains an option, not an expectation. It is enough to have “challenged yourself” to experience the expectations of the next level of preparation. College prep focuses on potential and deals possibilities. Efficacy is tied to subjective future outcomes. As a result, job readiness accountability, which is the public’s fiscal return on investment in education, is passed on to the next level of education and, ultimately, to the student.

When you start telling a child at five “You can be anything you want to be,” the secret subtext is, “So if you don’t get to be rich, famous, and successful, it must all your own fault.”

”That left us no choice but to cut the vocational classes. Running a vocational program is expensive”….
I don’t fault this superintendent. She probably really didn’t have a choice. She was forced to do educational triage and she will be the one who will bear the brunt of the fallout. This is small community, and she is the one who will face the students and parents and potential employers who are going to be impacted by this decision. It is likely to be professionally and personally painful, but her job is to provide as much education as she can for as many children as possible using the resources she has.

Somebody had to be sacrificed it wsas the superintendent who had to make the call. It’s a dirty little business that policymakers have pushed off to educators on the front lines. And it’s morally bankrupt for them to stand safely to the rear and insist that they want “No Child Left Behind.” They’re playing a shell game with jobs and lives, and the future of our economy and democracy.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.