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Job Training Not A Job for Schools

By Wellford W. Wilms — February 18, 1987 6 min read
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In a prophetic 1971 magazine article, the well-known author and management consultant Peter Drucker predicted a job shortage later in that decade and outlined a strategy for improving economic productivity to expand employment. Ten years later, the first Reagan Administration capitalized on public interest in stepping-up productivity by promoting economic-growth policies.

Now, in the mid-1980’s, measures to boost productivity have become a central policy issue, and the public schools are being called upon to contribute.

Aside from questions that have to do with the strength of the work ethic, labor-force “quality” is defined largely as a population’s ability to read, write, and compute. In these terms, recent studies confirm that a large proportion of high school students and young adults are functional illiterates, and most of these reports go on to recommend that the schools go “back to the basics.”

But, in addition to basic education, the teaching of specific job skills is also a key component of labor-force quality. While the lion’s share of such training is done by employers themselves, a substantial amount of job training is done in the public schools with public tax revenues. For example, about $4 billion will be spent in 1987 for vocational education in high schools, adult schools, and community colleges. Another $3.6 billion will be spent on training through the Job Training Partnership Act--much of which will be provided by the public schools.

Is this a wise investment? Probably not. The demand for entry-level training, unlike the demand for education, is determined by changing market forces. And the market for job skills is changing quickly and unpredictably. For instance, new technologies--the leading edge of improved productivity--will affect entry-level job skills. But no one knows precisely how. At the same time, the supply of jobs and the demand for labor will also continue to fluctuate rapidly and unpredictably. Labor-force participation of women and minorities will increase, while low-paid service-sector jobs are predicted to increase most rapidly, adding to labor-market uncertainties.

Finally, there is a growing realization of the futility of trying to link the supply of entry-level workers to employers’ changing demands because of the speed and uncertainty of change.

Vocational education does not belong in our public schools, not least because schools are organized to resist change. Removed from markets to ensure their stability and to enable them to weather periods of economic or political change, schools are insulated from market signals that carry vital information about employers’ demands.

But even if schools were designed to be responsive to market forces, their internal organization precludes rapid responses to change. Vocational teachers in high schools and community colleges get tenure, and are protected by union agreements: Rarely are they fired for incompetence or lack of up-to-date vocational knowledge. And although federal law requires placement rates of vocational programs to be documented, evaluations are reportedly done to comply with the law rather than to guide program adjustments to labor-market demands, and placement data are comparatively rare.

In addition, programs in public vocational schools are determined more by history than sensitivity to labor-market conditions. Once established, vocational programs in both high schools and community colleges tend to perpetuate themselves, and are slow to adjust to new circumstances.

Moreover, vesting public schools with the dual functions of “training” students for entry-level jobs as well as “educating” them has a pernicious social dimension. Frequently, narrow skill training is substituted for education with students who do not fit the academic program. In other words, students drawn disproportionately from low-income, minority backgrounds are taught how to “do” specific tasks associated with limited vocations in place of being taught how to read, write, compute, and think.

Why do policymakers continue to promote such narrow skill training as part of public education? The reason lies partly in the fact that for the last half-century and more, the United States has failed to distinguish between education and training, primarily because we have failed to resolve an underlying philosophical question: Can all children be educated for productive social roles?

Originally, vocational education was conceived as an education through which all students would learn abstract concepts from practical experiences. Progressives, like John Dewey and Jane Addams, saw vocational education as a process that develops the general abilities of all children. The opposing view held that only some children are capable of benefiting from a comprehensive public education: Those who cannot succeed in the academic program should be spared the stigma of failure and should be 1rcrined instead for specific jobs. This would fulfill the public’s obligation to all its citizens, while sparing it the cost of trying to give a general education to everyone.

With its deep-rooted appeal to a nation that believed in the inherent morality of hard work and in the possibility of pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps, the latter view predominated and was instrumental in establishing vocational training as an integral part of public education. As vocational education became an increasingly important tool of social policy, the distinction between training and education was rarely drawn. Thus, the seemingly unresolvable conflict between the two views has remained submerged beneath the surface of public debate.

Job training has also become confused with public education because of the political economy built up around it. For instance, as federal appropriations for vocational education have increased from $10 million in 1917 to more than $800 million in 1987, the political and economic interests that benefit from the financial pipeline channeling these funds from Washington to the states have grown more powerful and more deeply entrenched.

However, in the interest of improving the entire nation’s economic prospects, it is now time to redraw the distinction between education and training. New policies that inject competition into the provision of job training could provide the classic antidote to the present educational monopoly, while at the same time improving its quality and. reducing its cost

California’s Employment Training Panel represents one such model. The panel, funded by unemployment-insurance revenues, does the planning and financing. Training agencies, which include employers and proprietary vocational schools, are paid only after trainees have been placed in jobs and remain on the job for at least 90 days.

The preliminary indications are that the California panel’s “performance contracting” approach pays off in providing employers and trainees with diversity and flexibility, while at the same time achieving higher placement rates at lower costs. I think it is also feasible for training to be provided on a voucher basis, a system whereby trainees could choose between competing providers.

Some of my colleagues argue that, while public schools have practiced the old adage of “educate the best and train the rest,” some vocational programs still do a first-rate job of teaching abstract topics through practical experiences. And they say that my advancing ideas like these will provide the Reagan Administration with even more reason to gut vocational education.

On the other hand, the ideas originally behind vocational education still have great appeal--breaking schooling out of stultifying classrooms and letting students learn from experiences gained in the larger society . Insisting that all students share a common curriculum that is rooted in experience has particular appeal today, when “going back to the basics” means more of the traditional academic model that has failed so many students, while advancing the interests of only an elite few. Instead of defending and shoring up vocational education, educators should look back to its roots for a new educational vision

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 1987 edition of Education Week

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