A few years ago, my team and I were doing research in a high school in a Midwestern community. We found ourselves in the classroom of a long-serving high school vocational education teacher, standing around a workbench in his woodshop. He was despondent. Years ago, he said, when he was much younger, he had taken great pride in his work. Young people came to him in the secure knowledge that, if they worked hard in his classes, they would leave high school ready for a good job in the construction trades, a job that would pay well, enable them to live well, raise a family and keep their head up high among their friends and neighbors.
He told us his story. About 20 years earlier, the school administration had given up its program to prepare young people for the trades; it had turned into career education, a welcome break for many of the academic students from their studies, but not serious preparation for anything. Then came the career academies, which, like the career education program, did not result in students getting any certificate that said they were prepared to take up a trade, but were there to provide an environment that might keep kids in school who would otherwise drop out. Then came the standards movement, he said. It was all about rigorous academic work. The number of academic courses in the school calendar was radically increased and many of those devoted to vocational education were squeezed out. The budget for vocational education dropped like a stone. None of the shop programs could afford modern equipment, the kind that would enable them to prepare any of their students for real jobs. Then came the accountability movement. Now, he said, he gets the students the academic teachers don’t want to deal with or don’t want to be held accountable for. His shop had become a dumping ground. Most of his students, all of them in high school, he said, did not know how to measure the length of a 2x4 piece of lumber, nor could they divide it into pieces of equal length. He had, he said, become a baby sitter and a teacher of very simple arithmetic. When he told us this, he was in tears.
This week, NCEE published Gold Standard: The Swiss Vocational Education and Training System, by Nancy Hoffman and Robert Schwartz, the third report in our International Comparative Study of Vocational Education and Training Systems. The first in the series, The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore, which I wrote, came out last year. The second, Made in China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational and Technical Education System by Vivien Stewart, was published just two weeks ago. The report on China portrays a system in transition, in a country that knows that, in no small measure, its future rests on radically upgrading the quality of its vocational education and training system. The reports on Singapore and Switzerland present vivid portraits of countries that have succeeded in building two of the finest vocational education and training systems in the world.
What one finds in Singapore and Switzerland are well-designed systems of vocational education and training, systems that provide a very high level of program quality for virtually all the students enrolled in them, in contrast to the islands of excellence in the United States. They do not have to teach elementary arithmetic or reading in their high school vocational schools because the students entering their programs are among the most accomplished in the world for students of their age in reading, writing, mathematics and science. Their programs are a very carefully designed blend of academics and practical work. Their vocational teachers are regularly cycled through work stints with state-of-the-art employers, so they can teach state-of-the-art practice. The technology the students use is up-to-the-minute current. They work to standards set by employers who themselves set the world standards in their fields. They get credentials recognized by these employers and the employers participate in examining the students, so they can be confident that the graduates can meet their demanding standards. Students get plenty of counseling. They get a broad and deep education, not just narrow training, so they can readily adapt to the inevitable swift changes in technology and work organization. Their system is designed so that there are no dead ends in it. If they want to, and do well enough in their courses, they can go all the way to the boardroom. Unemployment rates among recent high school graduates in Singapore and Switzerland are a tiny fraction of what they are in the United States. Inequality of incomes among workers is much lower, because adults doing technical work not requiring a four-year degree are far better prepared to do the high-pay work required in advanced industrial economies.
When I think of what this country has done to a vocational education and training system we could at one time be proud of, I too want to cry. The price we have paid in terms of unemployed and lost youth, wasted lives, feelings of anger and hopelessness, lost industrial productivity, a weakened economy and income inequality are incalculable. And it will get worse. Automation is rapidly destroying low-skill jobs and jobs involving routine work at ever-increasing rates. The proportion of working-age adults in the workforce is steadily declining, the result of workers who have given up looking for work because they do not have the skills that employers are looking for. It is now the case that the skills of many of our workers are so low that it is easy to find a robot that will do the work for less money. The cost to the individuals involved is often devastating. The cost to the rest of us is steadily rising.
Gold Standard casts a very different picture. It makes it clear that the situation we face here in the United States is not the result of inexorable forces. It shows us the sort of system we can have if we choose to have it. The report is written by a husband and wife team that is deeply versed in this arena and, not least important, writes very well. Bob Schwartz played the key role in building a youth development system for young adults in Boston many years ago that has since become iconic. His view expanded to the state level when he worked on these issues as an aide to Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts and at the national level when he worked on youth policy in the White House for the Carter administration. Nancy Hoffman’s comparative study on vocational education systems became something of an instant classic in its field. Both husband and wife have many years of experience working with the OECD on these issues. I commend this report to your attention. Read it and get a picture of what we could offer to our young people if we just put our mind to it.
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