Nicholas Wyman, CEO of Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation*, wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools”. Tradition in the last century was ability tracking. Vocational training was for the non-college bound. Of course, this carried with it perceptions about whether their parents could support their attendance at college. Aptitude had little to do with the tracking system. Wyman said, “By the 1950s, what was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream educational path came to be viewed as a remedial track that restricted minority and working-class students.” Wyman argues that instead of bringing vocational education back, college preparation for all became the hue and cry of education. Our thoughts differ. First, many more careers now require some college education and secondly, we have seen a better way of meeting the needs he has identified. Lastly, the development of the community college system is making college more attainable for many.
A New Design for Learning
We argue that districts that have identified what the 21st century student needs in order to graduate college and career ready have begun to invent a new way to ‘bring back vocational training’. The 21st century answer to preparing students for both college and career is STEM. Schools that have opened their minds to the possibilities of project and problem based learning, to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary subjects, to business and higher education partnerships, embrace both academics and vocational training as valued endeavors. As a matter of fact, schools that have made the shift to this 21st century model have continued to successfully marry the academic experience with the vocational experience.
From California to New York, schools have found that integrating learning with real world problems and professionals from the field not only provides opportunities for authentic learning, but also brings meaning to learning and as a result engages students in new ways. Problem solving requires both academic and real world skills, allowing for all to contribute.
Look for Models
Vocational programs, such as those offered by Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in New York and other states, include traditional career options such as auto mechanics, HVAC, culinary arts, and cosmetology but they have kept pace with 21st century careers including problem solving skills and technology courses. Applied academics support the high school program in many of these centers. Especially outside of urban areas where density allows for specialized high school programs, these opportunities for students are essential. But, individual school districts are also breaking new ground. We continue to highlight the East Syracuse Minoa Central School District as an example of how to become a 21st century student responsive district and encourage anyone to take a team there for what they term a ‘learning walk’.
Change Takes Time and Courage
This change in the way teaching and learning takes place is not an overnight endeavor. It takes time to develop a vision held by a broad set of stakeholders. It takes time to support teachers and fellow leaders to take the risks necessary to change the way teaching and learning takes place. It takes time to nurture the business partnerships that have to exist in order for this to happen. Trusting relationships have to be built among and across students, faculty and staff, parents, community members, and business and higher education partners. Leaders have to remain focused on the change and provide the endless energy and excitement that fuels those being asked to abandon the familiar and pursue new views and practice. The result is all students are exposed to and develop skills that are essential whether college or career is the destination right after high school.
The answer is not to “bring back” vocational training. The answer is to redefine vocational training and integrate it into all the learning required for students to graduate from high schools. Is our work about graduates becoming college and career ready? If so, we cannot lead systems that hold a mindset of college or career. We should not move backwards.
* The Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation is a global enterprise, committed to skills and workforce development in today and tomorrow’s workplace.
Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.
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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.