Two weeks ago, one of my students ventured into my classroom during my planning period. He had missed several days of class in recent weeks and was quickly falling behind. He walked up to my desk and handed me a withdrawal form to sign. “Daniel” had decided to drop out of school. He had already started a 40-hour-a-week construction job, which explained his recent absences. He was just about to turn 17.
As he stood in front of me, my mind raced as I tried to come up with a menu of alternative options for him. But I drew a blank. I stalled by explaining that average income rises with each level of education that you attain. Daniel said that he would eventually obtain a GED, to which I cited James Heckman’s research that shows a GED is not really equivalent to a high school diploma in terms of social and economic benefits. But I wasn’t getting anywhere. Daniel had made up his mind. He wanted to start working now so that he could provide for his future family.
We have few options left in my school for students who plan to enter the workforce after graduation. There is a single section of ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) along with three wood shop classes. A handful of students take an automotive class off campus. There are some outstanding apprenticeship programs at our local community colleges, but students usually need to be 18 to take them and most require at least a GED.
We have sadly dismantled our nation’s vocational opportunities in the name of college readiness. In general, I steer my students toward college after high school. But some students who are passionate about a trade yearn for alternative paths. I have a feeling that Daniel would have thrived in a vocational program if one had been available when he needed it.
Our society is not alone in looking down on students who pursue career and technical education. But other countries have taken steps to counter this negative perception. Singapore made the decision to transform its vocational education program in the early 1990s. They created the Institute for Technical Education and carried out a national marketing campaign to help counter prejudice against the decision not to attend a four-year college. Today, while the bottom 25 percent of students in the United States drop out of high school, 90 percent of the bottom 25 percent in Singapore graduate from the ITE.
What will it take for us to see a system-wide revitalization of vocational opportunities for our students?
Noah Zeichner is a National Board-certified teacher at Chief Sealth International School in Seattle, Wash. He also spends part of his day supporting the Center for Teaching Quality’s global teacher-leadership initiatives.
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