Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.


Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update, dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant.  There sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor.

So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:


Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.

About educationrealist

18 responses to “Vocational Ed and the Elephant

  • David Pinsen

    Anecdotal evidence of how fast the shift in vocational ed happened in the New York area: when I was in high school in the ’80s, saying someone belonged in “Bergen Tech”, the county’s vocational school, was a putdown meaning they couldn’t handle regular high school (this was somewhat muddied by some regular high schools having some vocational classes — e.g., the first high school I went to had an auto-repair class).

    By the late ’90s, “Bergen Tech” had become Bergen Academies, a “magnet” school. I knew a teacher there once, and she said the school used the vocational aspects to essentially legitimize making it a charter school of sorts for public school parents. In a nutshell, the whole thing was reversed: it became an outlet for savvy parents to get their smart kids out of more ‘elephantine’ schools.

  • EB

    My guess is that in my husband’s huge family, the average IQ is less than 100, probably less than 95 or even 90. It includes lots of what some would call plodders (who are nonetheless mostly very fun to be around, and very trustworthy). And the older generation had no trouble staying employed, built stuff, raised good kids, etc. The younger generation is having a hard time because of the changing nature of employment. Case in point: a fellow who worked for a long time in a lumber mill, but who could never have switched to a job that involved managing a lot of information digitally. Career tech for these folks is not going to be the skilled trades; more like low-level health care occupations, retail support, etc.

  • Mark Roulo

    “So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.”

    Not entirely convinced? Of *course* Howard Fuller should doubt the intentions of elites! The elites are *not* on the side of the “little people.”

    But you still have to evaluate the proposals on their merits … if the elites suggest breathing, one doesn’t want to stop just because one doubts their intentions.

    But the capabilities and resources of the elites are different from those of the “little people.” Elites may well be able to afford a mortgage payment on a $1M house. “Little people” probably not. On its merits, borrowing money to purchase a house one cannot afford (though an elite person might be able to afford) is probably a bad idea … whether the elites are pushing it or are recommending against.

    The same is true for college. Borrowing $100K to get a degree in nothing special *might* make sense if one also has enough family connections to turn that degree into a nice white collar middle class job. If one *doesn’t* have those connections, then you might just wind up with $100K of non-dischargable debt and a job at Starbucks. Best to consider *your* chances before taking on that debt.

    But, the elites will not have the best interests of the “little people” in mind under any of these circumstances.

    • educationrealist

      You’re right, of course, but in years past I never would have though that the elite might benefit from steering the poor *wrong*, whether or not it was their way.

      • Vijay

        Not taken a course in class theory I see. The capitalist class had some interest in the poor if the poor had a role in the production process, but a combination of ability to manufacture elsewhere, and/or the ability to replace the poor with some other poor would mean that the goals of the elite need not be congruent to the welfare of the poor.

      • Mark Roulo

        “…in years past I never would have though that the elite might benefit from steering the poor *wrong*…”

        I found the leadup to the housing crash in 2008 very enlightening.

        Making loans to folks who won’t be able to make the payments (but who won’t fail until you’ve cashed your performance bonus check for making the loans …) seems pretty close to “steering the poor wrong.”

        I’m willing to believe that there were lots of cogs in the machine, each just looking out for themselves. And maybe some of the players actually believed that people pulling down $30K/year could make the mortgage payments on a $1M house (I’ve spoken to an MIT friend who knows people in finance … a lot of them actually believed their models!).

        But there had to be a lot of people who were supposed to be adults (I’m thinking both politicians and bankers here) that *HAD* to know that making loans that could not be repaid was not going to be good for the folks who were eventually going to default. HAD to know.

        I think we are seeing this play out again (smaller scale) with student loans. The damn things are not dischargable (usually) in bankruptcy! And kids are taking them out when they are 18. But the folks making the loans are insured against default, so they win as long as the loan is made.

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  • seguineandonly

    Two points:

    Sanitation jobs, in the northeast and Chicago anyway, are among the few available to people with a criminal record, many of whom have no HS credential and virtually all of whom are male, Black and Hispanic. Most of these guys are incapable of matriculating through any sort of higher ed or even trade school, but an org in NY I used to work for gives opportunities for those who can manage it to get a GED and/or some basic training in trade related skills, like driving a forklift. The org would secure contracts with sanitation and maintenance companies, government offices and universities to provide supervised work training services for ex-offenders. The training is mainly about showing up on time, behaving respectfully with supervisors and coworkers, etc. A fair amount of the funding came from government grants, but also from philanthropic foundations. The org also provided support services such as counseling and help with resume writing, and once a graduate of the program completed his crew training satisfactorily, he could count on a work reference.

    There is no reason this model could not be modified for kids with poor college prospects who could use an avenue toward work experience. Well, there is a reason: the case hasn’t, as far as I know, been made yet, and the people who could support such an effort (Edna McConnell Clark Fdn, Soros) are motivated by the wrong politics. They’ll support ex-offenders, but HS students? No: they must all attend college and if they don’t it’s a function of racism or poverty.

    Second point: college is on some level about conferring on degree recipients a baseline “middle-classness” credential. That was my hypothesis in 1991, anyway; I’ve since revised it to account for the increased cost of college, so now it’s more accurate to say that the credential that accompanies a BA well exceeds middle classness. In any case, a college education is meant to change sensibilities, not just impart knowledge and skills. Employers use the degree it to ensure that the people they hire for jobs that absolutely do not require one are of the right sort.

  • seguineandonly

    Just to clarify, it’s New York and Chicago and probably some other major cities too. (Not Dallas–to pick up garbage there you can’t have had a conviction in the last 7 years, unless it’s still 10.)

    The org I mentioned, Center for Employment Opportunities, has offices in NYC and upstate, and a few years ago expanded into CA, PA and OK. If you check out their website you’ll see what kinds of jobs they get for their clients. They’ve actually expanded the range of work significantly since I was there.

  • Korbin D.

    You’re certainly right about the elephant. Most people don’t even see it, to know they’re avoiding it.

    I tutor a couple of homeschooled kids of average IQ. The girl has moments of inspiration; the boy plods. He moved well into “zombie math” territory by Algebra I; now that they’re in Algebra II, he’s able to complete assignments slowly by following the methods by rote, even though he still doesn’t really “get” things like why 1/-1 is the same thing as -1. I try to come up with alternative ways to present ideas, practical demonstrations, and so on, but moments of clarity are rare. He just doesn’t have the horsepower for the abstract stuff.

    But if I suggest to their parents that they’ve reached a point where maybe they just can’t get the material, the automatic answer is: “They’re just going to have to work harder.” Hard work will overcome any academic struggle, enable them to reach any goal; so when I say they’re struggling, they hear that they’re lazy. So I try to dance up to the elephant, tossing out anecdotes, mentioning studies I’ve read about genetics, but nothing gets through. They firmly believe, as much as they believe the sun will come up in the east tomorrow, that kids can and will learn any subject if they just put their minds to it.

    Fortunately, these parents aren’t obsessed with college, so they’ll be fine with their kids learning a trade, and they’re smart enough for that. But what of the 80-IQ kid? How do you tell his parents that he’s not only not smart enough to go to college and be a doctor, but he’s also not smart enough to be a plumber, or to hold any job where his bottom line will depend on the ability to reason things out or do basic math reliably? Where do you even start with that conversation, in a society that insists such people don’t exist?

  • guy h white

    Hey Education Realist,

    Have you read the latest article about gentrification in Portland’s public schools? I’d be interested to hear your reaction.

    Here’s a link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/tomorrows_test/2016/06/portland_s_albina_district_gentrified_its_public_school_boise_eliot_humboldt.html

    And here’s the stand-out quote, from a black administrator:

    “Seven years from now, if you come back, this school is going to be more white, and the test scores are going to be better, and all of a sudden I’m going to be a magician.”

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