The current push to offer more vocational training to high school students in the US has its origins among business leaders who see a decreasing talent pool for some of the most technically challenging jobs they can offer, but career and technical education, or CTE, is nothing new in America.
One thing we have to keep in mind, though, as we can train students how to build a car engine, shoot an x ray, or mix a sound track, is that schools and the communities in which these students live care about a whole lot more than specific job skills. Schools are in the business of developing “whole” students, of forming good citizens.
From the schools’ perspective, CTE is a way to ensure that every single student has opportunities after high school, good and fruitful chances to accomplish their own personal goals, whatever those may be. But completion of CTE programs also helps with college completion, mainly because some of the skills needed for hanging in there to build a car engine so it works are the same skills needed for taking a college degree all the way to the end and completing a course of study in, say, English literature or French poetry.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Joylene Wagner, past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations, says, “Despite my advocacy of CTE, I worry about the messages we send as we promote these programs. We talk a lot about what’s in it for students—good colleges or high-paying jobs ‘starting at $70,000 or $100,000’ a year—but are we saying enough about how students might learn to help improve the world they’ll live in?
“We’re teaching students how to make movies, but are they learning enough about life to create content worth sharing? Worrying about the balance between CTE and the liberal arts, and reflecting on the purposes of public education, I can’t help but think of the words of Glendale’s well-known resident and our children’s former youth leader, Don Galleher: ‘Pep without purpose is piffle.'”
That is, if all school is about for these kids is how much money they’ll make, the entire experience will be rather hollow. It will have very little meaning beyond a free training course for a job. And if that’s what makes them happy—if all they care about is getting a job and they don’t even want to know how to spend the money they earn wisely or to be good caretakers of children—that’s just fine. But I would bet they all want so much more out of life, and our communities (and laws) demand more than that from our schools.
The same is true for other, non-technical, subjects, such as US government. We can teach kids about the First Amendment, the Supreme Court cases that interpret our history and help us make decisions, and all that. But in the end, are we really teaching them what it means to be American? Are we giving them enough context to make their understanding of the rights given to all citizens mean something to guide their way in the 21st century?
Just as CTE has to be about more than how much money kids could potentially make if they find the right job after high school or college, other academic subjects need to be about more than the specific factoids they include. Anybody can learn how to shoot an x ray, in other words, but will students know enough about the career as a radiology tech to be happy in life? And more importantly, will they learn that what really matters for patients goes far beyond the broken bones they will film?