The Echo Chamber: On vocational school

Most of us at Tufts went to a “regular high school.” We read books we didn’t like, dabbled in sciences we couldn’t stand and sat through agonizingly painful language classes. We were told not to worry, that the boring stuff was all part of the process and that come college, we’d be able to study whatever our hearts desired. But rarely do we ask, does every kid truly need to read Shakespeare? Does everyone need to go to a traditional four-year high school? In the United States, the accepted path to a successful career — and life — is “high school to Harvard.” For most, vocational schools, or career schools, are completely out of the question.

Any viable method of education should satisfy two criteria: it should help create a base level of knowledge for the population and ultimately prepare that population to enter the workforce. No matter how much we may hate it, working is the ultimate goal.

Vocational schools attempt to make work a priority over a traditional liberal-arts education. They train students to be mechanics, health providers or electricians rather than college first-years. While vocational schooling has been around for hundreds of years, it has often come under fire due to the claim that they funnel disadvantaged and poorly-educated students into blue-collar jobs — keeping the freedoms and benefits of liberal arts education for the elite.

But in recent years, vocational schools have been rebranded and reformed as Career Technical Education (CTE). CTE courses and institutions offer hands-on career training mixed with a traditional high school education; they provide a middle ground between typical high school and full-on trade school. Throughout most of the United States, CTEs are already fairly ubiquitous; in 2009, 85 percent of public high school grads completed at least one CTE course during their four years. Some studies even suggest that CTEs can improve financial returns for post-graduate students, especially those in CTE-specific fields like construction and architecture. But in other parts of the world, vocational education is taken to another level.

In Germany, vocational training is the norm. At age 10, kids choose between enrolling in a vocational program, regular high school or a middle ground somewhere in between. Vocational students follow a “dual training” track, spending part of their time in apprenticeships doing hands-on work and the rest in the classroom. The apprenticeships are done in partnership with big corporations — setting up many students with jobs right out of high school. But Germany is in a very different place than the United States with 60 percent of German students receiving vocational training and 90 percent of them successfully completing their apprentice training — gifting Germany with one of the lowest youth unemployment ratings in the European Union. But, just because it works in Germany doesn’t mean it will work here.

Vocational schools are not the hot topic they once were, but important questions still remain. How important is the idea of a liberal arts education? Do vocational schools inadvertently segregate by class? And finally, is college really the ultimate answer in preparation for the workforce? All that is for you to decide, I just hope that you enjoyed some time outside The Echo Chamber.


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