The U.S. economy resembles an hourglass with a pinched middle, writes Marc Tucker. Singapore has a diamond economy, thanks to its educated workforce.
(Singapore) built a very high floor under the entire workforce by providing a world-class academic curriculum to all their students and creating a world-class teaching force to teach that curriculum. They built a system of polytechnics as good as any in the world to provide very highly skilled senior technical workers for a wide range of industries. Perhaps most impressive, they created a set of post-secondary vocational schools for the bottom quarter of their students as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with facilities that rival those of many American universities. They turned vocational education and training from a dumping ground into a sought-after alternative that attracts more and more students every year.
Ninety percent of Singapore’s vocational graduates have job offers in their chosen fields within six months of graduation, Tucker writes. Youth unemployment is very low.
The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.
Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.
That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.
I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community. With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades. Now, he told me, “That’s all over. Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with. I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.” He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board. He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.
Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.
By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”
They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills. And they designed programs that could deliver those skills. They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them. They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment. Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians. No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life. But those students have a range of attractive choices.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.