“How did we ever lose our way on vocational education? Why did we put it down? Why did we not understand its value?” – Ohio Governor John Kasich, State of the State, February 24, 2014.

As Ohio’s governor rightly remarks, vocational education and the students who participate in it have been second-class citizens for too long. I know that from my own experience attending a Western Pennsylvania high school during the late 1990s, where—permit me to be blunt—our school’s “vo-tech kids” were generally put down, disparaged, and ostracized by other students.

Don’t just take my word for it, however. Surveys call attention to the negative perception of vocational education (a.k.a., “career-and-technical education” or CTE). A study in 2000 found that the “underlying theme” voiced by those in vocational education was the need to “change the perception that CTE offers an inferior curriculum, appropriate only for those students who cannot meet the demands of a college-preparatory program.” Similarly, research for the Nebraska Department of Education in 2010 concluded, “Substantial proportions of Nebraskans believe that CTE students are not respected as students who take more traditional academic courses.”

Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy casts some historical light on the demise of vocational education, particularly as it pertains to urban school systems:

Prior to that decade [the 1970s], most medium and large cities had vocational high schools for the trades, many of which were highly regarded selective institutions. . . . But, in the 1970s and 80s, school boards all over the United States abolished these selective vocational schools as undemocratic, and asked all of their high schools to offer vocational training. 

Resurrecting vocational education in a way that insures high-quality, rigorous training will be no easy task. First, it will take valiant efforts to reclaim a positive image for vocational education. Second, it will take serious thinking about how to properly implement vocational-education initiatives that balance academic rigor and specialized-skill development. Let’s be honest: in a constrained world, the two objectives—academic rigor and practical skill—stand in tension, and when we desire both at once, the specter of watered-down quality emerges.

That being said, significantly improving vocational education is a noble undertaking, and here are two starting points. One omission for now: I set aside the state’s joint-vocational school districts, as they deserve a more extensive look.

Special-purpose high schools

One of the most exciting developments in Ohio education is the growth of specialty high schools. Cleveland’s school district is home to three “exam schools”—high-powered, academically oriented schools with selective admissions. The state also has a growing network of schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The state is also home to several “early-college academies,” which allow academically motivated students to take college-credit-bearing courses through a partner university while still in high school.

High schools that integrate “real-world” work experience also appear to be growing. Marysville School District, one of the state’s Straight-A Fund grantees, is developing a special high school in partnership with Honda Motors that would be the state’s first early-college school with a focus on manufacturing. In our recent report Pluck and Tenacity, we profiled the Cleveland’s Saint Martin de Porres High School, part of the Christo Rey network which is expanding this year to Columbus and Cincinnati. Its job-placement program allows their students to be on-the-job at least once a week.

The days of the bland “comprehensive” or “zoned” high school are numbered. These high schools, which try to be all things to all kids, have left too many kids behind. (Consider the fact that some 24,000 teenagers drop out each year in Ohio.) For the kids who are intellectually willing and able, they should have a high-powered academic experience that stretches them to the max. For teenagers whose interests are not primarily bookish, they need a school that maximizes their odds for success when they enter the labor market (while also providing the three “R’s”).


An aggressive approach Ohio’s policymakers could take is to implement some form of apprenticeship for kids who want it. Apprenticeships, half formal education and half specialized training at a worksite, are rare for U.S. high-school students. (A special-purpose high school or a career-tech center may not be an apprenticeship per se—since, by definition, it happens at an employer’s worksite and not at a school.)

In a few industrialized nations, Germany and Switzerland being the most prominent, apprenticeships are fairly commonplace, with something like half of their teenagers participating. Ohio policymakers could explore the possibility of establishing a “dual system” model. Among the many questions policymakers would have to consider include the following:

  • How would policy motivate employers to participate?
  • How would per-pupil funding work? Would the employer get some, if any, of the funding?
  • What are the tradeoffs of apprenticeships for employers (e.g., increased regulations and safety requirements as costs, increased productivity and a stronger pool of applicants as benefits)?
  • How would policy deter employers from using apprentices as “cheap labor” in lieu of full-time employees?
  • How would policy determine “quality” training, and what happens when quality is lacking?

There are surely more logistical questions to untangle, and there aren’t many “best apprenticeship practices” in America. Despite the uncertainty, a smartly implemented apprenticeship initiative for high-school students has the potential to produce large, long-term rewards.[1]

Time for a comeback

Vocational education has been kicked to the wayside, and some would argue that’s the right place for it. Writes Paul Waller, a high-school principal in the wealthy, suburban Oakwood City Schools near Dayton,

Career education is no longer valuable to the learners of today and tomorrow. At one time industry, and having a career in manufacturing, was viable in the United States. This is no longer the case in our global society so that vocational education and apprenticeship programs are no longer valuable.

Granted, the jobs of the smoke-filled factory floor are gone, and kids need stronger academic skills than ever before. (Hello, Common Core!)

But at the same time, Ohio will continue to “make things,” which necessitates skilled craftsmen. In fact, newspaper reports suggest that the Buckeye State has a fairly large “skills gap”—that is, more job openings than there are qualified applicants. State policymakers are right to raise the stature of vocational education, and Governor Kasich’s bully pulpit got the ball rolling. Reversing years of neglect and disrepute will be a heavy lift, something that perhaps only a Guvernator can accomplish. Is this a comeback for vocational education? For the sake of many of Ohio’s teenagers, I hope so.

[1] Ohio has something of a state-run apprenticeship program but only for high-school graduates. http://jfs.ohio.gov/apprenticeship/Apprenticeship-Opportunities.stm


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