Esther Cepeda: Some students are best destined for continuing education—on the job
CHICAGO -- It's the time of the year when you can't throw a rock without hitting a parent or a teenager bragging about college acceptance letters.
You're far less likely to hear about the plans of students who really have no desire to go to college and aren't sure what the world might have in store for them—especially considering the risk of poverty, shorter life spans and other ills that researchers tell them will happen to someone having less than a college degree.
The National Center for Education Statistics projects that at the end of the current academic year, about 3.3 million students will graduate from high school. In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, the center noted that the percentage of high school seniors enrolling in college in the fall immediately after graduation was 68.2 percent, with females enrolling at a higher rate (72.2 percent) than males (64.7 percent).
Failure to transition to postsecondary schooling is often seen as a financial issue. But it's fair to say that some portion of the high school graduates who decide against college simply don't want to face more time sitting in a classroom waiting for their “real”—often then debt-riddled—lives to begin.
This might seem small-minded to college-educated folks who can't stand the thought of any child not having the opportunity to earn a degree. But what's more inflexible, not to mention shortsighted, about our society's “college is the only answer” mentality is that there are too few workforce preparedness programs for what amounts to nearly a third of our high school graduates. And many of the programs that are available hardly make the grade.
The Lexington Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, has issued a report charging that many of the 17,000 high schools across the country that offer career and technical education (CTE) remain mired in outdated instructional models that fail primarily by underestimating the ability of the students they aim to serve.
“The outdated vo-tech [vocational-technical] model of career and technical education has a legacy of providing a sub-par instructional program for students who don't have the ability to achieve high academic success,” writes Kristen Nye Larson in “Updating Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century.” “Tech schools sometimes falsely assume that students don't need or can't handle a high level of rigor and use this as an excuse to provide lower-quality instruction.”
In addition to not offering training that is responsive to regional industry demands, Larson notes that many CTE programs—which are often outgrowths of traditional vocational education models that were established in the 1970s and '80s—haven't been modernized to develop proficient levels of English, reading, math and science with core instruction.
This doesn't square with the rapidly evolving computer-assisted or customer-centric marketplace for skilled workers.
As reported in countless business journals, and repeated in Larson's critique, “Many employers deem students that come out of high school career-ready are often not properly prepared for the workforce. Employers complain that young graduates often lack communication skills, professionalism, literacy and critical thinking skills. … A national survey of CEOs and postsecondary leaders said that 53 percent of business leaders were struggling with recruiting non-managerial employees.”
It's not all bleakness, however. Larson provides several examples of high-performing CTE programs that have a demonstrated track record in helping students complete their training, and possess what are considered to be the two most important job-candidate skills: the ability to work in a team structure and the ability to verbally communicate with people inside and outside the organization.
There are programs that do a good job of producing well-rounded students and others that partner with private employers or regional economic leaders to get students directly from training into work. We simply don't hear much about them because the majority of our education system is focused on college access.
But not everyone can afford college—or is cut out for it. Once we realize this, our country can start pumping out the workers our future economy needs instead of outsourcing skilled manufacturing jobs to places such as Germany or Poland, with their world-renowned apprentice programs. They've already figured out that there's plenty of value in a life devoted to working with both your hands and your mind.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.