Let's Make Vocational Programs a Bigger Slice of School Choice Menu

You probably assume a prolific blogging prodigy like myself eventually will head to a prestigious 4-year university — maybe even with Doogie Howser-like potential. But what if when I turn 16 some day my heart is set on a career as a plumber or a chef? You wouldn’t deny me that, would you?

Writing for the America’s Future Foundation, Liam Julian of the Hoover Institution says we could take a big bite out of our high school dropout problem by engaging more students in vocational education programs — particularly those that integrate academics directly with students’ career aspirations, providing greater relevance to many teens (H/T Heritage Insider):

Imagine a 17-year-old who does not want to attend college (or at least not right away); who finds parsing Macbeth maddeningly immaterial; who yearns to learn a practical skill and put it to use; who feels his personal strengths are being ignored and wasted; who is annoyed by his school’s lackluster teachers, classroom chaos, and general atmosphere of indifference. Too often, such a pupil has no other options. He has no educational choice.

No surprise, then, that a recent Civic Enterprises survey found that 77 percent of high-school dropouts quit school because they were bored. Past surveys have reported similar findings. According to a 2006 Gates Foundation study, for example, 88 percent of dropouts had passing grades—i.e., they didn’t abandon school because they couldn’t do the work; they abandoned school because they thought the work was unchallenging and pointless….

Some may fear that such vocational programs would trap young people in a job they may later regret. Not necessarily so — if fewer students are dropping out, more working adults would have a grasp of important mathematical and literary concepts in a career context, and ultimately a greater capacity to promote themselves in the labor market. And we always need people to fill the skilled trades jobs, whether someone does it for a few years for the extent of their working life.

Similarly, some may fear that these programs could be used to track students away from college into manual labor strictly based on family socioeconomic status or race. We should always be vigilant of that danger, but the key is to empower students. For us education reformers, Julian sums it up well:

Students deserve more control over what they learn. It’s time for proponents of educational choice to broaden their advocacy beyond vouchers and charter schools.

While we certainly could use more good vocational programs in Colorado, you can find the ones that already exist on our terrific School Choice for Kids website.