In late May, I travelled with nine other Harvard undergrads, journalist Salena Zito, and Yo-Yo Ma’s personal driver, who contracts with Harvard, on the University’s Institute of Politics “Main Streets and Back Roads” trip. We drove from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Youngstown, Ohio, over five days. One stop, though—the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center (MCCTC) in Canfield, Ohio—left me uneasy.
Before going, I thought of the decision between a traditional liberal arts education and a career-oriented school as purely postsecondary: an English degree from Swarthmore or a Petroleum Engineering degree from Texas A&M. I was wrong. High school career-oriented education is making a comeback in Mahoning County and beyond, marketed as more practical and lucrative than general academic high schools’ broad-based curriculum. In place of Beowulf, “Paradise Lost,” and the storming of the Bastille, students are trained in CPR and exhaust-system repair.
At MCCTC, two administrators ushered us down a wide, airy hallway, past traditional classrooms and into other cavernous rooms where students receive career training. One, for students in the Advanced Manufacturing program, was filled with hulking, slick machines. In another room, home to the Aviation Maintenance program, we craned our necks to look at two helicopters. The robotics lab welcomes entrants with a banner commemorating those who helped establish the program. It displays three logos: the school’s, a robotics certification center’s, and General Motors’, which has a factory in nearby Lordstown. Beneath the logos is the emblazoned phrase “Partners in Education for the Future.”
The shift to vocational high school is heralded as a pragmatic solution—to joblessness after high school, to low graduation rates, and to our ailing public schools—by, well, almost everyone. This is a mistake. Or at the very least, it’s a policy shift that demands more examination. With career education, corporations come out on top, not students. Schools cement existing economic and racial stratification, rather than pushing against them. Programs consign students to limited, often low-paying careers for life.
MCCTC’s motto, adorning banners throughout the school, is simple: “Become More.” But what, exactly, are career high schools teaching students to become?
Part 1: The History of Schooling’s Purpose
The purpose of schooling sparked a lively debate about a century ago, laying the groundwork for modern-day secondary education.
In the late nineteenth century, large-scale factory-based manufacturing displaced the traditional model of domestic apprenticeships, and policymakers were pressed to find a new way to train young workers. Industrialization and a rapidly changing economy also fostered concern about Europe—especially Germany—challenging American trade power.
Meanwhile, tension within the country ran high. The massive influx of immigrants around the turn of the century stirred concern about American identity and gave force to the movement toward tax-funded and universal “common schools” to replace the mostly church-owned private schools that were attended only by the privileged. Schooling was considered a tool for the assimilation and Americanization of new immigrants, and states began requiring that children attend. (The first state to pass a compulsory school attendance law was Massachusetts in 1852; the last was Mississippi, in 1918.) During the early nineteenth century, the national conversation started shifting toward what the proper role of education and ideal curriculum should be in a dramatically changing—urbanizing, industrializing, diversifying—society.
At the forefront of the debate over the purpose of education were Education Commissioner of Massachusetts David Snedden and philosopher John Dewey. Snedden argued for education in service of “social efficiency”; Dewey for education in service of democracy.
Vocational education was the backbone of Snedden’s social efficiency. In a speech to the National Education Association in 1914, Snedden embraced vocational education as the purposeful, scientific, and efficient alternative to a traditional liberal arts curriculum, one that would prepare the “rank and file” of society to become “producers.”
Dewey, already an established education reformer who was then penning his 1916 Democracy and Education, felt the need to contribute to the debate against Snedden in 1915 by launching a back-and-forth in The New Republic. Dewey was concerned that vocational education would enrich manufacturers, by “shifting the burden of [workers’] preparation to the public tax-levy.” He also worried that vocational education would be plagued with the same problems as apprenticeships, namely that technological change could render years of training useless as employers and factories could easily shift from “one mode of machine work to another.”
Dewey later referred to industrial education as perpetuating the “dogma of social predestination” by insulating the well-to-do from so much as brushing shoulders with those on the vocational track. This, he said, presents a threat to democracy and economic mobility.
Snedden had his own concerns about vocational education—in this case that it wouldn’t go far enough in generating social efficiency. He worried that American employers would be too individualistic, and the American government too hands-off, to coordinate successful private engagement in the public sphere. Snedden’s solution was to create an educational environment replicating a “shop” (in “length of day, shop surroundings, the disposal of product, the training of teachers, and the maintenance of discipline”) rather than halfheartedly trying to mix traditional school with a shop.
To Dewey, Snedden’s approach championed business needs over the intellectual development of students. Dewey got the last word in edgewise in the TNR debate, and, thanks to later scholarly consensus, prevailed over Snedden. As David F. Labaree, Stanford professor of education, put it, “to the contemporary eye . . . this does not look like much of a debate.”
Part 2: Legislation
Nonetheless, in 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act became law, appropriating federal money explicitly for vocational education in “agriculture, the trades and industries, and home economics.” The Act was sponsored by Senator Hoke Smith and Representative D.M. Hughes, both of Georgia. Passed before all states had even implemented compulsory school laws, Smith-Hughes was one of the first pieces of legislation to establish federal influence over public-school curricula—and it did so by directing education to mimic work. The Act required states and localities to match each federal dollar provided. This framework of state-federal cooperation that persists today and has encouraged high levels of local spending on vocational education.
The Smith-Hughes Act and its reverberations (it was the first of three significant vocational education laws) also provided the true last word in the Dewey-Snedden match. It was actually Dewey who lost.
The Smith-Hughes Act governed vocational education for over four decades, though its prominence ebbed and flowed with the various concerns of the time. High school job-training funded by the Act dwindled when employment opportunities were scarce. During the Great Depression, for instance, businesses with low demand for labor were wary of providing training. World War II, on the other hand, reinvigorated vocational education because of the high demand for industrial production.
Vocational education weakened in the late 1950s, as a new version of the international competition argument took hold. This time, it wasn’t German manufacturing, but Soviet satellites; and the response, therefore, was to train more thinkers instead of workers. The 1957 launch of Sputnik reversed the upward-trend of vocational education brought on by World War II. Schools turned their focus to high-level math and science, while the rate of college matriculation grew, lowering demand for vocational training in high schools. The vocational training that did survive was highly targeted toward science and math.
The Smith-Hughes Act therefore gave way to the Vocational Education Act of 1963, which tried to revitalize career training by funding a wider array of programs under a broader definition of vocational education. The new law led to vocational programs tied to specific careers rather than general vocational skills, a model that endures today.
As a result of the 1963 law, more career-based academies and specialized programs emerged throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The 1970s also saw greater tracking of students into different courses based on ability, which often funneled the less academically apt into the vocational track. As education professors W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson note in a 2005 American Journal of Education article, tracking was a development made possible only by the initial sorting—and abandonment of the common school model—that Smith-Hughes initiated.
Another wave of concern over the country’s academic standing hit nearly 20 years later, in the early 1980s, typified by the incendiary 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” The famous report warned of the United States’s failing public schools, and vocational education dipped again, this time for decades.
The final act relevant to vocational education today, the 1984 Carl D. Perkins Act, had little effect on enrollment at first. Yet between 1990 and 2009, the number of CTE credits earned at the high-school level dropped 14 percent, according to a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics study. The decline can be attributed to less funding, college-for-all mentality, and more course requirements for high-school graduation, as noted by a 2017 Brookings Institution report.
The Perkins Act is in its fourth authorization as of 2006. (The 2006 reauthorization was also when lawmakers officially replaced the term “vocational education” with “Career and Technical Education”—an attempt to distance this kind of learning from the lower track vocational education of the twentieth century that had gotten a bad rap.)
Part 3: The Present
The past decade has seen a massive resurgence in the popularity of career-technical education—a trend that has been at best overlooked and, at worst, embraced by progressives.
In 2017, 49 states and D.C. (everywhere but Nebraska) established 241 new policies relating to CTE, many of which allocated new funding.
Mahoning County Career and Technical Center has felt that upswing in support. The administrators who gave us a tour said that MCCTC—open since 1972—is receiving applications beyond its capacity. Students go on to college, trade school, and many straight into the workforce (the data on how many fall into each category isn’t public) prepared by the school’s 22 career programs, which range from Construction & Remodeling to Early Childhood Education.
This resurgence spells trouble for public schools. Dewey’s fears resonate, a century later: Industry grip on public schools has been tightening. For instance, businesses paid up to $5,000 each to advertise at this year’s Ohio Association for Career and Technical Education annual conference, using the money to service informational booths and give speeches to CTE teachers. In doing so, businesses might encourage instructors to direct more students to their work, or even to teach a curriculum more conducive to industries’ desired worker skillsets.
Industries are gaining a foothold with schools in larger cities, too. In 2010, to counter low graduation rates, the Nashville Metropolitan Public Schools decided to convert all of its 12 public high schools into career academies, leaving only the two magnet schools unscathed. The implementation plan was underwritten in part by the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies—Ford Motors, not Foundation—whose goal is to create “an emerging workforce prepared to compete successfully in the 21st century economy.”
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce took on the task of linking local businesses to the career academies. At its 2017 gala, sponsors included Deloitte, Nissan, and Saint Thomas Health, while the founding sponsor of the gala was the tobacco giant Altria (formerly Philip Morris). Not quite a logo you’d want or expect displayed at events associated with schoolchildren.
Non-CTE high school options in Nashville have dwindled since 2010—especially for the poor. Admission to either magnet requires winning a competitive lottery, and students must meet grade and state test score requirements to enter. (It’s no surprise that the test scores at the lottery-admission magnets are much higher than at the career schools.) Private schools in Nashville can cost upwards of $20,000 per year.
President Obama visited one of Nashville’s academies in 2014. In a speech to students, Obama complimented the “Local businesses . . . doing their part by giving students opportunities to connect the lessons you learn in the classroom with jobs that are actually out there to be filled.” He conveniently condensed the title of the “Tennessee Credit Union Academy of Business and Finance,” omitting their sponsorship role and referring to it only as the “Academy of Business and Finance.” In another speech that year, Obama quipped that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” The Administration followed through on Obama’s praise, implementing several new vocational programs, as well as in budget drafts proposing a 50 percent increase in funding for career academies.
Obama isn’t an anomaly within the Democratic Party or the broader policy arena: Think tanks have reached rare bipartisan consensus on the benefits of CTE. New America’s Center on Education produces frequent policy papers promoting youth apprenticeships. The Center for American Progress has published proposals for expanding CTE, including ideas to “attract new private partners.” Others who’ve shown their support for such policies include the centrist Third Way, the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the libertarian Cato Institute.
Businesses have a stake in maintaining this support. Companies don’t just spend exorbitant sums at CTE conferences to gain more job applicants. They also want employees on whom they need to spend no money training—unloading what would be standard company cost onto the government, just as Dewey predicted. This practice siphons off public funds to the private sector rather than directly helping public schools and their students.
In addition to the corporate allegiance that CTE unabashedly promotes, there are three other arguments against expanding CTE that require further attention. First, there is the schools’ de-facto track based on family income. Second, spending two years training can lock students into certain jobs. Third, CTE risks depriving students of the academic instruction that produces later-life mobility.
The Haves and Have-Nots of CTE
Secondary career schooling reinforces inequality, overtly segregating the haves from the have-nots. In her seminal 1985 book Keeping Track, Jeannie Oakes writes that vocational education has clustered poor and minority students into job training, while keeping the traditional academic curriculum reserved for middle- and upper-class students.
Oakes’s observations remain apt. In Massachusetts over the last decade, the students in CTE schools have been 50 percent more likely to qualify for free or reduced lunches than those children not enrolled in such schools. National studies confirm the overrepresentation of low-income and students of color in CTE schools. Far from what education reformer Horace Mann called the “great equalizer,” public schools are overtly two-tiered. Equality within those tiers—the poor being able to train for standard jobs within their socioeconomic strata, and the well-off being taught to lead and think “deeply”—is a warped notion of meritocracy.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why it got this way. Research on the overrepresentation of minorities and the poor has been “notably absent” for “at least the past decade” according to a 2016 review of peer-reviewed literature on CTE. Politicians and academics alike have turned a blind eye to the issue.
One reason, identified by Oakes three decades ago, is the use of standardized test scores to determine the type of school a child will attend. These tests often segregate students under the same guise of scientific precision that has characterized IQ tests since their inception. One IQ test pioneer noted in 1916—extrapolating from IQ data about immigrants—that “Children of this group should be segregated in special classes . . . They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers.” In fact, the score gap between rich and poor students is “30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier,” Sean Reardon found in 2011. Reardon attributes part of this change to the wealthy enriching their children more and more through early life—an inequity that deserves greater attention, but that is clearly not remedied by hurting already underprivileged students in sorely unequal schools.
Why liberals who despise school choice and charter schools should love CTE is a mystery. In the same way that the “choice” in “school choice is an illusion”—poor families won’t be able to supplement a voucher with additional tuition money to get their children into the best schools—the choice between a liberal arts education and a career-technical school isn’t much of a choice either. Yes, some students may be genuinely disinclined toward academics and prefer apprenticeship-style learning. But as presented now, the decision at age 16 to train for certain kinds of work is too highly correlated to socioeconomic status to be a truly unencumbered decision.
In college, poor students are likelier to lean toward the practical, choosing majors like law enforcement and firefighting, which don’t even exist at elite schools. Meanwhile, the children of the well-off can study English to their heart’s content (according to sociologist Kim Weeden’s research). The same rationale applies to the choice to enter career training in high school. Proponents profess that some students do not care about academics, that firefighting majors do not care about English. The truth is that they simply cannot afford to.
A Prison of Bad Choices
A second problem with career-technical education is the foreclosure of future options for students who choose to enroll. Sixteen-year-olds are far from fully matured, and risk locking themselves in to an undesirable career for life. And it’s not as though the United States offers free universities where trained welders and caretakers alike can reverse direction after two years of training in high school.
An American RadioWorks segment featured an interview with an adult trained in high school as a welder who, in midlife, decided to become a teacher and struggled tremendously with the shift. He had difficulty learning even the most basic math in college. Students at 16 cannot (and should not) be expected to choose their life’s work.
In a country that prides itself on its meritocratic principles and where the rich feel they have earned their wealth, what is a child in a career academy supposed to do to become the next great novelist, historian, or President? Worse, CTE is insular: A student training to be an electrician may never interact with a student interested in poetry, in effect quarantining one segment of society from the other—a pattern that bodes poorly for democratic governance and mutual understanding.
The Relevance of the Irrelevant
Finally, I am concerned with what CTE replaces in a standard high-school curriculum. CTE supporters shrug off such concerns by describing the programs as including all necessary subjects, given that the state-level policies still require that students gain credits in the basic academic fields.
However, there is a necessary time tradeoff when a portion of high school becomes entirely dedicated to career training. What students miss might be, for one, more liberal arts. Tim Francisco, an English professor and director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, argues that the liberal arts have a unique value to working-class students. They teach “critical thinking and effective communication” and allow students to “connect disparate worlds,” he explains. Professor Francisco, who primarily teaches literary studies courses on Shakespeare to working-class students, says that he values students examining sixteenth and seventeenth century history “not necessarily…in the cliched sense that history repeats itself” but because “there’s value in diving into an unfamiliar subject because it’s teaching you how to learn.” In other words, it might not matter if you forget the details of Beowulf. What matters is dissecting a work so different from one’s own life and experiences.
To be fair, we need to consider the content of the high-school curriculum—for instance, at CTE schools—to remedy the overrepresentation of women and minorities in lower grossing fields associated with care-work. But first, we need to debate the broader importance of exposing all students at public institutions, class status aside, to the same knowledge.
In 1995, writer Earl Shorris founded the Clemente Course, which, in a longstanding partnership with Bard College, provides free college courses in the humanities to poor students in 26 locations globally. “You’ve been cheated,” Shorris began the first class. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for . . . learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you.” One student commented that a course discussion was the first time anyone had paid attention to his opinion. Teaching liberal arts is a service that only the public can provide; the private sector has little interest in employees’ opinions and may, in fact, wish to quash employees’ opinions when it comes to collective bargaining.
The Clemente student profiles provide insight into the value of education beyond the transactional promise of a job after graduation. One Clemente graduate praises the art history lessons for “open[ing] up opportunities for self reflection,” while another has “gained the confidence to interact with people across class and cultural lines.” This second alumni of the course went on to found The Women of Color Cooperative Farm in Boston. It’s safe to say that few CTE schools train students for a life in cooperative farming.
If the current political acceptance of CTE continues, schools will look more like Mahoning County Career and Technical, and less like the Clemente courses. When the forecasted, overdue dip in the economy arrives, other cities might go the way of Nashville: converting low-performing public schools into tools of industry.
Expanding career and technical education may even be presented as a bipartisan compromise over more extreme, DeVos-ian measures. If that happens, the rich will be fine, continuing to send their children to elite magnets or private schools. It’s the poor who will be ever more confined.
What of the Benefits?
Practical-minded readers might agree with some of these concerns but think that the benefits of vocational education are too great. Better pay for students upon graduation, more reliable employment opportunities, and higher rates of graduation: These are worth the concerns over classism, student lock-in, and a missing liberal arts curriculum. However, the benefits of CTE aren’t as clear-cut as they’re portrayed to be by proponents.
First, proponents argue that students will make more money upon graduating than they would in an academic-only curriculum. The “Why Did You Choose MCCTC” video shown to my classmates and myself at the outset of our tour shows an interview with a student who saved thousands of dollars on EMT training by receiving it for free at MCCTC rather than attending his (less funded) local school and paying for training after. A girl in the video is similarly enthusiastic, explaining that she is getting a $25,000 cosmetology degree for free through two years of high-school training.
Anecdotes aside, research is inconclusive as to the earnings advantage from attending a career-technical school. As a 2017 Brookings report points out, there are significant issues with existing studies: Students who enter career-technical academies are self-selecting. Also, the existing numbers only evaluate short-term benefits from attending such a school, which may level out over time. Finally, there is only one randomized-control trial: It found a slight increase in earnings, but only among boys. (The trial examined developments in the 1990s; the modern job landscape may be different.) And regardless, some of the jobs for which academies train, such as cosmetology, provide little opportunity for upward mobility over time, and place students in the range of $25,000 per year in terms of earnings potential—not the salary that most think-tank wonks extolling the benefits of CTE would wish for their own children.
More broadly, CTE advocates argue that students from technical schools are more likely to be employed than non-CTE graduates. Because local employers have a voice, they argue, students are sure to graduate with the skills businesses need.
A 2015 Stanford study, which used international data, found that gains in employment rates from vocational education are actually undone in the long term, at least in part because of technological change. It’s much harder to adapt to an evolving career landscape without the tools of a general education.
A secondary component of the employment-gains argument that advocates make is that CTE’s early training helps close the skills gap, maintaining U.S. economic leadership. The premise of the skills gap argument is wrong: Prospective workers don’t lack the skills necessary to get certain jobs now. In fact, employers can themselves always increase job training, and have historically done so in times of a true skills gap.
Skills gap or not, a high rate of postsecondary employment is irrelevant if the jobs are not themselves sustainable. For schools to accurately predict which careers will be in demand years into the future seems daunting, regardless of whether industries are whispering in their ears. For instance: Training for engineering focused on natural gas fracking could easily emerge because of industry influence—the Exxon Mobil Academy for Engineering isn’t inconceivable. (The MCCTC Advanced Manufacturing Tech program’s video, in fact, refers to the shale gas and oil boom as a reason students should choose that path. The Truck and Diesel Mechanics video also refers to the oil boom as a reason for increased demand for jobs in the field.) If policymakers, federal or local, choose to eliminate fracking, those “practically trained” workers are out of a job. Schools cannot possibly adapt, and businesses informing school decisions will not always look out for long-term societal good—a company that needs welders right now doesn’t care that welder jobs will be gone in a decade.
It’s not worth trying: Curricula change is inevitably slow, while the workplace evolves quickly. CTE optimism is largely driven by the belief that STEM skills are the future of work. This echoes Sputnik-era academic reform, though now the competition might be China instead. However, there is very little evidence to support the STEM fervor in schools. A 2017 MIT study by Andrew Weaver finds that employers have very little difficulty filling STEM jobs. Employers have more trouble hiring for reading skills in manufacturing jobs and writing skills for help-desk technician jobs. But even if proponents were correct that STEM skills are more valuable and permanent than the humanities, it’s worth questioning whether the education system should train students for international competitiveness over a meaningful life.
The final argument in favor of CTE goes something like this: Some kids just don’t care about school and, given the lack of resources to make kids care, it’s best to keep them engaged through CTE. As such, the students will graduate at higher rates.
Data is mixed on this question. It’s difficult to divorce career-learning aspects of CTE education from the smaller classes and hands-on learning that the schools provide, often in stark contrast to overcrowded, underfunded traditional schools. A What Works Clearinghouse randomized control trial found no impact on high-school graduation.
As mentioned, even if more students are graduating, what awaits them are often low-level jobs and immobility.
A Renewed Debate
If the most common arguments in favor of CTE were true, perhaps it’d be worth continuing the programs, and CTE would be a pragmatic solution to other hard-to-fix social issues. But the evidence in favor of CTE simply doesn’t hold up.
Addressing the inequality wrought by CTE requires rethinking the whole role of public funding. Brookings scholar Richard Reeves writes, in Dream Hoarders, that “College has become an important, perhaps the most important, site for class reproduction, especially at the top of society. If we’re okay with that, we can content ourselves with modest reforms. If not, it will be necessary to start treating higher education as a public good.”
Progressives should shift the terms of debate away from private-sector allegiances—Democrats are destined to lose a competition for most market-friendly political party anyway—and back to real debates over how to redress systemic inequality. Schools are one realm in which income and race-based disparities are so glaringly manifested.
And now, nearly a century after Dewey and Snedden, the time is right to return to a debate on the purpose of education. In the early twentieth century, the purpose of education was to produce Americans, and later, to produce scientists. Who do we want our students to become now? MCCTC’s motto “become more” is really “become more profitable to the economy.” Not become more than your income status at birth. Not more engaged, well-read, or thoughtful. It’s time to reverse course.