Leap of Faith

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/14/2024

Leap of Faith 1

Most who suggest that today’s vocational students should predominantly go directly into the workplace from high school mean well. There are, after all, countless examples of graduates who achieved great success with their vocational diploma, hard work, and determination. BVT alone has a robust body of alumni to illustrate this possibility. I am not only proud of their professional achievements, but also impressed by their tremendously positive economic impact to the region. Nonetheless, the times are changing, or perhaps not changing enough, and this path is progressively becoming challenging to replicate for today’s graduates. When it comes to their careers, they must take a LEAP OF FAITH.

The Big Question: Should vocational students pursue education beyond high school? 

Many today think not — the shortage of skilled technicians and the high wages commanded by capable technicians fuels this belief. Additionally, there is a glut of college grads who not only lack relevant work experience and job-readiness, but also struggle to find sufficient employment to pay off student loans. It’s not surprising that public sentiment is growing over the concept that vocational technical graduates should pursue work, not college. 

First, a few disclaimers before we start. There is a plethora of data to inform any discussion of this nature, and I, for one, insist on keeping one foot grounded in reality while we philosophically ponder the futures of our youngsters. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS.gov) is a fantastic source of data to test assertions while remaining grounded in the here and now. Second, we must remember that large data sets are exactly that — huge aggregate compilations representing the norm, not truisms that apply to every individual. Anyone can be a statistical outlier, break the mold, defy the odds, and all that good stuff; however, if we’re talking about potential changes in policy, education reform, and paradigm shifts that effect the masses, it is wise to pay attention to the norms, not the anomalies. Now that we’ve taken our grain of salt, let’s jump in.  

Where We Came From
In the good old days, a high school diploma carried more value than it does today. There is no escaping it; we live in a credential-based society. Whether you’re talking about a plumbing license or an advanced graduate degree, opportunity revolves around the credentials you’re holding in your pocket. In the not-so-distant past, BVT graduates received the customary full-size diploma as well as a laminated, wallet-sized diploma that they could furnish at a job interview. We provided that because that little card was practically a guarantee to land the graduate a decent job. There was a time when individuals were purely valued for their skills, but in the name of progress, we have perpetually increased regulation, licensing, liability, qualifications, and the overall complexity of working in the present-day. For better or for worse, we are constantly evolving.

In the 1960s, kids were typically told that they had to graduate from high school if they wanted to be successful in life; however, many proved them wrong. Over time, the latter became harder to do, and by the 1980s, one’s future outlook without a high school diploma or GED was bleak for the simple fact that employment, promotion, and wage opportunities were more limited regardless of how skilled one might be. This wasn’t uniquely American — all of the highly developed countries were deeply engaged in intellectual competition and arguably competition on all fronts. It was clear that we were well on our way to creating a systematic approach to certifying one’s ability and knowledge as the free world became evermore obsessed with credentialing.

In the early 90s, the U.S. education system was plagued by low and inconsistent standards. The quality of one’s public education varied by state, school, and the rigid track of courses to which one was deemed capable of, or not capable of, attempting. Tracking and the inconsistency of outcomes in public schools was viewed as the prime driver of social inequality and a roadblock to one’s upward economic mobility. Not only did this have a “credential inflation” (or “value deflation”) effect on the high school diploma, but also created grave concern that the United States was being outpaced. Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, to name a few, were rapidly raising education standards, and the U.S. struggled to keep pace. By the mid-90s, President Clinton committed to adopting new standards within the public K-12 system to combat tracking, and focused on education reform to make college education accessible for all students. Progress was made over the following decade, but educational issues remained a national top priority.

In 2001, President Bush followed through on his campaign promise for bipartisan education reform and successfully passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB furthered Clinton’s efforts to keep pace with global education standards, and established that K-12 public schools would have full accountability for educational outcomes. Regardless of one’s zip code or type of school (such as vocational schools), NCLB required that every child in America would be prepared for college upon graduation. States were required to develop high stakes exams, such as the MCAS, to hold schools and their students accountable to pass MCAS as a graduation requirement. In the years leading up to this new requirement, there was widespread doubt that vocational students would be up to the task. Some proponents suggested an alternative test that measured occupational proficiency, while others were proponents of raising academic rigor and expectations in the Massachusetts vocational schools. In a pivotal decision, the state included all vocational students in this new graduation expectation — a decision that would revolutionize our vocational schools as we knew them.

Welcome to the 21st Century 
Across the country, Vocational Education was rebranded as Career and Technical Education (CTE), and schools like BVT rapidly increased academic rigor and met the college readiness standard. This move not only met federal expectations and accountability, but also met industry’s insatiable appetite for highly skilled labor. It also addressed the issue that new industries were being born, and we envisioned skillsets that would make CTE students adaptable for industries that didn’t yet exist. Technology was profoundly and rapidly changing every existing trade. For example, automotive technicians now had to be as familiar with computerized scan tools, ECM’s, and programming as they were with a torque wrench. Drafting tables gave way to 3D modeling in CAD, and the print presses in graphic arts transitioned to digital media and web design. New high-tech industries like biotechnology, computer networking, and information technology erupted and required new, rigorous skillsets even for the entry-level worker.

The High Schools That Work network, which included roughly half of the states in our union, worked collaboratively to design rigorous integrated academic and career technical programs to prepare and propel youngsters into this highly technical, fast-evolving workforce. All of these adaptations, as well as general digital literacy, were layered on top of everything we previously taught. Regardless of the MCAS decision, preparing students for the 21st century trades became exponentially more demanding.  

Another aspect of CTE’s transformation was bringing an end to the persistent tracking problem associated with vocational education from the 60s to the 90s — specifically the commonly held notion that “hands-on” meant “brains-off” learning. Rigorous integrated academics not only prepared students for the technological advancements facing the trades, but also remedied the issue of vocational students who were left unprepared to seek post-secondary education if they chose to do so. This meant that the modern CTE student was going to have to work very hard to pack it all in within four years, and no longer was the voc school a wise placement for the reluctant learner nor the chronically absent. Further, it was feared that if voc students were left out of the educational reforms of the era, it would have established a second-tier of public education with detrimental socio-economic consequences for those who attended.  

In “Keeping Track, How Schools Structure Inequality,” written in 1985, Jeannie Oakes details the circumstances toward the end of the old voc-tech era and uses an impressive set of data points and studies to draw conclusions about the big picture. It was a sobering read for me, and not what I expected. I was born in the early 70s, grew up working with my father in heavy construction, and would have chosen going to work with him over a day in school. I was a reluctant academic learner, but when it came to learning the family business, I drank from the firehose. As a teenager, I could run a transit as well as a bulldozer, lay out a foundation for excavation, trench the utilities, build culverts by hand, and saddle tap a water main. That stuff came easy because I loved it, but I found school painfully uninteresting. If not for my mother, a lifelong teacher, I would not have gone to college, let alone try my hand at being an educator. It was her influence alone that convinced me to consider a career in education, and she always reminded me that I could return to construction if I didn’t enjoy it. I started my vocational teaching career in the mid-90s and found that I truly enjoyed helping thousands of kids find satisfying, lucrative careers. Teaching at a voc school was no accident — I understood those kids because I was one of them. I particularly enjoyed working with difficult students who didn’t like traditional school, because, like me, they were intelligent but uninspired by academics. As an English teacher, they didn’t come to BVT for me, they came for shop and to learn a trade — they came to escape academics, not embrace them. Perhaps it was my unique background, but I could relate, and I enjoyed convincing students that they needed to learn how to read and write well regardless of their trade proficiency or post grad plans.

Oakes’ book acknowledges all of the aforementioned successes within vocational schools as well as its noble mission and intent, but also illustrates that our model had some unintended consequences that question the sustainability of it all. The concept of taking reluctant or struggling academic learners and teaching them a trade so they can work straight out of high school has logical appeal at face value; in fact we still hear this echoed today as "the right kid” for a vocational education. What we learned over time was that many of these types of students learned trade skills and secured entry-level jobs right out of high school as planned, but without a solid foundation of academics, nor the preparation to pursue post-secondary education, many found their upward mobility was stunted or capped. The widespread practice of utilizing voc schools for this type of student learning scenario also created the reputation or stigma that this was the “other school” for “those kids.” Furthermore, voc-tech schools across the country became disproportionately populated by low income, special needs, and minority students, which ultimately had the unintended consequence of creating glass ceilings for these protected classes.

Where You Came From Is Gone & Where You Thought You Were Going Was Never There
The new millennium was an exciting time in CTE. Overnight, vocational students were expected to complete a double major — college prep academics in half the time while learning advanced trade skills, employability, and a strong foundation of digital literacy. Many were skeptical if this was possible, but we proved it so. If the pre-millennium graduates were impressive, today’s CTE grads are mind-blowing in their capability, potential, and accomplishment. But, sentiment is coming full circle, and there is a growing, nostalgic romanticism to return to the old ways of the pre-millennium voc-tech model. This is usually expressed in terms of “vocational schools have lost sight of their mission,” or “the wrong kids are going to vocational schools these days,” and, of course, “vocational kids should go to work, not college.” Let’s look at what is driving these beliefs:

Like the high school diploma decades ago, the college degree is now facing a credential inflation/value deflation scenario. Society is waking up to the fact that a costly degree is neither a guarantee of a good job, nor does it ensure an employer of useful skill attainment and employability. Earning a college degree has become transactional — it’s a purchased credential that guarantees little about knowledge and capability, yet on the employment side, more and more jobs require one. We’re also feeling the practical pinch that services from the skilled trades are in very high demand, if not alarming scarcity, and the pendulum is swinging back to recognize the great potential for anyone willing to pursue trade school. Therefore, learning a trade and forgoing college looks more appealing every day. Top it all off with a college tuition crisis, and everyone is rightfully rethinking things. Mike Rowe, perhaps the most influential contemporary advocate for CTE, has eloquently brought this issue to the masses and has served as an advocate for change for several years. But, despite statistics and logic, systemic change comes painfully slow. Nonetheless, advocates like Rowe predict that a day of reckoning is coming for post-secondary education.  

In the meantime, employers consistently reward the pursuit of further education with wages and opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2022 median weekly earnings are directly connected to educational attainment as follows:

• Less than high school diploma – $682
• High school diploma – $853 
• Some college – $935 
• Associate degree – $1,005
• Bachelor degree – $1,432 
• Master degree – $1,661
• Doctoral degree – $2,083

Unemployment rates commensurately follow the aforementioned categories, ranging from 5.5% for those without a high school diploma and decreasing to just 1% for those with a doctoral degree. Georgetown University recently published a study titled, “After Everything.” The report projects that by 2031, 72% of the jobs in the country will require post-secondary training or a degree. For perspective, 68% of jobs required no more than a high school diploma in 1983 (edsource.org). Given this trend, it makes it awfully tempting to follow your fellow lemmings off the cliff and get the degree. If faced with the choice today, what would you do?   

A New Day
There are glimmers of hope and real traction. Governor Healey recently signed an executive order to eliminate unnecessary degree requirements from most state job listings. Healey wrote, “…too many job applicants are being held back by unnecessary degree requirements.” She said, she hopes the move “encourages the business community to join us by adopting similar skills-based hiring practices.” As a result of this order, there will be no minimum education requirement for 90% of state jobs (Fortune.com). It’s a start. We’ll see if this trend catches on in the private sector. 

If anyone is capable of proving the paradigm shift viable, it’s the CTE students. But, the hard statistical realities of our credential-based society makes this proposition a leap of faith to say the least. For this reason, I have tremendous respect and admiration for our students who go directly into the workforce. That choice speaks to their attained skill, confidence, and the bravery to beat the odds. What I have a problem with, is the system. It should not be the students making the leap of faith; it should be the employers. Likewise, the critics on the sideline pontificating that CTE students shouldn’t go to college, or that CTE has lost its way, simply don’t understand the history nor the dynamics at play. The core mission of BVT has never changed. We ensure that every graduate is career-ready and life-ready; however, what that entails has changed dramatically over the years.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” One of these days we’re going to learn from our past and be smart enough to change the system. Until then, if you ask me if a BVT graduate should go to work or college, I say it’s up to them. No matter what they choose, they are going to excel at it.