Last month I suggested we give thanks for America's public education system, and I resolved to remember and celebrate the unequaled opportunities America's public schools provide the nation's students. Even as we lament our international standings, we know students have more education opportunities in America than any place in the world.
Now I must admit the last statement may be untrue, and it's our fault as education leaders. We have allowed vocational and technical education to be considered something less important than an "academic" education, thereby robbing some of our students of opportunities to take a path that might lead them to greater success and happiness.
As a nation, we have bought into the notion every child should be prepared for higher education, and every child should, in fact, attend college. Through the years, in our efforts to close achievement gaps and ensure a high standard of living for all, we have focused our attention on promoting college graduation, implying that pursuing vocational or technical education is something less than satisfactory, an indication of lack of motivation or intelligence. We quickly established the notion among our youth that working with one's hands is inferior to working with one's head.
Well, not everyone is fascinated by or adept at solving quadratic equations, parsing complex sentences or considering multiple ways to use the subjunctive. What's more, being able to do those things does not guarantee success or happiness in life or career.
My recent visit to schools in Switzerland reminded me that the fruits of vocational and technical education can lead to accomplishment, fulfillment and a happy life for many students.
Two-thirds of Swiss students pursue technical education and enter vocational professions--and their parents are just fine with that. In fact, the Swiss expect only 30 percent of their young people to attend university. (See Daniel Domenech's Executive Perspective for a more detailed description of the Swiss system.)
So is this our instant fix? Is lowering our expectations for college attendance the solution we've been after in American public education?
Lest we be tempted to apply the ever-present American hope that we have found the remedy for whatever we believe ails public education, we must remember that what works for a country with a population of 7.5 million people may not be applicable to the United States with its more than 300 million people. What works with one country's political and economic landscape may not work in another's.
Rather, we must acknowledge it is our job as education leaders to celebrate all of the diversity in our schools, and that includes encouraging vocational and technical education as well as college preparation.
Could it be our focus on academic-only education, in fact, increases our national dropout rate? What if we encouraged students to complete practical and academic education? Would they be better prepared than most to live long, happy, productive work lives?
Every year, I tell the students who are graduating from both our district's technical education school and from their home high school they are the best-prepared students we have. I need to start conveying that message at the middle school level. I should be telling our middle school students (and their parents) they, too, can be the best-prepared graduates we will have, that technical education is an option.
Raising the esteem of vocational and technical education in our schools is crucial to the future of our students and our nation. As education leaders we can do that--and we must.
Edgar Hatrick is AASA president for 2010-11. E-mail: EHatrick@aol.com