One question that almost anyone who pays attention to American education must ask themselves, at one time or another: why isn’t there more vocational education in American schools? You would think that American culture, with its longstanding skepticism of book-learning , would be enamored of apprenticeships and shop class. Instead, it’s the Germans who have the most well-established vocational track in high school. American vocational education has meanwhile crashed and burned.

The empirical evidence for vocational education is actually quite promising. For example, the federal government sponsored an evaluation of Career Academies in high schools in the 90s– in spite of being a pre-registered randomized trial, a 2008 report found that 8 years after the expected year of high school graduation, former students in career academies were outearning their peers who went to conventional academic high school programs:

  • Career Academies are schools within schools that are organized around one occupation or industry. Employer partners help design the curriculum and provide work-based learning experiences for students. The effectiveness of Career Academies was evaluated using a randomized controlled trial conducted in nine high schools located in or near urban school districts. The evaluation included approximately 2,000 students.

  • The study reported statistically significant, positive impacts on average monthly earnings, average hours worked per week, and average hourly wages over the eight years following scheduled high school graduation. However, there were no statistically significant differences in educational attainment of the two groups.

Note that in spite of this lack of statistical significance for educational outcomes, the intervention group was much less (0.27 Standard Deviations) less likely to be without a GED or diploma eight years after they were supposed to graduate high school. So positive outcomes across a range of employment variables, and at worst null effects for education. And, in any case, influencing high school outcomes is-generally- much harder than influencing the outcomes of younger kids.

So why is vocational education so neglected? Six hypotheses:

a) It’s hard to implement. Shop class is dangerous, expensive, and hard to staff. Establishing relationships with local employers is difficult, and lack of transportation ends up stymying otherwise promising initiatives.

b) American colleges and universities are unusually powerful and want as many students as possible headed towards 4-year schools.

c) Education leaders have an unrealistic idea of the skills necessary for the future economy.

d) Education leaders genuinely believe that a universal academic high school is critical for democracy.

e) Education leaders are concerned that any attempt to track students into academic and nonacademic tracks will produce predictable and harmful segregation by gender, race, and class.

f) The incentives for federal policy is to make school districts look bad, which can be accomplished more effectively though a universal academic curriculum.

If you made me choose one, it would be a), but this is certainly a question that I don’t fully understand.


One thought on “Vo-Tech

  1. I would guess e. Vocational classes were very much part of the general public curriculum when I attended in the 1950’s (Chattanooga, Tn). Maybe modern central high schools, with very large enrollments, would be better modeled on junior colleges with a broad menu of vocational and academic choices but few requirements, students and their parents making the final decisions, with plenty of freedom to drop and switch courses? Just a thought, a way to remove stigma.


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