Executive Perspective

Missing the Vocational Boat


The conversation on school reform seems to be avoiding a significant component — vocational and professional education and training. This year’s AASA 37th annual Invitational International Seminar on Schooling focused on that topic during visits to Switzerland and Germany.

Vocational education has fallen out of favor in America. The very word has a negative connotation and has been replaced by more politically correct terms such as career and technical training. This is largely due to the fact that, at some point in our history, vocational programs became dumping grounds for children of poverty, mostly African Americans and Latino students. Consequently, we emphasize college-preparatory programs and de-emphasize vocational preparation. The current expectation is for every child to graduate from high school and be college- and career-ready.

Daniel DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

The reality is that a third of our students are not graduating from high school, and they drop out without the necessary skills and training to become gainfully employed. Children of poverty and of color are no longer being “dumped” into vocational education programs, but no substantive program has replaced it to keep many of those youngsters motivated to stay in school. Half of our African-American and Latino students drop out of school every year and, due to lack of preparation and training, swell the ranks of unemployed youth to 15 percent.

Many programs attempt to keep youngsters in school through high school completion, but the majority of those programs continue to focus solely on academic preparation. School systems like my old employer, the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, offer excellent technical and professional preparation to students, but even with these, we never had enough seats to accommodate the demand.

Swiss Collaboration
Switzerland’s philosophy differs radically from the United States’. Based on hundreds of years of tradition, the Swiss focus on a sophisticated system of vocational training, apprenticeships and major collaboration with the business community.

The Swiss do not expect all of their children to go to college. Unlike our K-12 system, Swiss compulsory education, like many other countries, is only K-9. By the end of the 6th grade, Swiss students have to decide whether they want to follow a vocational or an academic track. For the academic track, they apply to a secondary school known as a gymnasium, the Swiss version of a college-preparatory program. Only 30 percent of students are accepted into the gymnasium program. The rest follow the vocational route.

The six-year gymnasium program is academically demanding. By the end of the six years, only 20 percent of Swiss students will be college-bound. After taking a series of rigorous tests, none of which are standardized, students receive a certificate of completion allowing them to enroll in a Swiss university at a cost of about $600 per year.

The remaining students continue on to vocational and professional education and training. At professional education and training schools, they get to choose from as many as 400 programs that, at the equivalent of a high school education, will prepare them for gainful employment. At that point, they also have the option of going on to obtain a professional college degree by attending a university of applied sciences or a university of technology.

The success of the Swiss program is very dependent on collaboration with the business community. The apprenticeship program has existed in many European countries for hundreds of years. A Swiss vocational student will approach a business enterprise in search of an apprenticeship. Once accepted by the company, the student will attend school for two days and work at the business for the remaining three days. The business also will pay the student a stipend for the duration of the apprenticeship, usually three years.

Switzerland boasts one of the lowest youth unemployment rates at 4.1 percent. By contrast, the U.S. youth unemployment rate is 15 percent.

Motivators Required
It is unlikely the United States would wish to adopt the Swiss system. We would not want to begin tracking our students into either a vocational or an academic program as early as the 6th grade. Ideally, we want to provide our students with options at all times. The Swiss claim that the options always exist for their students, and while reality indicates students drop out of the academic track to go into the vocational, the opposite is rarely true.

Nevertheless, the ideal lies somewhere between the two systems. We have thrown out the baby with the bathwater by denying many of our students who do not want to go to college the opportunity to learn a trade and become gainfully employed after high school graduation. We are also missing out on the powerful motivator against dropping out of school that a paid apprenticeship program would provide.

Today’s technical and professional academies in America are meeting the needs of many of our students, but I can tell you from experience that, by regarding vocational education programs as second rate, there is neither the will nor the resources to provide the programs that are needed.

The reform discussion needs to reconsider our cultural shift away from vocational education and face the reality that not every student wants to go to college. A vocational program may be a constructive strategy for retaining our students through high school graduation.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org