July 15, 2024

Learn to Earn: Tough Budget Calculus as Technical Schools Face Deep Cuts

Matthew Kelly was in danger of becoming one of them.

Tests showed he had a high intellect, but Mr. Kelly regularly skipped homework and was barely passing some of his classes in his early years of high school. He was living in a motel part of the time and both his parents were out of work. His mother, a former nurse, feared that Matthew had so little interest he would drop out without graduating.

Then his guidance counselor suggested he take some courses at a nearby vocational academy for his junior year. For the first time, the sloe-eyed teenager excelled, earning A’s and B’s in subjects like auto repair, electronics and metals technology. “When it comes to practicality, I can do stuff really well,” said Mr. Kelly, now 19.

So well, that he has earned a scholarship to attend a community college this fall. He even talks of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering some day, and opening his own business.

Now, federal funding to provide such vocational and technical education is at risk. President Obama has instead made it a priority to raise overall academic standards and college graduation rates, and aims to shrink the small amount of federal spending for vocational training in public high schools and community colleges. That aid comes primarily in the form of Perkins grants to states.

The administration has proposed a 20 percent reduction in its fiscal 2012 budget for career and technical education, to a little more than $1 billion, even as it seeks to increase overall education funding by 11 percent. The only real alternative to public schools for career training is profit-making colleges and trade schools, many of which have been harshly criticized for sending students deeply into debt without improving their job prospects. A little more than one in 10 students in higher education attend a profit-making institution.

Proponents of career education in public high schools and community colleges point to apparent successes like Mr. Kelly and other research to demonstrate that their courses serve a group of students at most risk of being left behind. Without high school, much less college, many young people — particularly men and members of minority groups — end up doing low-skill work, relying on their youth and brawn. Those types of jobs were slashed during the downturn, and job prospects often fade altogether as workers age.

In European countries like Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, vocational programs have long been viable choices for a significant portion of teenagers. Yet in the United States, technical courses have often been viewed as the ugly stepchildren of education, backwaters for underachieving or difficult students.

In a speech to the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium in April, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “at a time when local, state and federal governments are all facing tremendous budget pressure” advocates for vocationally oriented education “must make a compelling case for continued funding.”

In his camp are those who say students need to concentrate on basics like math, literacy and history to prepare for college and the jobs of the future, rather than learning a narrow technical craft. In this view, bright students like Mr. Kelly, who have the potential to do college-level work, should be put on that path, or schools will have failed them.

What’s more, those in favor of academic reform worry that minority and low-income students will be automatically channeled into vocational courses. A rigorous academic curriculum, they say, is the best way to help all workers remain flexible, climb career ladders and prepare for a wider spectrum of jobs.

Recognizing that employment and income have expanded for those with college degrees, the president has said he wants America to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Last year, fewer than a third of all 25- to 29-year-olds in the United States had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Advocates say the most compelling case for vocational education is that it keeps students interested in school at all. According to data from the Department of Education, about 75 percent of students who start public high school graduate within four or five years. But more than 90 percent of those who concentrate in career-oriented courses, a definition that varies by state, do so, according to statistics compiled by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (Eventually, after more years of school or passing a General Educational Development test, about 87 percent of all students complete high school.)

Strong vocational programs that start in high school, advocates say, can help students make the leap to one- or two-year credentials that are increasingly the ticket out of low-skilled, lower-paying jobs. In fact, 27 percent of people who get a vocational license or certificate after high school, whether at a community college or a profit-making institution, earn more than the average for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=68a87f90f3490c1fd067daf02d02cb5d

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