President Obama, in last week's State of the Union address, cited community colleges as a principal antidote for high unemployment. The idea is to quickly match the supply of trained workers with the demand of emerging industries. There are many commendable examples of this phenomenon in Texas, as reported here from time to time.
It is striking, however, to reflect upon what has happened to vocational education in the last few decades, particularly at the high school level. Technical schools used to be big, especially in urban areas.
Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. His research has focused on the policies and practices of the countries with the best education systems. Here is his blog in Education Week that paints a grim picture. Other nations have done a much better job of beefing up vocational training, he believes.
This could have disastrous implications for the middle class. The author cites a piece by Francis Fukuyama on how the middle class is essential for the survival of democracy, as observed initially by Aristotle in ancient times. If this is correct, it's about more than jobs.
The decline of vocational education at the high school level may mean that community and technical colleges are the only realistic hope.
Now here's a tough question: If we examine the abilities and interests of students who need developmental instruction, are they better suited for the sort of vocational training in which these skills are (presumably) less important? For-profit academies are currently engaged in this effort, and many seem to be doing quite well. They advertise that students don't need all those pesky English and math courses, not to mention history and government. Whether their students are gainfully employed eventually is another question, of course.
It is almost sacrilegious among community college leaders to suggest overt "tracking" of students, but we also recollect old high school friends and acquaintances who had good careers without college degrees. The obvious challenge is finding such jobs in today's economy. Many also fear that students who pursue a strictly vocational path might come disproportionately from the African-American and Hispanic populations, inadvertently raising the spectre of a caste system.
The article linked above is a good place to start the conversation.