The U.S. has a cookie-cutter approach to secondary education: Stay in school; go to college; and we’ll be happy. Those who don’t go along are considered “victims.” They must be helped to see the benefits of college.

This is the judgement of Harold L. Sirkin, a business consultant and professor at Northwestern University. He points out that “some students are bored by traditional studies; some don’t have the aptitude for college; some would rather work with their hands; and some are unhappy at home and just need to get away…”

These observations reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend, a college professor. His son refused to go to college because he found school boring. His daughter, on the other hand, was obtaining a degree and wanted to go to graduate school. My friend, an early leader in the movement to raise academic standards in the schools, thought his daughter was on the right track; but he didn’t know what to do about his son.

This story could be told by many parents. We know children differ in interests and abilities; but, in wanting the best for them, sometimes we push them in a direction that is not right for them. That is happening to many kids today who are strongly urged to go to college, but who don’t like the usual route to get there–an emphasis on academic subjects. Therefore, they find high school “boring.”

Career/technical education can be attractive to those students because its purpose is to teach skills needed to get a job. This approach therefore seems more “down to earth.” But, good career/tech education also prepares students for college by incorporating rigorous academic content, by offering students dual enrollment in post-secondary institutions, and by granting college credit for secondary coursework.

The old vocational education as a separate track leading to employment right after high school is being left behind. Economic data shows that in the future the majority of new jobs will require at least some post-secondary experiences, and so the new career/tech education seeks to prepare students for further education and advanced job training after high school.

Exemplary high schools showing how to bring about these improvements are spread around the country. For example, the 1,200 school network “High Schools that Work,” founded and led by Gene Bottoms, aims for a rigorous education for all students. New York City’s selective career/tech high schools, Delaware’s Sussex Tech, and career academies in various urban areas show how students can benefit from this alternative to the usual academic route.

Evaluations of improved career/tech ed have found fewer drop outs and more on-time graduation from high school, more students meeting college and career readiness goals, and more students developing problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Greater results are found for students who concentrate more of their coursework in career/technical education.

Not every high school offers high quality career/tech courses, and so it is necessary to move to the next stage. As Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future (JFF), states: “The problem is that such excellent programs and schools currently serve only a relatively small number of students. And the question is: Can these excellent models be further scaled up and their approaches refined and adapted in our many comprehensive high schools?”

Creating supportive state-wide policies is the objective of JFF’s Pathways to Progress. In California, Linked Learning is also seeking a state-wide impact through a network of high schools offering high quality integrated academic and career/technical education.

In many states, the department of education is working to improve the quality of job-related learning so that more students will have this opportunity. That task has been hampered over the last several decades as governors and others concentrated on raising academic standards in the schools. Job-related programs were often overlooked as a means to achieve the same objective.

That situation is changing. Most states now are paying more attention to improving career/technical education. Last year, many states increased funding for these programs, required or encouraged post-secondary institutions to work with high schools, and urged closer school-business cooperation.

Concerns about whether high quality job-related education helps students should be put to rest by the experiences in other countries. In Germany 51% of youngsters are in an apprenticeship program. In Switzerland, 70% of its teen-aged students are in apprenticeships.

In other words, in both countries, the majority of students take job-related training in school and work part-time in their field of interest. At school, students also take academic courses, such as foreign languages and history.

Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, with the continent’s strongest and most productive economy. Apprenticeships, consistently backed by businesses, unions, and government, contribute to that success. Switzerland, one of the world’s richest lands, highly regards its apprenticeship system as contributing to economic prosperity. Students receive a good education and are ready upon completion for university studies, for work, or for more advanced job training.

The important message for American high school students and their parents is that many teenagers would gain from having career/technical training combined with rigorous academic content and experiences in a work-place. Students, who do not want to pursue the traditional academic path to college and a bachelor’s degree, should have this alternative way to prepare for college, advanced job training, or employment.

We should get beyond a “cookie-cutter” secondary education that doesn’t recognize the different interests of students.

As adults, we like variety. We like choices. Why not give high school students options that would better fit their interests and abilities?


This blog by Jack Jennings first appeared in the Huffington Post on December 9, 2015.