Today’s commentary is from Mark Phillips, a columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and the The Answer Sheet. He volunteers with the California Film Institute’s Educational Outreach Program and serves on the Board of the Buck Institute for Education. You can find him @MarkPSF on Twitter or on Facebook.
Some years ago I was hired by Norway’s Ministry of Education to train vocational education teachers. Having myself attended a comprehensive high school where vocational students were those who couldn’t make it academically, and having taught in a suburban high school where there was zero vocational education, it was eye-opening to be in a country where vocational education had high prestige, was well-funded, and included students who could have gone to medical school if that had been their preference.
I was reminded of this experience recently when Tony Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap and, most recently, Creating Innovators (much more on that book in a future column), spoke with educators and parents in my community and noted that in Finland’s highly successful educational system, 45% of the students choose a technical track, not an academic track, after completing their basic education.
Blue-Collar Stigma in White-Collar Society
I’m sure many high school counselors have had some students confide that what they enjoyed doing most was working with their hands, whether on car engines, electrical circuits in the house, hair, or doing therapeutic massage. I bet that many of these students also confided that there is no way they could tell their parents that they’d rather pursue one of these occupations than go to college to prepare for a professional or business career.
We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. This is even more evident in high socio-economic communities. And for most teachers, if the student is academically successful, this will be seen as a “waste of talent.”
The same dilemma often exists for students who are working to overcome the achievement gap. Most schools that are effectively helping kids to overcome this gap and achieve academically also place a premium on college admissions, often the mark of success for these schools. And kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school appear foolish to “throw this all away” by choosing some alternative to college and a blue collar career.
This bias against vocational education is dysfunctional. First, it is destructive to our children. They should have the opportunity to be trained in whatever skills their natural gifts and preferences lead them to, rather than more or less condemning them to jobs they’ll find meaningless. If a young person has an affinity for hair design or one of the trades, to keep him or her from developing the skills to pursue this calling is destructive. (Read more.)