Over the past decades, the push for collegiate education has systematically led to a marginalization of career and technical education (CTE) programs in schools. More than a marginalization, there has been an unhealthy shift in attitudes that view college-preparatory programs as being superior to CTE programs. This atrocious attitude has resulted in many students at colleges and universities to attend college only because they fear being labeled a “loser” otherwise.
The existence of such a view about those who do not attend college is a tragic reflection of our own selves—us elders—who have cultivated and propagated such a grossly distorted view. These contrasting attitudes towards college-prep and CTE programs, with the latter suffering the proverbial stepchild treatment, do not serve the students and society well.
Thus, it was heart-warming to read that throughout Oregon “there has been an effort to expand CTE programs in middle and high schools.” It was even more encouraging to read that Oregon’s efforts to expand CTE has inspired Rep. Kurt Schrader to introduce a bill in Congress to expand funding for such programs throughout the country. We need a lot more coverage of these programs, and a lot more public support for them as well.
But, at the same time, I hope we are promoting CTE for all the correct reasons of introducing children to the phenomenal range of opportunities that they can choose from and not because we want to track them on a vocational path. Because, more than anything else, we live in a world where careers are increasingly volatile, and this volatility can easily make a mockery of the decisions we make, especially when young.
It is possible that there is a renewed attention on CTE because of the anemic economic recovery with respect to the persistent unemployment rate. Here, we should keep in mind that the “jobless” recovery is not really about “skills mismatch”—the claim that we don’t have people with the skills needed for the jobs that are out there. While economists disagree on this as they always do on any topic, there is a strong evidence-based argument, such as the one from the Economic Policy Institute, that “the weak labor market recovery is not due to skills mismatch (or any other structural factors).” Instead, it is due to weakness in the aggregate demand in the economy.
CTE programs ought to be considered as important as college-prep programs for all the right reasons. My neighbors are successful self-employed business owners, who did not attend college, and are living the American Dream. They exemplify the old Mark Twain quip that he never let schooling get in the way of his education.
Whether it is via college-prep or career and technical education programs, I hope that teenagers are developing an understanding that the world is their oyster.
This is a slightly edited version of an op-ed that will soon be published in the Statesman Journal