Let the kids be kids

Vocational training is popular, but is putting kids on an early career track the right idea?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

The likes of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, among a number of other publications, wrote breathlessly in early June about the growing trend around the U.S. for schools to teach more specialized vocational training.

It’s certainly not a new idea. Vocational schools have long existed, and in countries like Germany and Austria, students can start specialist training as young as 10.

But while some politicians and academics are arguing more technical and vocational training would be cheaper and help students get the education best suited to their abilities and career goals, there are risks to starting a career track too early, including reduced economic mobility, according to a 2005 study that examined whether educational tracking affects performance and inequality.

It’s an interesting question, as our high schools face disruption and transformation aimed at keeping American students competitive with their international peers: How soon is too soon to pick a professional path?

Depending on my age at the time, I’ve been on opposites sides of this argument more than once.

I remember being in my high school German class, learning about that country’s early vocational training and placing students in specific career tracks, and thinking it was an amazing idea. Why waste my time with calculus when I’ll never use it again? Better to focus my education on the job I want.

A few years later, I was much more appreciative of the well-rounded, liberal arts education I was receiving at Augustana College, as it gave me freedom to explore interests and try my hand at different subjects before settling for good on a major.

There will always be students who know early what they want to do with their lives. Just like there will be many others who change their major multiple times, or adults who have been in a career for almost 20 years and still aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up. College also isn’t for everyone.

There’s a danger in getting overly enamored with the trend du jour. Focused, early vocational training becomes perilous if policymakers begin to think it should be applied universally. Similarly, students at vocational schools shouldn’t have their studies so tailored to their future professional goals that they sacrifice other areas of learning.

A June 6 article from Quartz considered this very dilemma. It featured performing arts students from Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School, the school that inspired the movie and TV show Fame. The students were interviewed for the story after having staged a sit-in to protest the role academics plays in their high school. They believed their principal’s emphasis on rigorous academic standards was detrimental to their career aspirations.

It’s a reasonable assertion, until one wonders what happens to a young dancer who suffers a career-ending injury and can no longer perform. If that student doesn’t have a solid, comprehensive education to fall back on, what will he or she do with their lives?

It’s similar to the argument that transcendent high school basketball players have made about being required to attend a year of college before entering the NBA draft. The NBA’s one-and-done policy is likely on its way out, and that’s for the best considering top-flight young players were only tacitly playing the role of student.

Still, by intentionally streamlining the educational experiences of our young people, I don’t believe we’re doing them any favors. More real-world, career-focused education is not a bad idea, but making specialists out of everyone can’t be the answer either. We should aspire to have our young people know more of the world around them, not less.

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