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A New Push For Vocational Education in Chicago and the U.S.

In the city’s big moves on education yesterday, Malcolm X College is being reinvented to integrate with the Medical District, and Crane Tech will go through the same process. It’s part of a Great Recession trend back towards an old (and Continental) idea.

Malcolm X College Chicago

 

Yesterday the city announced a $479 million capital plan to support the city colleges’ “College to Careers” program, which, in part, would rebuild and expand Malcolm X College, “including a new Allied Health Academy that will strengthen ties to the Illinois Medical District.” As Deanna Isaacs of the Reader noted in its wake:

According to today’s announcement, the new campus is expected to open in 2015, and will include an Allied Health Academy, with ties to the nearby medical complex that includes Rush University Medical Center. The mayor has previously said that six of the seven City Colleges will be “reinvented” as designated specialty schools, leading critics to fear a mission-bending plunge into vocational training. The only other one revealed so far is Olive-Harvey, with a focus on transportation and distribution.

Meanwhile, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah and Joel Hood reported a development in the closing of Crane Tech:

Sicat added that CPS is working with the community around Crane on an opportunity to create something “exciting in the building.”

Those plans include a new high school with a health science-focused curriculum, perhaps in partnership with nearby Rush University Medical Center and Malcolm X College, the Tribune has learned…. The yet-unnamed new high school is tentatively slated to begin in fall 2013.

Last night, Bob Fioretti tweeted that Crane’s replacement would indeed be a health-science high school

According to the city, it would tie into the new Malcolm X:

“The new approach at Crane calls for an instructional program linked to newly developed community college coursework at Malcolm X City College and on-the-job training available from nearby Medical District employers,” said Benny Horton, athletic director at Crane and member of the coalition. “We look forward to an expanded and stronger partnership of academic leaders, area employers, and civic and community leaders to benefit CPS students and the City of Chicago,” Horton added.

This isn’t particularly new in Chicago history. The city’s numerous vocational schools were in large part the product of William Bogan and William Johnson, CPS superintendents from 1928 through 1936 and 1936 through 1947, respectively. Bogan was more moderate than Johnson on the subject; Johnson wanted to make 80 percent of the CPS curriculum—throughout the entire city—vocational. It’s worth noting that Johnson took the reigns during the Great Depression, which is clear from his rhetoric in his first Annual Report: “It is estimated that 90 per cent of our boys and girls are faced with an economic condition which demands that they be taught with skills which fit them for some definite occupation.”

And now vocational education is vogue again, not least because of the Great Recession:

Leaders of the “Pathways to Prosperity” project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education argue for an education system that clearly articulates students’ career options as early as middle school and defines the coursework and training required, so young people can chart an informed course toward work, whether as an electrician or a college professor.

[snip]

Appearing at an event to discuss the report on Wednesday [February 2, 2011], U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged educators and policymakers to embrace a vision of career and technical education that prepares students simultaneously for college and good-paying jobs by imparting the blend of academic and workplace skills needed in both. He acknowledged that too many CTE programs have been “dumping grounds for students tracked with weaker academic skills,” but asserted that re-envisioned programs will be “viable and rigorous pathways” to college and career success.

[snip]

The Harvard report echoes concerns captured in a stream of papers since the late 1980s that young people not bound for college face a daunting employment landscape. It draws on employment data that show more jobs demand some postsecondary training. Such figures have led President Barack Obama to urge all Americans to obtain at least one year of training or higher education after high school.

From the “Pathways to Prosperity” project (PDF):

From a U.S. perspective perhaps the most important distinction among these countries is the age at which students are separated into different tracks. Germany and Switzerland have separate middle or lower secondary schools based largely on the school’s assessment of a student’s academic potential. This is a practice we deplore, and it is no surprise that the
students in the bottom track German middle schools fare the least well in the labor market. Finland and Denmark, on the other hand, keep all students in a common, untracked comprehensive school up through grade 9 or 10, at which point students and their families, not the school, decide which kind of upper secondary education they will pursue. We believe this model makes much more sense for the U.S. to consider, but it would mean that we would have to be willing to abandon our reliance on the various forms of tracking, subtle as well as overt, that pervade much of our education system through the elementary and middle school years.

Interestingly, vocational preparation isn’t just a point of tension for students somewhere in between dropping out, going to a community college, or pursuing a four-year degree. It’s been the subject of a debate going on at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, in which the bulk of the evidence suggests (correctly, I think) that the appeal of Wall Street, law school, and consultant gigs has a lot to do with vocationally aimless kids coming out of the nation’s most expensive and elite universities having spent four years on unsaleable skills, looking for a defined, well-organized track to follow.

Wall Street’s innovation, as I see it, is recognizing that asymmetry of talent and direction,and the immense anxiety it produces. Kids coming out of the Ivy League have skills. They realize that those skills are, in many cases, unrelated to their majors, which is why Goldman Sachs hires graduates in English literature to trade bonds. And so they’re aggressively going in and telling European history majors that it’s all fine, that they’re more than good enough, and that if they come to Wall Street, they will undergo an alchemical process which leaves them somehow properly prepared to compete in the global economy. And though that might not be a process these kids really need to go through, it’s one they still think they need to go through, and so it’s an appealing pitch.

I’m of two minds about this, and probably not the right person to listen to. I was one of those kids, but I was stubbornly, self-directedly aimless, and found a job (if one in a tenuous industry) being professionally aimless. It’s worked out okay so far, even if my ROI on my education is low. But I had tremendous advantages, like a mother who specialized in freshman comp/ESL/remedial writing, and fortunate luck and timing. Having watched both the under- and over-educated struggle with the tensions between education and vocation, I can understand where this new drive towards career-driven education comes from.

The shame would be if this vocational trend neglects critical thinking. Medicine, for example, isn’t just a growing field (following the aging of the American population) with a lot of stable, well-paying jobs. It’s also one of the most critical economic dilemmas of the 21st century, so educating people to work in it will require more than technicians. And the people in it are, for all the technical things they have to do, surrounded by life and death questions that go beyond charts and graphs—one place where the liberal arts can be put to work on the ground. A return to vocational education might be inevitable given economic realities, but it’s not the only reality its professionals will work in.

 

Photograph: lorenzolambertino (CC by 2.0)

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