IF only one-quarter of high school students in the United States go on to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, what happens to the other three-quarters? That may be the biggest question in American education, but it's one that college-educated politicians and policymakers can easily lose sight of.
Congress will, we hope, keep it in view as it decides what to do with the various vocational education programs underwritten by the federal government. Not that the future of vocational education in the US hangs on the relatively small number of federal dollars that feed into the system, currently a little over $3 billion. But if that stream evaporates down to $1.4 billion or so, as seems likely, its ability to germinate innovation and to leverage state spending will shrink.
Politicians have said a great deal in recent years about lifting educational achievement among all Americans. They should now take care not to derail the progress that's beginning to take shape - such as programs to involve business more closely in setting skill standards in vocational fields.
Most important, perhaps, vocational education is finally gaining some recognition as an integral part of learning in America, not an educational slum for kids who can't handle ''real'' academics. As a new report from the American Federation of Teachers points out, the educational systems in other industrial nations set tough academic standards for all students, including those who go on to apprenticeships or technical training rather than university. As these young people move toward a career, they have certified abilities to compute, read, and write.
The US, with public education diffused among 50 states and thousands of school districts, has no nationwide scheme of standards and exams. But efforts are under way to build such a system, if not throughout the country, then at least within a number of states. One, Kentucky, has already traveled a good distance down this road. Some states, Massachusetts for example, have also developed a system of effective, academically rigorous vocational schools.
Resistance to anything that smacks of centralized educational planning is strong among Americans - strong enough, perhaps, to waylay any federal attempt at comprehensive standards-setting. But there's a powerful logic to standards that can help prepare students for work or a higher degree. Both businesses and colleges have to do a great deal of remedial teaching. The combination of standards-based reforms at the state level and strengthened vocational offerings is starting to brighten the future for that 75 percent of students who are tracked off toward educational oblivion. Congressional winnowers ought to realize that voc ed is at the core of American competitiveness.