Secondary education in the United States has long had something of a split personality. It has to prepare the college-bound for higher learning, and it has to keep the not-so-academically-inclined in school and prepare them for the world of work.
Today's education reforms, particularly the setting of basic academic standards for all students, are forcing those two sides together. In particular, states are having to jettison any lingering image of "vocational education" as a backwater for low-performing students.
In fact, many states have for years been upgrading their vocational programs, with an emphasis on preparing students for today's technical fields. These aren't simply out-of-school-and-into-the-shop operations. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates of vocational and technical programs go on to some form of postsecondary schooling or training, according to the American Vocational Association.
There's little debate that all students need a grounding in subjects like math and English. It's a question of how much is enough. Should students pursuing a vocational course of studies be forced to take additional academic classes in order to pass the state tests? Are such tests written with the voc-ed student in mind?
In New York, for instance, the state is phasing in mandatory pre-graduation exams that, by 2004, will cover science, global studies, and US history and government, as well as math and English. How important is a basic mastery of such subjects to future plumbers, mechanics, computer technicians, or beauticians?
Perhaps a lot more than many young people laboring to complete four years of high school realize. Pragmatic Americans sometimes forget the public schools are supposed to be training citizens and future parents as well as workers. In addition, the information-driven economy of today and tomorrow won't be kind to people whose abilities to understand and communicate ideas were allowed to lie fallow.
New York's education officials have rightly decided to stand firm on the standards and beef up the academic side of the curriculum in its extensive system of vocational high schools.
It's still true that not every high school student will - or should - go on to college. Vocational programs fill a clear need, providing an outlet for talents not cultivated in the academic classroom. But they are not alternatives to the minimum achievement that states expect from all high school graduates. Today's stand for standards must lift all parts of the curriculum and all students.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society