Higher Education

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | May 3, 2021

The future of vocational education: flexibility and choice

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

School choice is the future of vocational education. It’s better for students, better for industry, and better for our economy. Innovative approaches in Oklahoma and West Virginia can help show the way.

Vocational education—training for careers in “the trades” and industry—is great in theory, but it’s tricky to make it work in practice. Parents’ and students’ distrust of voc-ed programs run by the government school monopoly is as widespread as it is well-earned. New programs in Oklahoma and West Virginia point the way to a solution: put the parents and students themselves in charge, and let them build an education that works.

Demand for more alternatives to the educational “college track” has been vocal in ed-reform circles for more than a decade. The big push in the early 2000s (associated with the No Child Left Behind law) to strengthen traditional academic core competencies in K-12 education was originally accompanied by a concern for “college readiness” and for helping more kids enter college and succeed there. For a time, college entrance rates and college completion rates stood alongside standardized test scores in math and reading as key metrics of reform success.

It wasn’t long before a backlash emerged. “Not everybody needs to go to college!” became a common refrain, and reasonably so. As No Child Left Behind gave way to Common Core, the language of “college readiness” among education reformers became “college and career readiness.” Interest in college stats as core measurements of success declined, leaving math and reading scores at the center of the conversation.

However, real alternatives to the college track never emerged. Common Core still centered on basic academic competencies like math and reading, along with much empty claptrap about educational fads like “21st century skills” (don’t ask). From start to finish, the de facto standard for “college and career readiness” was college readiness. No one was really asking questions along the lines of: What would a good, solid high-school curriculum for a kid who wants a career in the trades look like?

The reason for this was not that all the people writing curricular standards for No Child Left Behind and Common Core were politically connected, college-elite snobs from the arrogant chattering classes, unable to imagine a life worth living that involves getting paid to work with one’s hands. Well, okay, the reason was not only that all the people writing standards for No Child Left Behind and Common Core were politically connected, college-elite snobs from the arrogant chattering classes, unable to imagine a life worth living that involves getting paid to work with one’s hands. Nor is the problem merely that the training needs of modern industry change too quickly for a sluggish government monopoly to keep up.

There has never been a time in American history when the government school monopoly did voc-ed well. In the 19th century, when the system was created, the strategy was to provide everyone a very basic “three Rs” education in K-8 schools, then turn the kids over to various forms of apprenticeship and on-the-job training. (High school was only for the tiny minority who were destined for college.) So the actual vocational education was being handled by employers and others, not the government system.

It’s true that one of the justifications for creating the government monopoly in the first place was to prepare students better for the new careers of modern industry. Traditional schooling by tutors and church schools was thought to be insufficient for the modern world. But the contribution of the government schools was not to do the actual job training; that was for industry. The government schools were there to break the students’ spirits by subjecting them to rigorous regimes of rote monotony and obedience to tyrannical authority, which was thought to prepare the students well for the lives that the factory owners envisioned for them. (Whether something is good for the people it is imposed upon, as opposed to good for the rich and powerful who wish to exploit those people, is not a question Big Government typically asks.)

A series of 20th century education reforms only made things worse from the point of view of students aiming for the trades. “Middle school” was invented and separated from “elementary school,” in the hope of using those intermediate years to more intentionally sift the students who could handle college from those who needed to be prepared for industry, and serve both groups better. Thus for the first time the “college track” was formally introduced, and was treated as the ideal educational path.

Much worse, though, was the way the new voc-ed programs, and the “sifting” process designed to identify who belonged in them, intersected with America’s racism and nativism. In practice, the process of identifying students whose minds were not suited for a more academically challenging higher education consisted largely of examining their skin color and first language. The voc-ed programs created to serve these disfavored students often did little more than warehouse them.

The stench of that experience has remained down to the present day. Efforts to introduce better voc-ed in government schools consistently fail. They do not typically fail because they are resisted by the system, but because they are resisted by parents and education reformers, who fear—with good reason—that students in these programs will be viewed by the system as second-rate, and will thus get second-rate service.

In the last year, however, new approaches to voc-ed have emerged in Oklahoma and West Virginia that point toward dealing with the root of the problem—lack of parent and student control. In northeastern Oklahoma, a local program called Skills to Rebuild redirected $1 million of pandemic-related job-training assistance for adults away from older, rigid programs that impose a preset curriculum. Adult students can use the funds to build a flexible training program that actually meets their needs. Governor Kevin Stitt is now considering expanding the program statewide.

West Virginia’s new school choice program follows the same principle in K-12 schooling. Like most new school choice policies these days, the program is an Education Savings Account, which creates a bank account parents can use to pay for private-school tuition and other eligible educational services. West Virginia’s new twist on the model is to include eligibility for tuition toward industrial training. Parents can combine traditional academic educational services from private schools and other providers with training programs that deliver credentials that can be used to enter the trades.

Of course, every child needs educational essentials that are not directly tied to careers. Nobody knows that better than parents, and I trust parents far more than I trust a government monopoly that is endlessly obedient to conscienceless economic and political elites to make sure schooling isn’t reduced to mere career training. But for the sake of those who don’t trust parents, it’s worth pointing out that this program—like all school choice programs—doesn’t exempt families from mandatory-education laws that require parents to give their children a complete education.

With parents and students in charge, it becomes possible to integrate the educational essentials everyone needs with real industrial training. Nobody is chained to some monopoly’s second-rate idea of what those people need. And of course, this flexibility not only ensures the individual student gets the training that is most needed and the best fit for that student, it also ensures the content of vocational education keeps up with the rapidly changing economy. No need to expect a sluggish government bureaucracy to constantly revise its central command-and-control curriculum to make sure it stays up to date!

School choice is the future of vocational education. It’s better for students, better for industry, and better for our economy and our country.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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