A Steady Job as an Education Priority

August 25, 2009

For release noon Aug. 25 and thereafter (549 words)

As parents and teachers, we are concerned about railroading a student into a career track far below his or her potential. It is generally agreed that a broad liberal education benefits most students even when it consists of the continual reiteration of eternal verities upon reluctant minds.

The fantasy is that one day a young person’s unique talent will be recognized by a selfless and insightful teacher-mentor who will lead him or her into a career that is financially and emotionally rewarding.

However, if the modeling career or an NFL contract does not come through, what’s wrong with a back-up plan? Being unable to work, dependent on family or public assistance for a prolonged period of time, undermines the freedom and creativity of anyone, retarding his or her social relationships and causing psychological suffering.

In years past, manufacturing and military conscription offered vocational training for students leaving secondary school. Presently, in these uncertain times, parents are unaccustomed to and feel inadequate in advising their children on careers.

Few expect adult children, even financially secure ones, to pay their parents’ bills. Yet, parents have much to gain by seeing their children settled in rewarding careers. A classical philosopher commented that the young do not owe their elders respect if they were not provided with the means of earning a living.

Lynn Peters, director of Business-Education Partnerships in Wisconsin, notes that high schools often direct most of their efforts toward the 25 percent of students who graduate from college. What happens to the 75 percent that drop out of either high school or college? Most get introductory kinds of jobs but over several years they develop financial commitments exceeding their wages. Many wind up in technical college at age twenty-seven.

So how can parents learn what vocational education is available at a particular local high school?

Preferably, school counselors sit down with parents and students and discuss options before or during the first year of secondary school. Scrolling down through information on ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced fee lunches, ISTEP scores and teacher salaries, each actual class offered at your local school is listed along the per-student cost expended for that class compared with the state average. From this list of classes, one can deduce what career paths are provided.

Otherwise, one can use the Indiana Office of Career and Technical Education website to figure out if a specific school currently supports a particular program (outlines of 16 basic career clusters, with subset pathways in business, finance, the arts, etc., are available on that same website).   

Without falling into the trap of believing that the present recession is a not- to-be-missed opportunity, students together with their parents may begin to consider skill-based education or, at least, a preliminary career orientation. Vigilance, of course, is needed to ensure that vocational education not detract from general education and a child’s future.

Prospects can be good. Cooperative work-study programs combining the last two years of high school and the first two years of college are worth exploring, particularly for someone not on track to obtain a four-year university degree. Statistics from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education indicate that students who complete four or more vocational classes in high school have the highest chance of obtaining secure employment.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a member of the associate faculty at Indiana University South Bend. Contact her at ipr@iquest.net. (The white paper on which this essay is based can be downloaded here.)


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