I Like My High School

If you read the world’s best fashion magazine – I Like My Style – then you will have seen their spread on the High School of Fashion Industries, a vocational high school in NYC that, according to its website, “devotes itself entirely to the world of fashion from styling and design through business and marketing.”  The school’s site lists a host of accolades from the New York Board of Education, the Manhattan Superintendency, the New York Times survey of school performance, and more.  They quote the National Center for Research in Vocational Education as reporting:

“Students we observed in classes and spoke with in groups were self-confident and motivated. They expressed great pride in their school, respect and admiration for their teachers, and a strong sense of commitment to their education. They clearly felt a sense of connection to the school and the school family. Students who plan to pursue careers related to the occupational focus of the school felt they were receiving a first rate education for these pursuits; students who planned on careers unrelated to the specific focus felt they were receiving strong academic preparation as well as valuable work skills… “

This spread, and the high school’s self-description and mission statement, reminded me of a segment of a podcast I heard a year or so ago – I’ve been searching for it, and can’t find it; I believe it was on either This American Life or To the Best of Our Knowledge.  It was a piece on an alternative high school that focuses all its curriculum on design and architecture skills.  (If anyone remembers this podcast, or the school it was presenting, I’d be grateful if you could point me to it.)

What struck me about both these pieces was the sense of pride the students seemed to take in their schools, and the enjoyment they got from their studies.  They wanted to learn.  Learning felt meaningful.

I would be interested in hearing your stories, opinions etc. on the value of vocational education at the high school level.  What are the advantages of providing younger teenagers with an education that focuses on specific practical skills?  What is lost when we do this?

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3 responses

  1. Siobhan, you’ve illustrated what’s positive about voc ed. What’s negative is the possibility that students who choose voc ed too early, out of boredom with academic subjects taught in isolation, out of desire to be with their friends, or because a parent or school guidance counselor recommended it, will miss out on a chance to attend college, major in an academic subject, and gain access to a top-tier career (or at least top tier as defined by the educational elite). The chance that this will happen may be vanishingly small for most students who choose voc ed; even for most who are “tracked” into it. But we are rightly horrified by the talent that was buried in the bad old days when most poor students, students of color, and non-traditional learners were directed towards non-college-prep curricula. If they were even encouraged to stay in high school at all. Out of fear that we might be repeating that story, we are VERY reluctant to see that past a certain age, you really can tell pretty well which students can be self-motivated and successful in a traditional academic curriculum, and which might do much better if permitted to build their schooling around a career or technical interest.

    • Jane: Very astute comments. Obviously, different countries (and in Canada, different provinces) have different vocational ed systems. Here in Quebec, it is relatively easy for students who follow a vocational stream in high school to adjust their trajectory when they reach CEGEP or university, and to pursue more academic studies if they’re willing to do some preparatory courses etc. My impression is that in the US, this is more difficult. Might addressing this issue be one way to remedy some of the negative fallout from vocational high school studies? I am under the impression that Switzerland has a system where students can enter vocational training in early high school, but can also re-enter the academic stream quite easily. I would love to hear more about this from anyone in the know.

      • It’s not that difficult to switch over to academic in the US either, Siobhan, since our community colleges are pretty much open enrollment. Many of our 4-year colleges are pretty close to open enrollment. It may, however, take a student who did vocational education in HS longer to complete a 4-year degree.

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