Learning That Works

Dismissed by the left, vocational schools are making a comeback with new approaches that push kids to graduate — and get them jobs too

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Mark Peterman / Getty Images for TIME

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Unfortunately, the education establishment's response to the voc-ed problem only made things worse. Over time, it morphed into the theology that every child should go to college (a four-year liberal-arts college at that) and therefore every child should be required to pursue a college-prep course in high school. The results have been awful. High school dropout rates continue to be a national embarrassment. And most high school graduates are not prepared for the world of work. The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates who are not in school is a stratospheric 33%. The results for even those who go on to higher education are brutal: four-year colleges graduate only about 40% of the students who start them, and two-year community colleges graduate less than that, about 23%. "College for everyone has become a matter of political correctness," says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University. "But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a quarter of new job openings will require a bachelor of arts degree. We're not training our students for the jobs that actually exist." Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun to run out of welders, glaziers and auto mechanics--the people who actually keep the place running.

In Arizona and more than a few other states, that is beginning to change. Indeed, the old notion of vocational education has been stood on its head. It's now called career and technical education (CTE), and it has become a pathway that even some college-bound advanced-placement students are pursuing. About 27% of the students in Arizona opt for the tech-ed path, and they are more likely to score higher on the state's aptitude tests, graduate from high school and go on to higher education than those who don't. "It's not rocket science," says Sally Downey, superintendent of the spectacular East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Ariz., 98.5% of whose students graduate from high school. "It's just finding something they like and teaching it to them with rigor." Actually, it's a bit more than that: it's developing training programs that lead to jobs or recognized certification, often in partnership with local businesses. Auto shop at East Valley, for example, looks a lot different from the old jalopy that kids in my high school used to work on. There are 40 late-model cars and the latest in diagnostic equipment, donated by Phoenix auto dealers, who are desperate for trained technicians. "If you can master the computer-science and electronic components," Downey says, "you can make over $100,000 a year as an auto mechanic."

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