This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been talking about (economic) opportunity—the role of education for preparing students eventually to enter the workforce through career and technical education and apprenticeships. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, DeVos has proposed expanding apprenticeships to help fill openings for 6 million “good” jobs.
Surely students pursuing career and technical paths of study need and deserve better education, but we cannot assume that federal support for a modest expansion of apprenticeships is a solution for a large and complex challenge. Emphasizing individualism as usual, DeVos said, “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success… We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like… We need to start treating students as individuals… not boxing them in.”
Something is missing from DeVos’s soundbite individualism. Here is Mike Rose—the longtime educator, education writer, and professor of education at UCLA—also expressing concern for individual students, but in a more nuanced and personal way: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)
In a new blog post, Rose reflects on what is often framed as an either-or debate: college-for-all versus what has traditionally been called vocational education: “This debate is an important one and is of interest to me… because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all. The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.” In a more recent book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose also considers the mix of career and technical education and the liberal arts that is the subject of today’s debate on who should get what kind of education. His recent blog post is adapted from Back to School‘s final chapter.
Rose warns against precisely the kind of narrow conversation we’ve read about in Washington, D.C. this week about college vs. apprenticeships: “Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky-rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of ‘educating our way into the new economy.’ And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality. On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.”
Rose isn’t willing to give up on the educational part of education and reduce the student’s experience to mere job training: “The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work… The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work?”
Rose cautions that we really do need to think about the individual needs of students, but this doesn’t mean some sort of libertarian concept of individual freedom: “We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared… Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.”
Rose suggests that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”
Rose’s thinking takes us much deeper than the conversation in Washington, D.C. this week about jobs and apprenticeships: “I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?”
Rose cautions, however, that educators must be fully attentive to that first question: What is the experience of opportunity? “It is important to remember… that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience…. (S)tudents will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites… The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country… (A)dvocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.”
I urge you to read Rose’s blog post, along with any or all of these books: Why School?, Back to School, and The Mind at Work. What is absent in today’s soundbite-driven, twitter-limited public conversation is serious reflection on educational, economic, and ethical considerations that ought to be the foundation for public policy.