The Future of Voc Ed Is Flexibility and Choice

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my article on vocational education:

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 reforms aimed at doing better only did worse, especially because the government school monopoly used voc-ed programs as dumping grounds for children it viewed as too brown or too foreign to be worth actually educating. Now, parents and reformers distrust efforts to grow voc-ed programs, correctly fearing that both the programs and the students in them will be viewed as “second best” by the rulers of the government monopoly. “What would a good, solid high-school curriculum for a kid who wants a career in the trades look like?” is a question education reformers no longer ask.

But new programs in Oklahoma and West Virginia show there is a path to putting that question back on the agenda. It is flexibility and choice, putting adult students (in Oklahoma) and parents (in the new W.V. choice program, an ESA that includes industrial training as an eligible type of expense) back in the driver’s seat:

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!

Let me know what you think!

5 Responses to The Future of Voc Ed Is Flexibility and Choice

  1. Gary Gut says:

    Not all state run Voc Ed programs are doing a poor job, just as not all non-state programs do a good job:

    • Greg Forster says:

      I have no doubt that’s true! How to serve students well at scale is the policy question. For generations, we have had all kinds of examples of isolated local programs that did well. Efforts to reproduce or scale them through means other than choice have consistently failed.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    Good on West Virginia. I have wondered how to accommodate apprenticeship training within the broad framework of educational choice.

  3. bsels1 says:

    An unpublished report by David Goodreau, President of the Small Manufacturers Institute of California (SMI), indicates that the state’s supply of CTE teachers is diminishing rapidly with the number of retirees far outpacing the number of new teachers with skills in both their trade and educational methods. A major problem is that the Cal State system is ending voc. ed. as an available major. Too bad since these teachers are markedly better than those who simply had work experience in factories. SO, WITH MANY BILLIONS ABOUT TO BE SPENT ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND BRINGING BACK MANUFACTURING TO AMERICA, WHO WILL BE DOING THE WORK IF NO ONE IS LEFT TO TRAIN THE WORKERS? To obtain a copy of this SMI report, write David Goodreau at

  4. Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    My question reduces to this:
    What policy yields the same net subsidy into a parent’s bank account if the parents provide instruction as into the student’s bank account if parents select the apprenticeship option?
    What policy least tilts the playing field in favor of government schools, independent schools,homeschooling parents, or apprenticeship programs?

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