If you haunted high school halls in the 1970s or 80s and aspired to go on to higher ed — or at least to etch as many “A” grades onto your “permanent record” as possible — you know the stigma slapped onto that other option: Vo-Tech.
“Vo-tech” students could be fine friends in certain arenas. They fit right in alongside everyone else in the football bleachers; They cracked quips you wouldn’t say but would still laugh at. But to many, vo-tech had the mark of underachievement. You attended vo-tech, the hubris went, because you couldn’t cut it in regular classes.
This was rubbish, of course. The world will always need car mechanics, plumbers, welders and others trained in the wide-ranging arts of manufacturing, repair and maintenance. The fact that you can do calculus won’t help you when the water heater breaks, anymore than expertise in thermocouples will help calculate an orbital angle of re-entry. Different tasks demand different skills.
Besides, it was not uncommon for that “vo-tech kid” to get a higher-paying job sooner than you did with your bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.
The state and nation began to recognize this reality in the 1990s. Pennsylvania shed the term vo-tech for “career and technical center,” and government started to appreciate the value of hands-on training in high-demand fields. The CTC of today bears scant resemblance to the vo-tech of the last millennium.
There are still some deep-seated problems that prevent the modern CTC from reaching full potential, greatest of which is the management structure. Locally, most centers are run jointly by multiple districts, with a representative or two from the school board of each district sitting on a CTC “Joint Operating Committee.”
This is fertile ground from cronyism and inflexibility. It invites vote swapping when hiring and contracts are on the agenda. Bureaucracy and self-interest can stall needed changes in programs to match local job skill demands.
Despite these shortfalls, they remain essential pieces in the career-preparation puzzle, and the federal government — including President Donald Trump — deserves credit for recent progress in a bipartisan bill known as “The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act.” Versions of the bill have recently passed both the House and Senate, and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Scranton) deserves particular credit helping author the Senate version and herding it through the sausage machine in a bi-partisan way.
The two chambers should work quickly to iron out differences so a final version can head to Trump’s desk. Casey touts the Senate version as giving greater control to states in shaping CTC programs while amping up accountability, both worthy goals.
Modern education is a continuum. The goal is no longer a specific degree, it’s helping students figure out what they want to do, giving them the tools to do it, and making them life-long learners able to adapt with changes in the economy.
CTCs are vital part of that continuum.