Jobs not jail: Bring back vocational education


After a two-year pandemic hiatus, classrooms are finally headed back to normalcy. While it’s a relief for parents, it’s going to take decades to absorb the brutal consequences of COVID on our nation’s kids.

Back in the 1990s, I was listening to a presentation by an official who ran a for-profit prison. During the Q&A, an audience member asked: “How do you know how many beds you need to build?” Without hesitation, the official said: “We extrapolate from the number of children that fail the NAEP’s fourth-grade reading exam.” The room went silent.

Conducted every four years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is a longitudinal snapshot of student attainment at fourth, eighth and 12th grades and proficiency in reading and math. It was last conducted in 2019 — pre-shutdown, giving us a baseline that abuts COVID. The 2019 NAEP showed 34% of fourth-grade students unable to read at grade level — up 3% from 2015. My bet is the next measure is going to be much bigger.

How much bigger? The Brookings Institution gauges COVID’s impact on reading at 15%. With 2023 right around the corner, we might be looking at a NAEP non-proficiency number around 50%. And if you are looking for evidence of disparate impact, NAEP failure and COVID-related failure are not colorblind.

The good news is the educational establishment knows it has a huge problem on its hands — and it has $22 billion looking for “evidence-based interventions” to address the COVID-aggravated drop in learning.

Unfortunately, the thinking on this front is neither inspired nor up to the challenge. Educators intend to open the funding spigots to pay for measures that depend for their success on high-quality teachers — teachers who don’t exist in the current labor pool.

The Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund needs to be targeted at helping the most vulnerable students.
The Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund needs to target the most vulnerable students.
Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP

What would up-to-the-challenge thinking look like?

First, a budget for big thinking. The money is there. The Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund is $200 billion, including $20 billion dedicated to closing the COVID gap for at-risk students. The problem is the default thinking that helped get us into this spot: It won’t get us out, even with this bankroll.

We know who fails these NAEP exams. Instead of watching them drown again, let’s develop an educational approach that works for them specifically and at scale.

We know what works: clarity and achievable standards for both academic and personal comportment, scrupulously enforced.

We need to go in with our eyes open. These kids have obvious problems outside the classroom holding them back academically. Clarity is key. This isn’t jail — this is an alternative to jail. Education is your child’s best chance for a good life.

These kids need a culture of learning designed to push back against the problems that exist at home or on the street. The NAEP test is made to be passed. Closing the NAEP gap ought to take priority — not a new teachers’ contract or more identity politics or a lowering of standards to satisfy woke directives.

Look behind the curtain of successful charter and Catholic schools in poor communities. You’ll find a culture of personal responsibility, tied to respect for one’s peers, teachers and the community. Lorraine Monroe made it her calling to save at-risk kids; her mantra is “The Street Stops Here.” There is too much street in our schools and in these kids’ homes. They need loving discipline and structure.

Last, make it practical, hands-on and engaging. If we want to create functional citizens from dysfunctional circumstances, meet them where they are and give them the tools and encouragement they need to rise above their circumstances.

And make it relevant to them. Communicate the immediate benefit and practical value of learning. Build lessons and classroom activities around the demonstration of an education’s real-world value. Unleash and exercise students’ common sense.

This failure at the bottom comes from our middle-class fixation on college as the only path to productive citizenship and living — even though only 40% of high-school graduates have the needed aptitude for college-level work.

The solution to the problem of at-risk kids — most of them minority males — is public trade schools. Teaching trades was once a component of public education, and some high schools were solely dedicated to grooming human capital in the practical arts and sciences. These schools and programs have all but vanished now. They need to be revived.

With all this money sitting idle, let’s invest it in building flagship vocational schools and programs within regular high schools — programs consciously designed to close the NAEP proficiency gap and prepare at-risk kids to fill those millions of unfilled, high-paying, skills-based jobs.

The choice before us is simple: a middle-class job or a prison bed. It shouldn’t be a hard call to make.

Guy Shepherd is publisher of Planned Man.



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