Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs," may seem like an unlikely voice in the country's contentious debate on the public education system.
But the television personality has become a leading advocate for vocational education programs in the nation's schools. He forcefully testified in front of Congress last month that the country needs a "a national PR campaign for skilled labor" in order to battle prejudices against it in society. His speech praising the country's plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, and other tradesmen clearly struck a chord--it was shared by tens of thousands of people on Facebook.
"We've elevated the importance of 'higher education' to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled 'alternative,'" he said. "Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as vocational consolation prizes, best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of 'shovel ready' jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel."
Fortunately for Rowe, a few influential voices in K-12 education are now on his side, after decades of deep skepticism about shop class and other vocational programs, where education reformers worried teachers warehoused under-performing kids they didn't want in regular classrooms.
Speaking to The Lookout, Rowe said cultural prejudices against tradesmen with "dirty jobs" are holding both young people and the nation's economy back.
"We don't encourage our kids to pursue those careers--we don't aspire to those things," he says. "It's the first thing we'll portray in a negative or typical way on TV. There's the plumber: He's 300 pounds and his butt crack's hanging out."
The new crop of advocates behind Rowe's cause argue that good vocational education doesn't mean kids have to choose between college and a career. They point out that some of the best new vocational programs combine rigorous academic standards with career-focused, real-world curricula and offer the opportunity for students to earn certificates in high-earning fields while they're still teenagers.
But the prejudices are still there, vocational ed advocates say, and are especially pernicious among the influential education reformers who have advanced most of the innovations in K-12 schools over the past few years. These reformers have largely adopted a "college for all" approach, arguing that expecting anything less from kids would discourage them from performing well at school.
It's true that employment data seems to bear out their argument that college is the best way to a career, at least in the aggregate. In April, only 4.5 percent of those with bachelors degrees were unemployed, compared to 7.5 percent of those with associates degrees or some college and 9.7 percent for those with only a high school diploma. Nearly 15 percent of high school dropouts are unemployed, and long-term employment trends suggest that the jobs of the future will increasingly require some post-secondary education.
However, thanks to a news-making report authored by two Harvard professors, recent skepticism over the skyrocketing price of college, and concerns about rising unemployment rates for high school graduates who may not have the means or desire to attain a bachelors degree, vocational education is now getting a fresh look.
Robert Schwartz, a Harvard Education School professor who has long argued against "tracking" students into less demanding classes and for universal standards in K-12 schools, surprised some in the education world when he released the searing "Pathways to Prosperity" report in February. That study argued that an exclusive focus on four-year college in high school is "doomed to fail," and leaves the country's most vulnerable kids jobless and skill-less. The four-year college obsession is pushing low-income kids to drop out of high school entirely in some cases, Schwartz says--and thereby perversely achieving the exact opposite effect reformers want.
Meanwhile, employers in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM) industries complain they can't find skilled Americans to fill thousands of open jobs. Just today, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, the head of President Obama's jobs advisory panel, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that there are "more than two million open jobs in the U.S., in part because employers can't find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills they need."
Schwartz didn't single out the education reform movement in his report, but did cite "enormous" and "deeply rooted" prejudices against vocational education as a barrier to ensuring more kids have access to job training. He told The Lookout there's a perception among elites--who largely drive innovation in K-12 education--that job-focused education is "for other people's kids."
"Historically--in the last 25 to 30 years in any event--vocational education in the United States has been seen as second class," Schwartz said. "It's good for other people's kids, not our own kids, is the way people frame it. I think particularly in urban districts there's been a sense that vocational education has too often been seen as a place to dump kids you don't know what to do with."
To Schwartz's surprise, education reform leaders like former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein endorsed the report, which he says gives him hope that the tide is turning. Several states are holding summits to discuss the report's findings and how they can help high school students transition more quickly into a career, he says.
Schwartz says he fell out of line with mainstream opinion in educational reform circles when the goal "morphed" from giving all kids a solid foundation of knowledge and skills to preparing all kids for a four-year college. At about 10th grade, some students have avoided dropping out but find themselves bored and frustrated by school. Telling them they have to go to college will just alienate them, Schwartz stressed, and may even push them to drop out.
Moreover, Schwartz said it's wrongheaded to ignore other post-secondary education opportunities, like associates degrees in technical fields or certificate programs. Research suggests about a quarter of people with licenses or certificates short of an associates degree earn more than the average person with a bachelors' degree. Many of those 2 million jobs Immelt says are open because of a lack of skilled employees would only require a post-secondary certificate and training. Electricians, construction managers, dental hygienists, police officers, paralegals and other "middle skill" workers can all earn a significant premium over college graduates by going through relatively short certificate programs.
For his part, Rowe says he tries to show how admirable tradesmen professions are on his show, where he's filmed attempting to learn a new "dirty" job in each episode, which serves as a kind of mini-apprenticeship for the audience. "What I really am is a fan of the people who take a time to learn a skill and master a trade," he says.
Rowe told The Lookout that he thinks there would not be an unemployment crisis if the U.S. labor force were more skilled. He points out that there were 200,000 open manufacturing jobs, and 480,000 more in trade, transportation and utilities this April, but no one to fill them.
Even though vocational programs have fallen out of favor in the education reform movement, their enrollment has risen steadily over the past 10 years, from 6.5 million in 1999 to 9.6 million in 2007. Yet many of those programs are still not working--kids labor away on outdated equipment and emerge lacking skills in both basic academics and their chosen vocation. For every Aviation High School in Queens, New York--where kids clamor for entry to a school that graduates them with the skills to nab a $60,000 per year job in aviation--there's an Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago, where even the best of intentions and buy-in from the local business community has not been able to lift the academic performance of its impoverished student body.
It's not always easy to create a strong program from scratch--nor is it easy to turn around an underperforming vocational program, especially as money at the federal and state level for those projects dries up. In our next post in this series, we'll discuss some of the vocational education programs that have failed, as well as some of the new and exciting programs, like Linked Learning in California, that may provide a national model for public schools to emphasize career training while providing kids with a solid academic foundation. Stay tuned!
(Rowe: AP/Paul Kizzle)