Vocational Education for a Post-Industrial Society

Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life
by Nancy Hoffman
(Harvard Education Press, 224 pp., $29.95)

The most important aspect of Nancy Hoffman’s recent book Schooling in the Workplace is that it reminds us of how seriously vocational education has been neglected in the general concern about school reform, especially at the high school level.

As a culture imbued with the mystique of equality of educational opportunity, Hoffman suggests, we have pursued a policy of “one size fits all,” i.e. everyone has the right to some kind of post-secondary education.  This single-minded prescription has had unfortunate consequences; vocational education has taken a back seat, and as a result, most programs that do exist at the typical high school prepare students for a world of work that no longer exists, and relatively few opportunities exist for students to serve as interns in real work situations.

In this book, Nancy Hoffman looks at countries that have adopted a very different approach.  The best known, because it has been integral to the German way of life for generations of students, has been captured in a powerful essay by Robert Schwartz.  He argues that, despite the traditional emphasis on “tracking” (identifying students for potential vocational tracks as early as 4th grade), there is much in the German system that could be of great value to this country.  Much of the instruction is integrated, with the classroom serving as a springboard for students to learn fundamental academic skills in the workplace. Expectations, like the new Common Core standards here, have been defined to assure basic competencies upon graduation from high school.  Another key element in the German system is the conscious effort to build bridges with institutions of higher learning. This is of particular relevance to the U.S., where more than 50% of students attending institutions of higher learning attend community colleges, most of which operate completely independently from their secondary school counterparts

In other countries, most notably Austria, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, VET (Vocational Educational Training) is being offered in ways not dissimilar from Germany. Recent experiments have done much to take VET out of the traditional classroom and put it where it most appropriately belongs – in the real world context of the post-industrial society characteristic of all highly developed countries.

In her last chapter, the author does her best to explain the bearing of all of this on life in the U.S.  She identifies places where solid CTE (Career and Technical Education) takes place in isolation from mainstream public education, places like “Big Picture Learning Schools,” Project “Lead the Way,” and “Linked Learning” – all of which combine academic foundations with in-depth study in a career area.  She reviews favorably the National Governors Association’s interest in addressing the whole arena of workplace education as well as the long tradition at Northeastern University in Boston in dovetailing the world of work with the classroom.

Nancy Hoffman’s approach is suggestive rather than prescriptive. America’s traditional approach is so different from much of the rest of the world as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to offer readers specific suggestions.  Rather, the significance of the book is in envisioning career education as an integral aspect of the entire educational process, particularly at this time of joblessness, economic uncertainty and unprecedented change. Most of all, Ms Hoffman reminds us of the intimate relationship between education and training in an era of rampant vocationalism and technological revolution.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down can be found here.

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