[T]he very best service which any one can render to what is called the higher education is to teach the present generation to provide a material or industrial foundation. On such a foundation as this will grow habits of thrift, a love of work, economy, ownership of property, bank accounts. Out of it in the future will grow practical education, professional education, positions of public responsibility. Out of it will grow moral and religious strength. Out of it will grow wealth from which alone can come leisure and the opportunity for the enjoyment of literature and the fine arts. (1)
Our national aspirations have long championed the value of education as the gateway to life opportunity. It is the avenue through which all Americans, regardless of their geographic, economic, or ethnic origins may have an opportunity for economic advancement. In truth, however, some may argue that scholars, practitioners, and policymakers face a lack of political will to critically examine and address persistent educational disparities in opportunity that further entrench employment and wealth stratification. Countess scholars and educational advocates have called for a major overhaul of our education systems, and indeed, in previous articles I have discussed the critical role that federal political branches play in shaping educational opportunity--alternately ameliorating and perpetuating deeply entrenched inequities. (2) It is abundantly clear, however, that no single educational policy suggestion will yield the kind of comprehensive, multidimensional solutions necessary to address the myriad ways in which geography, race, ethnicity, wealth, and income too often serve as determinants for access to quality education and thus life opportunity. We must also look to places of political will and practical expediency. One area that is ripe for analysis is the potential of "federally encouraged" educational innovations that may partially alleviate some of the intractable educational disparities that capture our collective consciousness. One such educational innovation that federal policy has alternately aided and hampered is the role of vocational education, more recently known as career and technical education, in expanding educational and employment opportunities. This form of skills-based learning has sustained criticism for creating or maintaining systems of educational and economic stratification. Yet, is it possible that if such programs were well conceived and structured for current academic and employment needs, they might be more effective in providing marketable skills to those students who might otherwise struggle to remain in the education system? If so, there may be some normative implications in examining the role of vocational education in shaping how we conceive of multi-layered responses to persistent educational disparities.
This Essay suggests we may have a critical opportunity to improve the human social capital of the American workforce by reviving and reimagining vocational education that is designed to prepare students for today's global, knowledge-based economy. (3) A current focus on college preparedness alone "ignores the reality that most students will not immediately go to college, and will instead enter the workforce." (4) An examination of historic trends and current possibilities in vocational education may illuminate some of the ways in which long-standing vocational educational structures have negatively impacted the most vulnerable populations. Due to historic racial, ethnic, and income segmentation in American education, the most vulnerable students who historically have been underserved by vocational education may be better served by examining the historic failings and current possibilities.
At the same time scholars, educators, and advocates have argued for increased focus on academic achievement, school choice mechanisms have gained prominence as effective tools to attain such goals. …