Could Vocational Education Be Progressive?

By Graubard, Allen | Radical Teacher, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Could Vocational Education Be Progressive?


Graubard, Allen, Radical Teacher


In the past century, the rapid development of compulsory and universal schooling has been accompanied by an unprecedented differentiation of school formats and curricula in high schools and more recently in colleges. Stratification in secondary education has been universal. Though I will concentrate on the U.S., it is helpful to keep in mind that stratification and differentiation characterize all mass education systems, whatever the histories and political structures of particular countries.

The basic concept of an "academic" track is familiar. Almost everyone reading this essay has gone through an "academic" high school program. And almost everyone was aware at the time that there were other "tracks" within their high schools, less academic in their content and pedagogy, where students who were predominantly not from elite levels in the social hierarchy were placed. For some students, there was "vocational education," taking place in "shops" within the comprehensive high schools or--mainly in older industrial cities--in separate vocational high schools. In this two part essay, I will be looking closely at current "detracking" debates, at actual policies, and at the most vivid form that differentiation has historically taken, namely "vocational education," all within the framework of Radical Teacher's concern in this issue with progressive education.

To most people, the term "progressive education" conjures up images of school that are quite different from the ordinary school experiences. In a well-known New Yorker cartoon of a generic progressive classroom (almost certainly a private school), a student asks the teacher "do we have to do what we want to do again today?" I imagine that few readers of this essay experienced progressive education in this sense. Those who did probably had the luck of being able to afford an old Deweyan institution such as New Lincoln, Elizabeth Irwin, or Dalton, in New York City. Though some anti-progressives seem to claim that the cartoon idea seeped into almost all regular public school classrooms, pedagogical progressives actually had little effect in the real world of public schools. Remember your own high school: were there desks in rows, teacher-dominated classrooms, many "academic" requirements, almost no student initiatives or small group projects outside of the classroom or emphasis on individual creativity, motivation via the incentive or threat of grades? Such a school experience was certainly not progressive in the pedagogical sense.

Histories of schooling also use the term in a second sense, linked to the political reform movement called "Progressivism," and to its intention of applying newly-evolved ideas of efficient bureaucratic administration to institutions of all kinds. Historian David Tyack's excellent study, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Harvard University Press, 1974) introduced the term "administrative progressives" for those who promoted an efficiency-minded, top-down approach to organizing schools. The classical account of this movement is Raymond Callahan's Education and the Cult of Efficiency (University of Chicago Press, 1962). It shows how the standard model of school administration came to incorporate ideas of "scientific management" drawn from the factory.

Accounts that narrate and criticize this century-long process come from a wide range of political positions, from the Marxism of Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis's Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, to what is generally thought of as the conservativism of Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. These accounts provide a broader frame than does the cartoon: in it, one can understand the development of the kind of high schools almost all of us went through--with standardized classrooms, classification of students through testing, and tracking them through differentiated curricula--as the primary institutionalization of progressive politics. …

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