Vocational Degrees: Educational Decency or Destruction?

It’s June 2nd and for the past few weeks I’ve attended and seen photos and videos of many graduations from Pre-K through graduate school. No matter the grade level, the excitement is always way up there. As a Black woman and educator, graduations of Black students are exceptionally important to me for each graduate who crosses the stage represents the blood, sweat, and tears that our ancestors shed. As I posted graduation photos, a colleague of mine sent me an article and asked me the question “Have you heard of a career diploma?” I had not so I read on.

According to Roosevelt Wright at the Monroe Free Press,

The Career Diplomas prepares a student for work in one of the ten areas the state has decided are important: construction, agriculture, food and natural resources, architecture, arts, audiovisual technology and communication, health science, hospitality and tourism, human services, information technology, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and logistics.

The student receives a diploma that employers in these areas will recognize, but will not be recognized as sufficient to enter a college or a university. Noticeably absent from the curriculum is business ownership, real estate, and finance management; three career areas that lead to wealth. The career program is designed to train workers, not owners and thinkers, and leaders.

This article was written by a local reporter from New Orleans about schools in Louisiana but I couldn’t help it wonder if a diploma like this exists in New York. Sadly, It does.

According to WNYC,

Students who score below the lowest cut-off score, including students with special needs, get a certificate that is not counted as a diploma. It’s called a CDOS, a Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential. It allows students to walk across their high stage in a cap and gown, but it’s not a ticket out of high school. Students can’t apply to college with it or enlist in the military.

The new enthusiasm for vocational training is, in my opinion, a backlash to former President Barack Obama’s and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “everyone should be college-ready” philosophy.

Vocational school does have its place and I’ve had many students for whom college was not the way for them to go: trade school was. However, I do have concerns about implicit racism driving teachers and administrators to make assumptions about kids of color and/or low-income kids being best suited for this tracking. And, given the link between NYC’s CDOS credential and students with special needs, the predominance of Black children in special education alone is cause for concern about implicit bias driving the narrative behind vocational training.

According to Anthony D. Greene,

Student’s placement in the vocational program is argued to function as a unique track program that disadvantage students academically, particularly students of color. Racial-ethnic minority students are disproportionately placed into lower level academic courses and programs including vocational education. Once so placed, their subsequent enrollment patterns in specific vocational courses may have varying effects on students’ academic and career outcomes.

I’ve seen tracking played out in the lives of many people I know, most notably my husband. He was a “bad” kid. He didn’t do well in school. He got into fights. He didn’t do his classwork or homework. By the time he hit seventh grade he was placed in special education classes. After that, he went to B.O.C.E.S. – a vocational educational program in several school districts across Long Island. He did several hours of training in fashion design and a few years later applied to Fashion Institute of Technology (S.U.N.Y.), but never attended. Now he is in college pursuing his Bachelor’s degree and so often has expressed how the lack of education during his formative years has made the pursuit of higher education all the more challenging. Those challenges could have been avoided if John had not been tracked for vocation and failure.

These career degrees seem like a roadblock to true success. They’re a set-up and a waste of time. I know that everyone learns differently and at different rates, but shouldn’t all learning be productive and meaningful? These diplomas are as a result of the belief gap, increase the achievement gap, and feed the opportunity gap that Black children from lower socio-economic communities are caught within.

What do you think?

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