The Mission of High Schools Must Be Employing Graduates

The condescension of high schools toward occupational education harms our youth. There is no nice way of putting it. There have been books written about the importance of school climate. Imagine being told you’re not sufficiently bright every day, day after day. The push to force all kids to take a college prep curriculum is telling average, below-average, English learners, and special education students that they aren’t cutting it and essentially they have no value in the high school. This elite curriculum is, and always has been, meant for the best students, about the top third.

The attitude of high schools in America must change to value preparing students for employment as part of their inherent mission. This means that high schools must embrace a basic change to their mode of operation. We must not underestimate the difficulty in creating this change. The forces of forward inertia and momentum are always difficult to alter. However, leaders of America must stand up for the supermajority of high school students who will not be going on to graduate from college. These youngsters are in desperate need of high school occupational education leading to employment skills.

The key to creating this change is including success in career technical education in the evaluation of superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, directors of special education, and high school counselors. Specifically, counselors must be held accountable for scheduling students into four-year sequences of career technical education. They also must learn about the career themes taught at the high school and about businesses in the region that employ skilled workers in the career theme offered by the high school. If career technical education isn’t part of the evaluation of these key staff, they will continue to see it as unimportant.

One of the most valuable pieces of the career academy model is having workers in the career theme come onto the high school campus to speak to students. It helps young people hear and meet role models in the specific career theme in which they are studying. These speakers can be machinists, carpenters, electronics technicians, medical assistants, food service workers, automotive technicians, or hotel front desk workers. The list of occupations goes on with levels of entry level, technical, and professional workers. The point is that these role models can be very motivating for many high school students to stay in high school. The high schools must embrace this motivation to help students complete their high school diploma and an occupational education. It may be necessary to add a period to the school day to accommodate these speakers.

First and foremost, high schools must offer a variety of career technical education programs. High school’s cannot support the preparation of students for work without having a variety of career technical education programs. Anything less would be a hollow, disingenuous promise. Far too many shops were closed to offer more sections of college prep courses. They must be reopened. Students must be systematically scheduled into career technical education courses. Career technical education courses cannot be considered to be elective courses of no consequence, which is what they’re considered to be today. Career technical education must be viewed as a program not just a semester to try out something. It takes years of career technical education courses to create an employable worker. There are no shortcuts. Certainly, this is a new concept for high schools in America. This will be a very new concept for high schools, school boards, superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, counselors and teachers. It is far past time however, to honor the supermajority of students who will not go on to graduate from college with an appropriate curriculum.

The supermajority of youth deserves an appropriate high school education and that is career technical education. High schools must learn to support their career technical education programs, their teachers, and their students. The condescension toward employment preparation must be eliminated in all high schools. Students who are high achieving in career technical education programs must be recognized at high school graduations. Business speakers must be heard at graduation ceremonies. High school websites must feature career technical education programs, their teachers, and their students. High school websites must have stories about successful employed graduates of career technical education programs. Instead of employment after high school being viewed it as a dirty word, the entire high school must honor the concept of career technical education leading to employment.

Academic achievement in high school is great. However, it is not the reason for existence of the high school. The supermajority of students must come to high school every day and feel that they have a place in the school. They must feel they have a reason for being there. This is a revolutionary idea for many educators. However, it is well past time for them to rethink the role of high schools in America. High schools must provide an appropriate education for all students. And for the supermajority of high school students, that means career technical education.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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