The Golden Age of Education That Wasn’t

I went to work for San Diego City Schools in 1973. The next year I was promoted to work in the Career Education Unit. Staffing for the department included: a Director, one Curriculum Specialist for Industrial Technology, one for Business and Marketing Education, and one for Consumer and Family Studies and Health Education. These specialist positions were the people supporting the career technical education teachers in the secondary schools. They provided in-service training for teachers and consulted with principals of middle and high schools to help evaluate their program teachers. The department also had two Career Education Coordinators. One worked with elementary schools to support career awareness and one with secondary schools to support career exploration. I recall all ninth grade students had to write a report on a career they thought they might be interested in. The department also had a full-time Program Evaluator. In addition, the department had a full time Work Experience Coordinator who supervised a dozen career counselors in the high schools. In addition there was the occupational Operations Coordinator who took care of budget, attendance collection, job placement, and research. This substantial staffing of career education might very well be reviewed as a golden age for the subject matter.

Over the years, school superintendents wiped out two curriculum specialist positions, both career education coordinators, the entire work experience program, and the program evaluator. You can see how one could perceive the earlier time to have been the “Golden Age” of career education. This formidable staffing support demonstrated that the school board and superintendent felt career education was an essential part of education. Now with more time for introspection, even acknowledging the administrative support, I see that it really wasn’t a “Golden Age” for career technical education.

There certainly were a lot of good programs that went by the wayside. The elementary career awareness program and middle school career technicians in career centers certainly were a step in the right direction toward a comprehensive career education program. However, now I see that what we were doing was working around the edges. What we didn’t do was pressure high school principals and counselors to support getting kids through a four-year sequence of career technical education programs. The district office had a ton of talent. The Director and one of the Coordinators of Career Education had doctorates in education from UCLA, as did the Program Evaluator. The Industrial Technology Specialist had a doctorate in education from Berkeley. The Business and Consumer Specialists had national reputations, as did the Work Experience Coordinator. Eventually, I earned my doctorate in education at the University of Southern California.

With all this talent and experience, we missed the forest for the trees. Everyone in the department worked hard to support the concept of career education. However, the reality was that the high school students took only a smattering of career technical education courses. Almost no kids took a three, much less a four-year sequence of career technical education. Very few students were actually employable when they left school and we had no discernible impact on the high school dropout rate. The whole department was focused on the schools to keep the career education program going. No one raised their head and could see that we were doing the wrong thing.

We now have substantial career academy research that demonstrates the efficacy of getting students through a four-year sequence of career technical education courses. As students complete courses in a sequence of career technical education, they build serious technical skills. This is the big concept that we missed. Yes, the career education program was nice to do. However, the really important impact on students is the four-year sequence of courses. The reality is you need the instructional time with students to build skills. This means you must build a commitment from high school principals and their counselors to support sequencing of students through career technical education programs. When you have the four-year sequence, you get 900 hours of instruction to build employable skills. This is what’s really important.

The 900 hours of instruction provides the vehicle that builds the technical skills to an employable level. This sequencing of courses is what gets the student engagement in the career preparation that is demonstrated in higher attendance and graduation rates in career academies. Career academies provide the support for requiring four-year sequenced career technical education programs. From this sequenced program, you gain all the benefits of increased attendance and graduation rates, and you also gain support for instruction on soft employment skills and work ethic.

In our day of a large and well-educated administrative staff, we focused on just keeping the career technical education courses going without a thought as to what actually happened to the students. It wasn’t a “Golden Age” to look back at and try to recapture. It was a time of misguided efforts because we didn’t do enough research. Well, now we have the research and we know the sequencing of career technical education courses in career academies works to engage students and creates numerous positive outcomes.

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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