Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Is vocational training the magic bullet for boys' education?

EducationAndrew Smiler

There’s no doubt that boys’ educational achievement is not what it used to be. In many ways, it’s better. Federal statistics indicate that more boys attend college these days than ever before. Yes, they’re outnumbered by women on many campuses and in total numbers, but that doesn't change the fact that more guys attend college every year. Women’s attendance has increased faster, which is why guys are outnumbered. And this pattern of more students, especially more female students, applies to all racial groups in the US.

There’s no doubt that boys’ educational achievement is not what it used to be. In many ways, it’s better.

Yet the fact that young women outnumber young men at all levels of higher education is troubling to some commentators. I don’t think gender isn’t the real issue here. It’s not as though all boys learn one way and all girls learn another way, nor are there certain learning styles that are exclusive to boys and others that are exclusive to girls. Sure, some learning styles are more common to one group than the other, but “more common” is different than “exclusive to.”

The real problem is that our educational system is no longer particularly good at doing its job. Blame whatever you like, more testing, distrust of teachers, insufficient funding, the self-esteem movement, teachers’ (or schools’) inability to adapt to technology or the newer generations, etc. There are certainly enough “causes” out there. Christina Hoff Sommers recently suggested the problem—or the solution, anyway—is to create more tech-oriented programs because those programs have always been and still are male-dominated. She notes that colleges named “Tech” usually have more guys than girls on campus.

I’m not sure why that would further increase the number of dudes who attend college, or how that would somehow change the male:female ratio. The nerds and their kin who make up the bulk of students in tech majors like engineering and computer science courses have always gone to college in large numbers. Honestly, the only 18 year old science whiz I know who isn’t attending college is Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. And given the overall increase in enrollment, we know the male:female ratio problem isn’t happening because lots of middle class boys are refusing college.

But I think Hoff Sommers may be on to something when she highlights the fact that the group “male” has a stronger preference for working with things (vs. people) than the group “female.” That difference is well established.

Although the primary purpose of schooling is to provide an education, it’s also meant to prepare students for jobs or for further education that will lead to a job. Over the last few decades, public schooling has also come to be seen as a way out of poverty and thus a social intervention. It’s certainly true that more education means greater income, on average, and being a college graduate is still something to be proud of.

But sending kids to college seems to have become the primary goal for many school systems and the bulk of their students; that doesn’t make sense given who some of the students are, the reality of their lives, and the reality of both high school and college teaching. As a result, we don’t provide a meaningful education for those who can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t go.

We know a lot about which kids drop out of high school or dramatically underachieve. On the underachieving side, we side lots of kids with learning disorders of one sort or another; boys typically outnumber girls here. Although many of them do attend and graduate college, many find academic work exhausting, frustrating, and unfulfilling. If that’s your experience of high school, or K-12 education overall, why sign up for another four years?

Hands-on vocational training, especially where it’s meaningfully integrated with an educational program, has the potential to change that. Although traditionally related to auto mechanics, woodworking, and other blue collar jobs, it can also work for some facets of computer network support, graphic design, and computer aided design (CAD). Building, creating, or designing something that then happens in the real world is a powerful reward and provides a clear sense of accomplishment. From there, and in conversation with an adult who makes their living in the field, it’s easy to imagine working up the ladder or owning your own business. That’s the kind of motivator that can make a boy interested in his schoolwork.

The nerds and their kin who make up the bulk of students in tech majors like engineering and computer science courses have always gone to college in large numbers.

The characteristics of kids who drop out, do poorly, or stop their schooling after high school haven’t really changed in the last fifty years or so. Those kids are particularly likely to be growing up in or near poverty, be raised by a single parent, have parents who either didn’t complete high school or did not attend college, or have a family member with a severe physical limitation or mental health problem. The combination of low parental education and low family income typically means the child attends a relatively impoverished school, has less access to non-school educational opportunities, and has parents who are less able to help with schoolwork either because it’s beyond their own learning or no parent is available; the last might be the result of illness, physical or mental, or work schedule (evenings only, two jobs, etc.). There’s also a good chance that parent had their first child before they turned 20. The negative effects of early parenthood – less education, lower wages, and greater likelihood of being in jail or on public assistance – are about the same for boys as they are for girls. This is the cycle of poverty. Providing these boys with education and training that provides them with directly employable skills, as well as an employer that might very well hire them, will do more to ease their financial status than promising them something good will happen in four more years, especially if they have to take out loans to attend college.

Germany, for example, was well-regarded for providing students on the non-university track with a two or three year internship throughout high school where they’d learn marketable skills. Those internships were half- or full-day, paid (at least after the first year), and routinely lead to jobs. Students’ coursework was more applied: language courses had more business correspondence and less Shakespeare while math courses had more accounting and less pre-calculus. Although not the white collar, prestigious careers like engineering that Hoff Summers is imagining, IT professionals, designers, and draftsmen make good money. So do folks in the more “traditional” vocations like plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. Many of those jobs are difficult to export.

The German system has its problems and was severely tested after reunification. The most vexing problem to implementation in the US would be tracking. Students choose either the collegiate or vocational track around age 15 and, in the German system, were not able to switch out. As we know, separate is not equal, so there would be real risk of creating a permanent underclass by always steering those kids into the vocational track. That said, I don’t think we’re doing kids who aren’t going to attend college any favors by giving them the same education as their college-bound peers. Wouldn’t they be better served by providing an education that will lead to a good paying job and give them (some) of the knowledge they need to manage others or run their own business?

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I admit that better vocational education in high school won’t change the gender imbalance at the college level. After all, most college majors lead to jobs dealing with people, not things, so there’s a bias towards fields that women are more likely than men to choose. Maybe it’s time to rethink who should go to college and what purpose it serves. Expanded and meaningful technical education would help keep boys who aren’t college-ready from getting stuck in dead end, low paying jobs for the rest of their lives. And that would probably help them lead more fulfilling lives, make them better partners and fathers, diminish the school-to-prison pipeline, and help give us a more stable economy.

–image from Photo Dudes/flickr