In the latest round of Education Lab IQ, we answer the question that received the most votes from readers: Do we focus too much on preparing students for college?

Share story

In the latest round of Education Lab IQ, the question that received the most votes from readers was: “The current testing-oriented education environment seems to assume that every student should go to college. Is this a realistic assumption, or should we be focusing also on educating students who are not ‘college material?’ ”

Thanks to Christopher Hodgkin, who submitted it, and all of you who voted.

As soon as we posted this question online, several readers pointed out what they saw as a false dichotomy embedded within it. That is, the old image of college as four years on an ivy-covered campus is increasingly giving way to programs that offer hit-the-ground-running career skills, often developed outside of libraries and lecture halls.

The trouble is, Washington’s beefed-up requirements for a high-school diploma — which focus primarily on more rigorous academics — seem to be at odds with the need: some 600,000 jobs forecast in the next four years that will require specialized training or certification, but not necessarily a college degree.

Meanwhile, state officials say the number of students enrolling in career and technical education (known as CTE) has grown, from 18.5 percent of all ninth-through-12th graders in the 2006-07 school year to 20 percent this year.

Those numbers represent an overall average, of course. The reality between districts varies widely, with rural areas tending to offer more career-training programs than urban ones.

“There are a lot of young people who went out to college like we asked them to and had no idea why,” says Ken Emmil, assistant superintendent for Career and College Readiness at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We have a significant population of kids who graduate high school and go into college with no end in mind.”

Apparently, many of those students never complete their higher-education degrees.

So the short answer to this Education Lab IQ question is: Yes, state officials say we must provide more career-pathway options for kids who don’t want to go to college.

Earlier this month, the business group Washington Roundtable released a study showing that only 31 percent of high-school graduates here go on to earn a college degree or training certificate after graduation.

Jay Leviton, who has been running the Career and Technical Education program in the Renton School District for more than three decades, cringes at that number.

“We tell kids, ‘You will be successful with a college degree,’ but we know that’s not always true,” he said. “And who’s going to build our houses or fix our cars or fix our plumbing?”

For this reason, Renton now defines “college” as any kind of education or training post-high school, and Leviton notes that many living-wage jobs — medical assistant, for example — do not demand a four-year degree.

Like Kent and Bellevue, Renton schools are introducing CTE classes much earlier than they used to, rooting the idea of career training in middle school. Next fall, Renton’s new Vera Risdon Middle School will open with labs for robotics, aerospace and health careers.

Kent, meanwhile, is sending 50 high-school students from Phoenix Academy through a program at Green River Community College where they will learn mechatronics (a combination of electronics and mechanics) while simultaneously racking up credits toward an associate degree. And those 11th- and 12th-graders already see their younger siblings receiving career training in middle and elementary grades.

“High school’s too late to start,” said Lori Paxton, director of CTE in Kent.

Bellevue, too, says demand for career training is on the rise among seventh- and eighth-graders, particularly in computer coding.

“I was certain this was more than a middle-school student could handle,” said Marilyn Henselman who directs CTE in that district. “But we added a class in Python 2 — which is what some kids are doing in college — and they all wanted it. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it.”

This scenario fits into a file you could name Everything-Old-is-New-Again. In other words, we have been here before.

Education in the trades soared between World War I and 1960. But since then, it has been attacked by academics and researchers as a second-class tier into which students of color are too often funneled. Not surprisingly, CTE programs in many districts began to wither.

But supporters like Emmil point out that trades today often require students to possess solid math skills. And Washington’s most robust programs have strong partnerships with industry.

The college prep vs. vocational education argument frustrates Heidi Bennett, a Seattle parent who sees a hole in her district’s career-training options.

She wonders why Washington can’t create something statewide like the popular Running Start program — but for career certification, rather than academic credit.

Running Start allows high-school juniors and seniors to take classes at community college, earning a diploma and an associate degree simultaneously. Bennett envisions something similar for career-and-technical training, a program that would allow students to leave 12th grade with their diploma and credentials to work in automotive, nursing or other fields that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could use a CTE certificate as a carrot, something that would give kids a vision for a career?” she said.

In fact, Career Start already exists in the Highline and Federal Way school districts.

Bennett plans to ask the statewide PTA to adopt the model as a statewide priority.

“Let’s face it, not all kids want to go on to more school for four years, but every kid deserves a real career opportunity when they get out of high school,” Bennett said.