The News Journal editorial board recently called for making Delaware a place where every student “has a fair shot at higher education.” Delaware’s elites responded with a call for more vocational education and many more construction workers. But in their demand for a focus on trades, are they really creating a system with different postsecondary expectations and options for low-income and minority students in Delaware?
In a state where about half of Delaware’s third graders struggle to read and 40 percent of high school graduates need remedial college classes, we have been told over the recent weeks – sans any credible employment data – that “9000 Delaware students are on a path toward a good job.” With resumes that include education at Colgate University, Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford, Cornell University, and Salisbury State College, leaders of Delaware’s construction industry told us “not everyone needs college to get a good job” and promoted opportunities in their industry. But as enticing as the salaries for boilermaker, pipefitter, and heavy equipment operator may be, if we are being honest, rich folks –and those leading the charge for vocational education– are not preparing their children for those jobs.
Whether consciously or not, the wealthy and privileged in our society prepare their children for opportunities that protect and build upon their family wealth, social status, and societal influence. From The Montessori preschool experiences for their toddlers to the decisions to spend thousands each year on private school, these parents are able to ensure their children have competitive advantages. The decisions to move into affluent neighborhoods with access to amazing public schools, the trips abroad, and the cadre of paid supports (tutors, coaches, college admissions consultants, etc.) that maintain their children’s merit are not about preparing their children for “low to middle-skill careers.” In fact, their preparation is not even about college. It is about ensuring their children have the academic aptitude, the vast networks, the non-cognitive skills, and diverse talents to win and have options in a rapidly-evolving, globalized world.
To be clear, the opportunities in the construction industry are good, noble, valuable jobs that are necessary for Delaware to progress and prosper. And we are right to make every effort to provide innovative course offerings that help students develop marketable and practical skills. But we should ask ourselves why these are not the opportunities Delaware’s elites envision as the return on their considerable investments for their own children’s education and future.
You would be hard-pressed to find Delaware’s elite private schools preparing students for careers in culinary arts, HVAC, or early childhood education. To the extent that such courses are offered, they are a novelty and an accouterment students can leverage alongside their portfolio of academic accomplishments. It is a both/and proposition for families with abundant resources and not the either/or experience we have accepted in an education system designed to maintain social and economic status.
I am also not preparing my child for construction work because –beyond outlier cases– it is not the surest path to social and economic mobility for my family and community. It is not the best path to help close the racial wealth gap — where the median black family has just $1,700 in wealth, the median Latino family has just $2,000 in wealth, and the White median household wealth is $116,800. Our college-for-some approach is not how we are going to increase access and diversify decision-making in a country where people of color are underrepresented in state legislatures, in Congress, in the judicial system, in STEM fields, among physicians and surgeons, and in the education sector (where 94 percent of school superintendents and 88 percent of state education commissioners and state superintendents of education are white).
That is why my mother insisted that I complete college and pursue advanced degrees. Because for her (like hundreds of the out-privileged families my wife and I have worked with over the last decade), the goal was for me to do better financially, in a less physically-taxing manner, with less career volatility and vulnerabilities, and more access and opportunities than she ever experienced. She recognized that times had changed from when she worked her way from a job as a “word-processor” (exhibit A in how technology makes certain trades unnecessary) to Director-level roles in Human Resources without a college degree.
Those who are promoting vocational education and low to middle-skill careers for other people’s children should also recognize times are changing. All students will need the strong academic content understanding, suite of transferable skills, and diverse interdisciplinary intellectual exposure to be able to win in a knowledge economy with increased automation and global competition. It is no surprise that millions of jobs were lost during the financial crisis in construction and manufacturing. Some reports predict another 500,000 jobs will be at risk in the construction industry by 2020 due to automation.
This means that while the efforts underway in Delaware to create closer alignment between the K-12 education system and workforce needs are noteworthy, they are incomplete. In the “age of agility,” the logic where “a single specialized skill or degree once led to enduring value and longevity in the workforce” has become less sound.
We must be careful not to overfit our students to the present needs of industry at the expense of preparing them as adaptable, lifelong learners. Students’ passions and proclivities will lead them down a diverse set of paths in the workforce. Let’s just make sure they all have the foundation and preparation to make real choices about their path to prosperity. If we are honest, that’s what the most affluent and privileged among us do for their kids.