Harvard study asks: Does everyone need a 4-year college degree?

Feb 3, 2011

A  new Harvard University report say high schools need to do a better job preparing students for whatever career path they choose…whether it’s becoming a doctor or an electrician.

The "Pathways to Prosperity" study finds that America’s education system is focused too much on college prep and not enough on alternatives, like vocational and career and technical education (CTE).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the release of the report on Wednesday:

The Pathways to Prosperity study envisions a new system of career and technical education that constitutes a radical departure from the vocational education of the past.

The need for that transformation is pressing.  I applaud your report’s frank discussion of the shortcomings of our current CTE system and its call to strengthen the rigor and relevance of career and technical education.

I am not here today to endorse the specifics of your policy recommendations. I want instead to suggest two takeaway messages from your study and the Department’s reform efforts.

Secretary Duncan's two takeaways?

  1. CTE, the "neglected stepchild of education reform," can no longer be ignored.
  2. CTE needs to be re-imagined for the 21st century.

Patty Cantu is director of the CTE office for Michigan’s Department of Education. She's not surprised by the report:

"The pendulum swings this way in education a lot. We focus on one area, and then we say, oh, that’s right, we have this other important thing and just as valuable thing that we also have to take into consideration."

Cantu says the head of Michigan's Department of Education, Mike Flangan, is very interested in "not only embracing academic rigor, but also the rigor of [the state's] career and technical education program."

The report says students should be able to choose career paths early, like they do in Europe. Secretary Duncan says "we can’t just copy the vocational education systems of other high-performing countries. But we can learn from them about how to build rigorous educational and work-experience programs with strong links to high-wage, high-demand jobs."

An Education Week article says some critics are worried that an early push into a career could lead to student "tracking": 

"The proposal from an esteemed school of education sparked immediate concern—including what one activist called “a major case of heartburn”—for raising the specter of tracking, in which disadvantaged students would be channeled unquestioningly into watered-down programs that curtail their prospects."