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Forces behind Career Education

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The call for career education stems in part from a general growing dissatisfaction with American education at all levels on the part of students, parents, and the general public. This dissatisfaction can be read into the large number of school bond issues that have failed in recent years, and in the increasing unwillingness of taxpayers to vote increased funds for educational purposes. More and more people are viewing our education system-from the elementary school through the graduate college-as irrelevant and unresponsive to current societal demands.

The fifth report of the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education recognized the condition in these words:

There is an educational consumer revolt developing in our land today... Public officials responsible for education, both elected and appointed, need to be reminded of Alexander Hamilton's statement, "Here, Sir, the people govern..."

The several bases for this general dissatisfaction are easily specified. Each can be described in ways that hold implications for change in the elementary school. One basis for criticism is the growing recognition that 80 percent of secondary school students are preparing to do what 80 percent in fact will not do; that is, graduate from college. Approximately eight in ten of today's secondary education students are enrolled in either the college preparatory or the general education curriculum that allows people to be prepared for work only after college attendance. Yet three out of four of those who begin high school complete it, one-half of those who do so go on to college, and one-half of those who enter college graduate.

The enrollment ratio between academic and occupational education in the high school reflects the societal myth that worships the college degree as the best and surest route to career success. Certainly there are reasons other than occupational for seeking a college education, and there are numerous occupations for which college training is required or appropriate. Yet all elementary education teachers who discuss parental aspirations in the course of parent-teacher conferences discover the career myth underlying reasons for seeking education for their children. Far too often, the myth is reinforced by the elementary school teacher who is a college graduate. This reinforcement occurs in conferences held with parents and in the curriculum content presented daily to the elementary school students which emphasizes the contributions of the college trained and assumes that "all good children will go there someday."

Of every hundred students entering the first grade, only fourteen ever attain a baccalaureate degree. This statistic has been ignored long enough. Fortunately, students have been wiser than their parents, teachers, and school administrators. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that less than 20 percent of all jobs in the 1970-80’s period will require a baccalaureate degree. It is undoubtedly more than coincidence that this is approximately the same proportion as the percentage of beginning high school students who, despite the ambitions of parents and educators to increase the number, actually continue to college graduation. The fact that some, who pursue and attain a college degree, may be disappointed in not obtaining a job which uses knowledge and skills gained is not the most damaging impact of the myth. The message, drummed into the sub-consciousness of the majority who do not obtain college degrees, is that they are somehow second class. Certainly college education should not be discouraged. It will probably continue to be experienced by more and more American youth. But it must not continue to be advertised as the only acceptable and really effective method of occupational preparation.

While American education is culpable for overemphasizing college as a prerequisite to career success, it is also criticized for pursuing "school for schooling's sake" and ignoring the increasingly close relationships between education and work. Education has assumed too long that the best way to prepare pupils for the real world is to keep them apart from that world. As education becomes more and more a necessary prerequisite for entry into the world of work, the education system can less and less afford to adopt an insular attitude. It is in the elementary school where the basic skills necessary for all kinds of occupational success are supposedly taught. Yet in school after school, both the third grade teacher and her pupils seem to be operating as though their prime reason for being together is to ready students for the fourth grade! The purpose of education simply cannot be more education. Education must be seen as preparation for something-both as preparation for living and preparation for making a living.

Another source of criticism is the one-quarter of all students who never graduate from high school. The well-publicized phenomenon of the "high school dropout" is, as most elementary educators well know, only the tip of a much larger iceberg. That is, many more students, while persisting until high school graduation, can find no true meaning in their educational experiences and no really good reason for going to school. Of those who will drop out of high school, more than half can be identified before they complete the fifth grade; i.e., they were "turned off" to the public school system long before they became high school students. Whether we label such students as "unmotivated," as "reluctant learners," or by some others descriptive term, it is obvious that for whatever set of causal reasons, school does not make sense to them. Career education is one of several new approaches holding promise for attacking this condition at its basic roots.

Increasingly, even those who have heeded parental and educator ambitions for them and have obtained the advocated college diploma begin to suspect that they too are the victims of over promise. For two decades the demand for college-educated manpower to fill professional and technical jobs grew more rapidly than the supply, and the holder of a college degree was in a prime position in the labor market. Now that demand and supply for most such jobs have been brought into better balance-demand having slowed its growth rate and the colleges having achieved overcapacity in supplying most needs-competition has stiffened in such job markets. Employers are in a better position to demand and compare performance, and graduates often find that they have neither the expected job guarantee nor the required competence.

One basic societal concern underlying the call for career education is suspicion that the classical work ethic is being eroded as a vital part of our system of social values. Is the traditional work ethic, called "puritan" or "protestant" for historical reasons, appropriate to an impending post-industrial society? If adherence to it is disappearing, can other more useful and personally meaningful forms of work values be found? Can a society survive without some form of work ethic, even in the present day? These are critical issues for American education.

Too many, even in education, refuse to face up to the critical importance of attitudes toward work in the personal value systems of a people. Some contend that productivity trends, technology, a shorter work week, and a shorter working life all portend the disappearance of work as a vital force in the lifestyle of future Americans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Increased leisure is one of the rewards of productivity and depends upon it. Each increment of productivity can be used to buy more goods and services or more leisure, but not both. One cannot sensibly talk about reducing poverty here or abroad, or meeting any of the endless list of social and personal needs, and still expect any disappearance of work. The nature of work is changing and becoming generally less arduous. The rebellion against unchallenging and uninteresting work is not the result of deteriorating working conditions but of relative unattractiveness of stable occupations as the average improves. In his perception, the blue-collar and lower level white-collar worker sees, on the one hand, publicly supported welfare recipients and, on the other, pleasantly employed technicians, managers, and professionals, and believes he is the only one left doing society's menial but necessary tasks.

One source of confusion is the tendency to think of work only in labor market terms. As material abundance increases, an endless list of service needs requiring volunteer effort adds to the total work to be done. Even many advocates of career education do not subscribe to the societal need to maintain a strong work ethic. They complain that there is much more to life than making a living and that career education's role should be assisting in the development of "fully self-actualized individuals."

We believe that those who would argue in such a fashion are wrong. We readily admit that preparation for making a living is only part of preparation for living itself, but we contend that it is a very important part which in the past has not received a high enough priority among the goals of American education. The trends are toward fewer hours spent in work. Nevertheless, both now and in the foreseeable future, most Americans will spend more time working or seeking work than in any other single form of activity. We agree that full self-actualization demands a self-concept more encompassing than that of a worker, but insist that most individuals are best known to themselves and to others through their accomplishments-and that work remains our single most available means of accomplishment.

If some more viable form of the work ethic is to be restored, the American education system in general, and elementary education in particular, has a vital and essential role to play. The work ethic is simply part of a set of personal values related to occupational life that could conceivably give meaning and direction to the life of an individual. It is well known that the strongest and most permanent personal values are those which are developed prior to the time one reaches physical maturity. The elementary school is a powerful force in the shaping of personal values. Today millions of elementary school children are being systematically exposed neither to work values nor to a broad understanding of our rapidly changing world of work. More importantly, they are being given little opportunity to relate such understandings to themselves as their personal value systems develop. The career education movement seeks and is enlisting the help of elementary education in turning this condition around. That is why career education in its most basic form must-if it is to be fully effective-begin and have a strong base in the elementary school.

The combination of societal and educational conditions described here has combined to create the current call for career education. What is this new concept that promises an answer to this serious set of problems?
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