When my father Justice Thomas R. Jones was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920’s, my grandfather forbade him from working with tools, fearing that he might become a “mechanic” rather than a black intellectual. My grandfather’s viewpoint was fueled by a debate between the two leading black intellectuals of their time, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who urged blacks to focus on industrial, farming, and craft skills to lift themselves up and gain acceptance from the white majority, and WEB Dubois (1868-1963), who called for sweeping social change led by a small group of university trained black intellectuals, the “Talented Tenth.”
Dubois’s concept won. His vision represents the basis for the explosion of the black middle class and the presence of black leadership in virtually every aspect of American life today, highlighted by the election and re-election of Barack Obama.
Now may be the time to revisit the debate, focusing primarily on young men of color who are either dropping out of school or graduating without the necessary skills to acquire well-paying jobs in our labor market. Here in the city there are 185,000 “disconnected youth” – mostly black and Latino young men ages 16 to 24 – who are neither in school nor working. Nationally, nearly five million young people are disconnected from any institution that could provide them with a secure future.
Career and Technical Education
The Community Service Society (CSS) has for many years advocated for the expansion and upgrading of what is known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Not too long ago, CTE schools and programs were part of a second-class system known as vocational education and populated by students for whom we had the lowest expectations. Times have certainly changed.
In a past CSS survey of New Yorkers, 85 percent of all respondents and 90 percent of low-income black respondents thought that high quality career, technical or vocational programs in high schools would be a good option for their own child. I am not talking about woodworking or metal shop. CTE schools include programs relevant to vibrant and emerging fields - graphic and architectural design, aviation maintenance, culinary arts, computer science, and video production, just to name a few.
This week, CSS published a report examining the potential impacts and limitations of city’s CTE schools, “Challenging Traditional Expectations: How New York City’s CTE High Schools Are Helping Students Graduate.” The findings are eye-opening.
High school students enrolled in CTE schools typically are students with below average 8th grade test scores. Yet these students are much more likely to graduate than their peers in non-CTE schools. Black and Latino male students in CTE schools, who traditionally have the lowest high school graduation rates showed the greatest graduation gains.
The ultimate goal of CTE is to provide young people with the basic skills to move into well-paying jobs. Although CTE programs should act as a pipeline to apprenticeships and good jobs, the history of a number of organizations and industries is one of discrimination against workers of color. With Mayor de Blasio taking office after a campaign in which he emphasized the problem of economic inequality in the city, the opening up of good jobs to New Yorkers coming out of CTE programs should be a priority for this administration.
The report found that CTE students, on average, graduate at a rate higher than public high school students in general, but have lower rates of college readiness than non-CTE students. Attending a CTE school is associated with significantly higher graduation rates for blacks and Latinos, males in particular. The report found that graduation rates for black and Latino males outside of CTE schools are just 52 percent; in CTE high schools, they graduate at 63 and 66 percent, respectively.
The Department of Education should continue to expand these programs, while studying what is making them so effective for young men. At the same time, our study shows that the next step in the growth of CTE is to raise the bar past graduation to improved college readiness. In order to shed the reputation as an alternative to college preparation programs, CTE schools must place a stronger emphasis on equipping students to excel at the next educational level.
Need to Expand CTE Schools
Right now, there are too few CTE schools. The existing number of schools is not meeting current student demand. Too many students — over 800 each year — are not enrolled in CTE schools despite ranking them as the top choice on their high school application. The graduation results for students who ranked a CTE school as their top choice but were enrolled in a non-CTE school are extremely low. That raises questions about how these students might have fared had they enrolled in a CTE school.
The success of CTE programs would not only improve the quality of life for many New Yorkers from low-income families. They would also help to strengthen the city’s overall economy. Industry and labor unions should use an expanded CTE to connect to schools as a feeder to good jobs in the private sector.