Teaching the Forgotten Half

Career and Vocational Education in Nevada's High Schools

By Robert Schmidt, Ph.D.
  • Sunday, October 1, 2006

Executive Summary

Public education in Nevada for years has ignored the particular nature of its community job base. The Las Vegas labor market, for example, is unique in manifesting the lowest demand for college professionals of any labor market in America.

What are in demand instead are individuals who have good practical and technical skills. Yet, of Clark County School District’s 280,000 students last year, only 6,000 were able to pursue vocational education within the district.

This situation — a curriculum designed to almost completely discount the actual employment needs of Southern Nevada — is a particular instance of a more general problem that underlies all of Nevada’s education woes. Because K-12 education is almost entirely government-based rather than market-based, it naturally and habitually ignores the kind of marketplace signals that private-sector businesses actively adapt themselves to serve. By convention we call this education system “public,” but it actually operates on statist principles that disregard the choices that the public, as individuals, would prefer to make.

In this white paper we address just one consequence of that institutional indifference: the plight, in Nevada, of what are increasingly referred to as “the forgotten half” — the high school youth predominantly bound, immediately at least, for the work-force, rather than college. These are the individuals who would most immediately benefit if alternative career and technical educational options were made available within the current system.

Actually, “the forgotten half” is a misnomer. In 2005, about seven out of ten jobs in the U.S, and nearly eight out of ten jobs in Nevada, privileged on-the-job training or work-related experience over a traditional high school education. And despite rhetoric from some quarters of the education community, Nevada has an abundance of college graduates — given the fact that only around 15 percent of jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. Indeed, many current college graduates are employed in positions that do not require a college degree and where compensation is below average.

In recent decades the assumption has spread in America that most students must attend college. For many students, of course, the best education does mean college-level academics. For others, however, the most meaningful, fulfilling and enabling education, upon leaving high school, is less academic than practical and technical. Much data, therefore, suggest that a significant segment of our young would be better prepared for success if allowed to pursue skills preparation in areas of vocational technology (including basic math and literacy skills) — rather than being tracked into the current higher education environment.

For these reasons, this report examines the state of contemporary vocational education and the alternatives available to Nevada educators.

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