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Betsy DeVos Is Fabricating History to Sell a Bad Education Policy

What the education secretary gets wrong about workforce training in public schools


In a speech last week to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her latest pitch for a radical transformation in the nature of public schooling—one that would place vocational education front and center. “There are over seven million unfilled jobs in the United States,” she told her audience, because “there is a disconnect between education and the economy.” She declared that civic leaders need to “disrupt” education, or at the very least “rethink” it.

Over the past several years, DeVos has laid the groundwork for this position by telling a very particular story about the history of American education. Schools, she has argued, were modeled after factories, and “students were trained for the assembly line.” But as the economy shifted over time, schools failed to keep pace. As she has repeatedly insisted, schools remain “stuck in a mode” from 100 years ago.

The solution, then, is seemingly quite simple. Schools need to be overhauled so that they focus on preparing young people for the jobs of the future. According to DeVos, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

If schools are out of date, it seems entirely reasonable to rethink what they do and how they look. But DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

Nineteenth-century policy leaders supported the creation of public schools for a variety of reasons. Among other aims, schools were intended to foster civic virtue, Americanize immigrants, and inculcate dominant values. But vocational preparation was not a common objective. As historian Ethan Hutt told me, “Early advocates of public education were generally unconcerned with what we would think of as workplace training. Their priorities were social and political in nature.”

State constitutions enshrined public education as a right in the nineteenth century, yet they hardly mention vocational instruction. The most common educational aim described in these documents is the “general diffusion of knowledge” for the “preservation of rights and liberties.” Many of these constitutions go so far as to confirm the value of education for its own sake. Tennessee’s, for instance, “recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support.” Montana’s states that public schools should “develop the educational potential of each person.” And the Illinois constitution supports “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” Only six states make any mention of training for work.

These were not simply high-minded ideals. In the first decades of public education, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Americans expected their schools to pursue a broad range of objectives. According to a 1880 New York Times editorial, “the reason for the existence of common schools is that they are, or are supposed to be, good for the common wealth. It is asserted, and has hitherto been widely believed, that they make good citizens; that without them the mass of the community would be less virtuous, less happy, less thrifty; and that in a country where suffrage is, to all intents and purposes, universal, public schools are the sweeteners and the salt of morals and the light of legislation and of government.”* Such an ambitious set of aims situated public education as the cornerstone of democratic life.

In its origins, then, public education was hardly the handmaiden of American industry. In fact, nineteenth century schools focused on almost everything except job preparation. According to historian Harvey Kantor, the National Association of Manufacturers viewed public schools of the early twentieth century as “overly bookish and theoretical.” As they saw it, the schools were “ill suited to the intensely practical type of training that industry demanded.” That, it seems, was by design. Public schools were created in a grander spirit—for a broader-ranging set of aims.

In the early twentieth century, a coalition of reformers coalesced around the aim of vocationalizing education. Business leaders, corporate-minded politicians, labor leaders, and school administrators campaigned to reorient public education—at least for some students—toward the world of work.

Though some advocated for across-the-board reform, the dominant approach that emerged was providing vocational training for working-class students. These students dropped out of school at far greater rates than their more privileged peers, often because they needed to support their families financially. Yet the dominant assumption among reformers was that these students lacked the intellectual capacity to complete the standard curriculum. Insofar as that was the case, vocationalism was framed as a solution for keeping the slow-witted in school. Vocational education, wrote David Snedden, a policy leader in the early twentieth century, would be for “those who will do duty in the ranks, who will follow, not lead.”

For the next several decades, vocational education was a key feature of the comprehensive high school, which was organized around a trio of academic tracks. High-ability students would take college-preparatory classes; average-ability students would receive the standard curriculum; and low-ability students would train to work with their hands. According to Harvey Kantor, most educational systems developed “new procedures in guidance and placement to sort and select students for jobs and into educational tracks.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, vocational education came under increasing attack as an inherently inequitable approach to schooling. As a 1973 law review article concluded, pulling students out of the academic program was a move “Based on the hopeless conclusion that ‘these kids are dumb’ and cannot be educated.” UCLA professor Mike Rose recalled his own experience with tracking: “If you’re a working-class kid in the vocational track … you’re defined by your school as ‘slow’ [and] you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to occupy you.”

Vocational education also faced another kind of criticism: that it simply couldn’t be done well in the schools. Skilled instructors were hard to recruit and retain, particularly in light of their qualifications for private-sector work. Equipment was expensive and went quickly out of date. Learning generally occurred in isolation from important real-world contexts. And schools were severely limited in the number of trades they could reasonably promote.

Participation in vocational education has steadily declined over the past several decades. It does live on, re-branded as Career and Technical Education, and some research does find that vocational training can increase student retention and earning power. Other scholarship, however, has continued to raise questions about the over-representation of low-income students in vocational “dumping grounds.”

When critics contend that America’s public schools are preparing students for the jobs of the past, they are engaging in a kind of rhetorical feint. The implication is that today’s students are already being trained for work, and that such a focus has always been an aim of schooling. It suggests that vocational training is something that Americans broadly agree upon, and that is simply in need of an update.

In reality, workforce preparation would represent a significant shift in the mission of schools. President Donald Trump made this shift plain in 2018 when he unveiled a plan to combine the Department of Education with the Department of Labor into a new agency called the Department of Education and the Workforce. (There seems to be little movement on the proposal since it was announced.)

Jobs certainly matter, and the future labor productivity of today’s students will impact the entire economy. Yet even if schools could be reoriented to focus effectively on job training, the result would hardly be an unqualified good. Any shift in the present orientation of schools will come at the expense of school activities organized around the preservation of rights and liberties, as well as the inherent value of education. By and large, Americans of the past were unwilling to make that trade-off. If they’re aware of what’s happening, Americans of the present may be no different.

*A previous version of this article stated that the Times editorial was published in 1890.