In most industrialized countries, the public education system gets students started on paths toward careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, craftsmen, technicians, mechanics and a wide range of other occupations.
In the United States, our public school system gets students started on paths toward careers as doctors, lawyers and engineers. We do have vocational programs in high schools but they are low-priority sideline activities.
Vocational training is not what our schools are about. Our schools strive toward the goal of a nation of people performing surgery on each other and suing each other for malpractice, maybe designing a bridge or skyscraper occasionally, but never actually building one.
With that lofty goal in mind, it is disheartening to learn that some high school students don't know the difference between a cranium and a gluteus maximus or between an interrogatory and an outerrogatory.
That is why we have a national policy of leaving no child behind, of having all of them proficient at math, English and science. In other industrialized countries, students are tracked in career paths after elementary school while we have long provided a broad academic education through the high school years.
I won't say that one system is better than the other, just that meaningful comparisons are impossible between the students of the two systems. In other countries, high school age youth who are training for careers in food service or construction trades do not take standardized tests for math, science and language skills. All high school students in our country take these tests.
In the absence of meaningful comparisons, we are given meaningless comparisons presented as information that is both significant and shocking.
There's irony in the fact that because statistics from foreign countries show average academic achievement superior to ours, America is moving farther away from the supposedly superior educational model in those countries.
The goal of federal No Child Left Behind legislation is to have all students proficient in all academic subject matter. There may be some advantage to this. If a person's job as a heavy equipment operator doesn't work out, the person can fall back on making a living removing gall bladders or presenting cases before the Supreme Court.
The various states, under pressure from the federal government, are trying to outdo each other on how quickly and thoroughly they can move us toward a nation of scholars. In Iowa, there is currently discussion of mandating that all students meet the core course load recommended for college-bound students, or at least mandating that 80 percent or more students follow this path.
It has been acknowledged by one school administrator that vocational programs would likely suffer under such a plan.
Vocational programs give students a start toward a skilled trade, often completed through a program of training at a two-year community college or some other alternative to a four-year college.
Research on the percentage of jobs in the three broad categories of employment - unskilled, skilled and professional, has shown that during the previous century the percentage of jobs in the professional category has remained fairly stable while the percentage of jobs in the skilled category rose dramatically, with a corresponding drop in the percentage of unskilled jobs.
All students benefit from a broad education. Some skilled workers need strong math abilities and others need good communications skills.
However, a pre-college based curriculum may not be the best use of time for some students and the ivory towers in Des Moines and Washington, D.C. may not be the best places to see the way toward a better educational system.