In an Education Week Teaching Ahead column last May, I wrote about a former student who dropped out of high school to pursue a low wage, full time construction job. I tried to help him find a way to stay in school while still following his passion of working in construction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to direct him to any options that would serve his interests and needs.

At the end of the Teaching Ahead piece, I referenced Singapore as a nation that has created opportunities for students who are not interested in an academic route. In the United States, 25% of students who start high school do not graduate. In Singapore, 90% of the bottom 25% of students graduate from the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), a vocational option available to Singaporean upper secondary students.

The three ITE campuses in Singapore serve about 26,000 students. Typically, ITE students are 17-19 years old or the equivalent of sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the United States. 25% of upper secondary students in Singapore attend ITE campuses, another 25% attend junior colleges (academic high schools), and 40% attend Polytechnic or other specialized schools. The remaining 10% go to independent or private schools.

Last month, while attending the Global Cities Education Network meeting in Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit ITE’s central campus. It was an eye-opening experience.

The campus itself is beautiful. I felt like I was strolling around an elite university campus, not a school for high school kids who opt out of academics. There are restaurants, a grocery store, fountains, and indoor greenery. 

We were introduced to a variety of programs that ITE offers to students, including culinary arts, fashion design, video game design, flower arranging, eyewear design, cosmetology, architecture, digital animation, filmmaking, light and sound production, among many others. ITE develops its programs in close collaboration with industry in Singapore. If the industry exists, there is an aligned program and most likely, available jobs upon graduation.

Halfway through our tour of ITE-Central, we visited the outdoor aerospace classroom. Amazingly, there was an operational helicopter, a Learjet, and a 737. Yes, a 737. 

The Ministry of Education has worked very hard to transform the image of vocational education in Singapore from an option of last resort to what they now call a model of “hands on, minds-on, hearts-on” learning. Of course, some prejudice against non-academic tracks still exists, but the perception of ITE in society has greatly improved. Honestly, as I walked through the ITE campus, I wished I was 17 again and could take classes there.

Singapore began its reform of vocational education in 1992 – just over twenty years ago. At ITE we saw evidence of:

  1. Beautiful state-of-the-art technical education facilities.
  2. A close partnership between education and industry sectors.
  3. A significant effort to rebrand technical education.
  4. Enough room for 25% of high school students to enroll in vocational programs.

Is a similar paradigm shift in the United States possible or are we too focused on college for all students? Please share your thoughts.

And for another take on vocational education in the United States, see Marc Tucker’s recent blog post

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