A growing chorus of progressives, ranging from Rick Pearlstein to Dana Goldstein to Kevin Drum are suggesting that maybe Rick Santorum was right and instead of trying to give everyone a college prep education, we need a return to vocational schooling. After all, as Drum says "American high schools ought to be as good at turning out plumbers as they are at turning out future English majors."
It's true that we need plumbers, but I don't think this has the implication that Drum thinks it has. For starters, as Kevin Carey notes it turns out that "most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters get their training in jointly administered apprenticeships or in technical schools and community colleges." This is similar to his point from a little while back that a large and growing fraction of auto mechanics have post-secondary training. In other words, while it's true that we don't necessarily need a large increase in people with traditional liberal arts degrees a large share of the career-focused education we need still has to occur at the post-secondary level. That's for two reasons, the most fundamental of which is simply that as we grow more technologically sophisticated as a society all kinds of work becomes more complicated, technical, and specialized. The kinds of colleges that offer good training to be policy-focused journalists probably don't offer great training to fix the automobiles of tomorrow, but that doesn't mean car mechanics don't need additional training.
The other issue is that if you look at countries that have successful high school level vocational training (Germany always seems to come up) you'll note that kids go into the training with a solid grounding in the basics. Dana and I both visited a vocational training high school together in Finland, focused on teaching people hairstyle and makeup skills. What struck me is that the girls (and they were basically all girls) to the best I could tell were competent in algebra, literate in Finnish, and had an okay grasp of a foreign language. The kind of low-achieving American 15 year-olds who'd be put on a "vocational track" generally don't have those kind of skills. What they're getting out of high school (ideally) isn't so much college prepatory work as it is remedial work designed to put them on track to receive career training. That's not an ideal function for high schools to be serving, and oftentimes they don't do a good job of it, and arguably remediation could be better-integrated with vocational training but as is often the case in education it's a problem with earlier roots. If the outputs of America's K-8 education keep improving (which they do in fact seem to be doing) and we invest more in quality preschool, then we'll have more lattitude to talk about moving kids into job training sooner.