A significant part of the challenge of preventing “at-risk” high school students from dropping out involves providing these students with meaningful reasons to continue their education. The problem is an obvious one: students to whom the notion of an academic college education appears unappealing or unrealistic often doubt whether it is in their interest to finish high school. Not surprisingly, efforts to retain high school students have received renewed attention in recent years, and private firms have not shied away from throwing their hats—and their cash—into the ring.   

Earlier this month, as part of its Smarter Cities Challenge grant program, IBM awarded $400,000 to Chicago’s public schools, thereby launching a public-private program that will set up five innovative technology-oriented high schools throughout the city. As the Chicago Sun-Times has noted, the initiative aims to (re)train teachers in science, technology, and mathematics, as well as to restructure school curricula in order to place a more significant emphasis on up-to-date job training programs. The broader goal seems to be to prepare traditionally low-performing students to compete in a job market hungry for technical skills in areas like engineering and computer science. IBM’s contribution to the program will not be limited to money; the company plans to dispatch a number of consultants, who will coordinate and implement the plan alongside Chicago leaders and other stakeholders.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune cast additional light on the city’s new program. It reported (contrary to the Sun-Times) that the five participating schools would be high school-community college hybrids: students would be enrolled for up to six years (grades nine to fourteen) and given the chance to graduate with an associate degree in hand. In addition, graduates of the participating schools’ six-year programs would be given preference for entry-level jobs at IBM. As the Huffington Post added, the rationale of the IBM-Chicago alliance seems to be contained in the view that students uninterested in an academic college education can be motivated to finish high school by the prospect of remunerative work in concrete, technical fields.

The IBM-Chicago plan is in its infancy, and the details of its implementation are still rather tentative. But it seems clear that the plan represents a particular way of understanding the relation between education and employment, a particular way, that is, of preparing young people for the labor market.

High school-community college hybrids—schools that fuse traditional high school courses, associate degree-level education, and job preparation—have an obvious benefit: they link high school to job training, thus discouraging students who feel averse to academics but want to learn a profitable trade from dropping out. Moreover, these schools assume responsibility for students past the twelfth grade, a move that has both practical and symbolic consequences.

Of course, such schools can also be seen as representing a dynamic that has vexed no shortage of cultural commentators in this country, namely, the move in America’s conception of pedagogy from literariness to literacy, from the abstract to the concrete, from “thinking skills” to instrumental expertise. Indeed, familiar arguments can be mustered both for and against the sorts of schools contemplated by the IBM-Chicago plan. Consider two standard arguments. (1) Opposing the development of hybrid and vocational schools only reinforces the false and harmful stereotype that “hands-on” job training is a second-rate alternative to academically oriented education. (2) High schools dedicated to job preparation produce students who are unprepared to function as informed citizens, students who cannot make informed decisions at the voting booth or serve (meaningfully) on a jury. Though it will inevitably engender debate as it moves forward, the IBM-Chicago plan may well come to serve as a model for likeminded initiatives throughout the country. If nothing else, then, the plan requires us to think carefully about the appropriate relationship between conceptual and vocational training in American education.  Not to mention the implications of relying on donations from private corporations to fuel public services.