02/22/2013 10:33 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

The Next Administration's Focus: Upgrading Career and Technical Education

When my father Justice Thomas R. Jones was growing up on Warren Street in Brooklyn in the 1920s, my grandfather forbade him from working with tools, fearing that he might become a "mechanic" rather than a black intellectual. My grandfather's viewpoint was fueled by a furious debate between the two leading black intellectuals of his time, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who urged blacks to focus on industrial, farming, and craft skills to lift themselves up and gain acceptance from the white majority, and W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963), who called for sweeping social change led by a small group of university trained black intellectuals, " the Talented Tenth."

Dubois's concept won beyond anyone's wildest dreams -- with the election and reelection of Barack Obama. But his vision also represents the basis for the explosion of the black middle class and the presence of black leadership in virtually every aspect of American life today.

That's why it struck me of particular moment that in his recent State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted a small Brooklyn high school for his highest praise. That school, Pathways in Technology Early College High School ( P-TECH), is a new school developed as part of a recent effort here in New York City to reform and improve Career and Technical High Schools (CTE), the direct descendent of what use to be called Vocational Education. For while Booker T. Washington's message of gradualism and avoidance of conflict failed, his concept of skills based education starting as early as middle school is very much alive and well. This is of course not only the case for black young people, but for people of all races. The traditional notion of what is necessary for young people not on a track for attendance at an elite college was no more than a general high school diploma is coming apart.

A recent New York Times article which highlighted a law firm in Atlanta which requires a college degree even for its office messengers, is plainly a wake-up call that merely having a high school diploma without specialized skills may be a ticket to permanent unemployment or underemployment. That's why the president's message is so important; it's obvious that the administration understands that we're going to have to reimagine high school, particular for students who are not immediately college bound, in order to give them a shot at participating in the new economy.

Career and Technical Education has been the stepchild of New York City's education system. Without question, our CTE programs rank among the worst in the nation in terms of graduation and work related outcomes. The focus has always been on our elite high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Hunter, to name a few. With a system which has more than a million young people and a staggering dropout rate for black and Latino students, this is a tremendous challenge to the future of the city. This is made worse by the fact that the elite public high schools have virtually no black and Latino students.

My organization, the Community Service Society (CSS), and other advocates, have long called for a greater investment in CTE schools in New York City. These schools when well conceptualized and run offer options for students inclined to drop out of traditional high schools. More importantly, given the current employment landscape, they can put young people on a path toward the kind of careers that offer economic stability in this troubled labor market. In 2008, at the urging of CSS and other advocates, Mayor Bloomberg formed a commission on improving CTE schools. I was a member of that commission and, as a result of its findings, the city's CTE programs have improved significantly. Their scale, however, remains woefully small in terms of the number of students served and the scope of industries which have current and future needs for highly skilled employees.

With a new mayor to be elected this year, who will take over in 2014, the city stands poised to take a much more aggressive effort to make its CTE programs not merely adequate, but to take a role as the innovation leader in the nation. If we seriously want to make a dent in chronic unemployment and growing income inequality, this should be one of the next administration's priorities in public education.