Today, as I do every year, I took a half of a professional day to take to of my yearbook staffers up to the county Tech Center-- what we used to call a vocational-technical school.
Our county's version is a shared school, shared and supported by several different school districts in the area. The school has its own staff and administration, and oversight is exercised by representatives of each of the contributing school districts. The school offers over a dozen programs, from home health care to welding to cosmetology to auto repair technician to machinist to heavy equipment. The construction shop regularly works on what we in the stodgier corners of education would call a performance task-- they build a house.
Most of the instructors are men and women who have worked the field they teach. There's a protective services track taught by retired cops, and the heavy equipment shop now has a focus on the oil industry, aided by folks who know it first-hand.
I love this day. It humbles me and reminds me of just how much is being accomplished by the same students who are not, shall we say, deeply inspired by grammar worksheets and long-form essays. It reminds me to see my classroom through their eyes-- all morning this student was operating heavy machinery that could easily kill a person, exercising responsibility and mature judgement, like a grown professional, and this student was doing heavy lifting and lugging and standing for three hours. Now these same students have to sit in a desk and ask permission to go pee. Is it any wonder they get a bit itchy in my classroom?
They all do plenty of book learning at the tech school, and most work with some version of computer technology. They learn how to gather and exercise professional expertise and judgment. They learn how to make adult choices and they learn how to see the connection between actions and consequences.
What possible benefit will they get from being drilled on how to select "correct" answers on a one-size-fits-all Common Core Big Standardized Test? How can I possibly, seriously, with a straight face, teach works of literature to them using David Coleman's approached to reading that treats every work of literature as the basis for a college English paper?
To say that any part of the Common Core Complex of reforms will help these students become more career ready is the saddest, cruelest kind of joke. My vocational students include many who are not geared for the standard academic fare. They are not any less smart, less capable, or less valuable than my college-bound hard-core honors students-- they're just using a different set of tools to travel a different sort of path (just like--surprise-- everyone else). But because they aren't so focused on playing the game of multiple choice tests and canned curriculum, they end up sacrificing time that could be spent exploring new, cool, exciting stuff to instead do more test prep and practice.
The effects of ed reform on these students are deeply unfortunate, because these are students who have historically been too-often considered less than because they are "only" going to jobs instead of college. College-educated teachers often need to check their pro-college bias at the door. Confronting these students with one more pointless task that labels them losers and makes school seem even more like an exercise in bizarre activities unrelated to the world they see-- it doesn't help. Do they need to build strong skills in reading and writing? Absolutely. Can they get just as much out of the classics as traditional college-bound students? Sure (remind me to tell you about the time that our AP seniors held a debate about MacBeth-- and it was judged by the vocational seniors, who were also MacBeth experts). But the important skills and classic works have so much value over and above just getting ready to do well in a college class.
I know what the data says about how only college-educated folks will survive and thrive in the new economy. I also know how many employers tell me that there aren't enough welders. I know that my own logitudinal anecdotal study of my former students tells me that many grow up to be not-particularly-wealthy blue collar workers who are good solid citizens, raise happy families, and live rewarding lives.
But successful on their own terms or not, I can't remember a time I've looked at a former vocational student and thought, "Damn-- if only we had given Pat more drill on answering multiple choice questions for bad standardized tests. That would have made Pat's life so much better."
Every school ought to have a full-blown vocational program, and every teacher ought to go watch their students learn in such programs. And policy makers should stop trying to jam them into a one-size-fits-all educational program that ignores their goals and skills and direction in life.