Friday, October 9, 2015

Career Ready

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.


  1. I couldn't agree more.

    "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."

  2. "Say it again, Peter!", and again and again. Not enogh welders, not enough plumbers, not enough electricians.....and these are Trades, not jobs. The education system is totally out of its mind.

  3. I live in rural Utah, I have a family of raccoons living in my backyard. I hit a racoon driving into work last week. (And no, me and Billy Bob didn't stop to scoop if for supper!) While your comments are pithy, witty and urbane, they are inaccurate, starting with the reality of raccoons in Utah. Address this program in light of the increasing number of parents who do NOTHING in terms of interaction with their preschooler. Fifteen minutes a day to cure educations woes? Nope! Fifteen minutes that a parent has to spend with their kid? As a boots on the ground educator, it's a start. Your crankiness lost its luster on this rant.

  4. **Stands and applauds**

    Thank you for speaking about many benefits of Vo-tech for students!

  5. Thank you for another insightful post! I've been saying the same exact thing about vocational education for years. The elitism of our school system is unbelievable. The idea of going to college is beat into the heads of all my students to the point of absolute insanity. During forecasting, I always ask my sophomores how many are planning on going to college. Almost everyone raises their hand including kids with a GPA under 1.0, kids reading and/or doing math at a a third grade level, and kids who absolutely hate school. We convince these kids to go to community college where almost all of them languish for a term or two before dropping out with barely any credits but with several thousand dollars of debt along with feeling like a complete failure.

    Due to budget cuts, our vocational classes at our high school have been cut to almost nothing. We had a great wood shop that was shut down during the recession. All the equipment was sold for a pittance and the room was converted to a community health center. Obviously, that's a vital service but losing all that equipment and the room means we will never have a wood shop again. We had an amazing cooking program that is almost completely gone. Metals has been cut but is still around due to the bulldog determination of the metals teacher.

    Kids who do great in these vocational classes but poorly in academic classes are now forced to take math and English intervention classes in addition to their regular math and English every day. Those two subjects now take up four out of the seven classes they take each semester. Now they're talking about having a science intervention class for the kids who won't be able to handle the new Next Generation Science Standards so they'll end up hating science as well as math and English. How will they ever graduate if all they can take are core and intervention classes? All we're doing is making kids despise school and learning.