My Vocational Ed Problem

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006; 6:00 PM

As many of you have learned, some with surprise and some with dismay, I often respond to emails from readers of this column. Most of you, it turns out, are smarter than I am. The back and forth messages can go on for some time as I try to drain you of every last drop of useful information and insight.

This column is one of those e-mail exchanges, between me and Chris Peters, who coordinates AVID, Advancement via Individual Determination, at Cajon High School in San Bernadino, Calif. AVID is a program that aids students whose parents did not attend college in gaining admission to four-year universities. Peters had some things he needed to tell me about vocational education, something I almost never write about. This is a important topic, particularly since red-hot Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate advocates like me have for some time been urging cutbacks in vocational ed to make room for more college preparatory courses. I would like to hear from others on this issue. Here is how Peters went after me:

PETERS:What's the point of high school for the majority of our kids? Even at a school as successful on paper as Cajon, most of the kids I see every day are literally having their time wasted by a curriculum that is at least 80 percent college preparatory. I know that in the last decade the concept of "school-to-work" connections, "career academies" and "smaller learning communities" has been all the rage. But the reality that I've seen is that most of these have been pretty ineffectual due to the counter-trend of steadily beefing up college prep curriculum requirements - to the point that virtually all high school students are required to follow a course of study that will qualify them for a four-year college, even though less than half have any mathematical hope of doing so. In a nutshell, how can you have a successful school-to-work program if there's not enough room in the curriculum for kids to earn any real technical certification?

I haven't seen any education thinkers seriously addressing this fundamental contradiction even though it's what most thoughtful teachers "on the ground" are talking about. Everything I've read in education journals either addresses one side of the equation or the other, i.e. the need for more career prep, or the need for more college prep. But I have not once read anyone addressing the contradiction between the two that clearly stymies secondary ed. Sorry to spew so much at you but it just bugs the hell out of me and a lot of other hard working teachers.

MATHEWS:That's a very good point. Let's talk about this. How would you set up more vocational classes without running the risk of making them what they were a generation ago -- -a dumping ground for minority kids, including many who could have gotten into college? Henry Gradillas, star teacher Jaime Escalante's principal at Garfield High School, grew up in East LA and felt he was treated that way, and delighted in cutting back home ec and shop classes.

PETERS:Your question is definitely the one -- and a very legitimate one -- raised most often when one suggests expanding voc. ed. offerings. In the abstract the answer is that I am not talking about the old, stand-alone, dumping ground shop classes that are slowly but surely -- and rightly- disappearing from the scene. I'm talking about comprehensive, career prep programs that will culminate in actual professional certification in high need areas that offer solid, middle class $15-$20 an hour wages -- licensed nursing, computer systems maintenance, auto mechanics and culinary arts among others.

In the real world I'll give you two illustrations of this distinction from my high school. At Cajon we have an excellent auto shop teacher and an excellent culinary arts teacher. They both work their butts off, are loved by the kids, and kids learn in their classrooms. At the same time, all of their classes are, without question, exactly the type of dumping grounds that you expressed concern about, existing primarily to pad out the graduation credits of low-performing kids. Both teachers will tell you that if they could have a group of kids who really wanted to be there and have them exclusively for their final two years of high school, that they would emerge as fully trained line cooks and certified mechanics who could command $10-$15 an hour right out of high school in high demand fields with good prospects for wage growth.

What would it take to make these teachers' dreams a reality and better serve the majority of high school kids? Reduce social studies and English graduation requirements from four to two years and math and science requirements from three to two years.

What stands in the way of this happening? The full answer is long and historically complex, but I think that what it comes down to is the meritocratic assumptions of educators that establishing anything less than college as the goal of all students is somehow un-democratic. This would be a noble guiding principle were it not for the fact that four-year college is mathematically impossible for most high school graduates. It seems to me that we have to address this contradiction head on. But we are not.

MATHEWS:Here is my problem with your vision: I don't think 15-year-olds should be deciding whether they are going to go to college or not. They are too young and inexperienced and too prone to make the easy choice, which for them would be getting out of those annoying English and math and science and history classes. If you could create a program that would keep them on a track to complete four years of English, four years of social studies, three years of science and three years of math, up through algebra 2, and still have your state of the art vocational program, that would be fine. But taking the pressure off to complete the basic college requirements would be a terrible mistake, because it would create the dumping ground that you have described.

Why are those two great teachers used as a dumping ground? Would giving them better equipment, and kids who only had to go to their classes, change that situation? I would be willing to let a school experiment with such a program on a very limited basis, and see what happened -- maybe recruit 30 kids who clearly were very low performing and had absolutely no shot at AP or college and no desire to try them. But I wager that getting those kids to "want to be there" and do the work will be just as difficult with those teachers having them all day, and better equipment, as it is now getting them to work on science and English and social studies.

They just don't want to be in school, whatever the class, if it requires real effort. Your suggested vocational course would require such effort so they would have trouble being motivated to do it.

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