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Vocational Education in Public Schools

welding in shaker heights

The edublogging technocheerleaders say ad nauseam that the most important part of not just blogging but Web 2.0 as a whole is the “conversation.”

One of the many delights I’ve experienced with this site is coming into contact and corresponding with people I’d otherwise never find. I have to assume this is the “conversation” about which I read literally hundreds of articles a month.

Gary Stager of District Administration is largely the black to my white, but I’ve found that fewer – if any – education professionals are more willing to engage in real debate. And the absolute best part is that he’s secure enough to disagree completely in a blog thread or e-mail and not take it personally. After all, education isn’t about us.

Sometimes we match up philosophically – he raised an eyebrow at the Ed in ’08 Kanye Kampaign, too – but in many matters he’s the Douglas to my Lincoln [I couldn't help but choose the better side].

But we’re at philosophical odds again. This time the issue is the value of vocational/technology education.

In “I’m Worried About America,” Stager comments on three current news stories:

  1. Yesterday’s Cleveland school shooting;
  2. Racism and the Jena 6 crimes;
  3. The debate surrounding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program [SCHIP].

I’m not going to comment on 1, 2 or 3 – plenty of other sites address those issues adequately. I’m going to address Stager’s criticism of vocational education.

The shooting in Cleveland took place at SuccessTech Academy, a school in the Cleveland Municipal system that offers technology and vocational training. Stager said:

I do not wish to disparage the SuccessTech Academy where today’s shooting occurred, but it’s a safe bet that few affluent parents in Shaker Heights would choose to send their children there. Many urban schools are being turned into “specialized” career academies where students are “trained” for trades and low-paying jobs never contemplated for children in the suburbs. How many SuccessTech students do you imagine go on to Ivy League universities? (Note: USA Today reports that the school has a 94% graduation rate.)

Affluent parents tend not to choose vocational tracks for their children. That affluent parents insist on a wholly academic track – or that they don’t contemplate the option in the suburbs – does not legitimize it as a better option; it’s simply what they prefer for their kids.

Career academies are on the rise for many reasons, one of which is a failure of urban schools to deliver academic tracks through the 12th grade successfully. Vocational programs build on a curriculum of basic skills to offer a student expertise that guarantees them gainful employment after high school graduation.

I’m not sure why Gary put “trained” in scare quotes as if there is a difference between trained and trained. There’s nothing to suggest that SuccessTech Academy’s vocational education programs are illegitimate or substandard. As far as we can tell, a student leaves SuccessTech prepared to develop that trade further once he graduates. A 94% graduation rate is certainly not low, especially in an urban setting.

Stager’s characterization of trade skills as leading to “low-paying jobs” is also grossly inaccurate – I’ll get to that shortly.

After pointing to the school’s typically-vague mission statement, Stager continues:

A slideshow of images is prominently featured on the home page. The following photos represent one-fourth of the images presented. One shows a student welding and other depicts two African American students grooming a dog. DOG GROOMING! That sure is one ambitious educational objective.

Vocational education? An ambitious educational objective indeed.

Dog grooming is a bit suspect, but as Boris Johnson told the world weeks ago, the market has deemed seemingly-odd tracks both economically viable and worthy of study. I’d like to focus on welding.

I received training in welding in high school beginning in the 10th grade. It was one of the most valuable skills I learned in my public K-12 education and it was not training to which I had access or could otherwise afford outside of school. I spent weekends learning fine woodworking and during the week augmented that with metalworking in my school’s technology department. I was able to begin working/teaching welding literally within 48 hours after my high school graduation because of those classes.

I graduated on June 25th, relaxed on my 18th birthday on the 26th and was on a plane to Northern California on the 27th to work. Again, I got that job based on the metalworking education I received in high school.

Stager and others may or may not believe this, but it’s possible to mix technical/vocational education programs like welding with a wildly varied and rigorous academic program.

With students aged 8-16, I used welding as a means to look at everything from chemistry/physics, geometry/trigonometry, principles of design, basic principles of engineering and basic concepts in intellectual property [yes, all of these can be introduced properly to a child as young as 8]. I do wish that Stager and others had the opportunity to sit in on one of the sessions where I explained to 10-year olds the chemical differences between MIG welding and arc welding and its consequences on designing the project we were working on.

Educators are keen on assessment, so it’s important to note that after the design phase of the lesson, not a tyke put forth a proposal for an iron candle-holder that wouldn’t tolerate the weaker joints of a MIG weld. Might that be a 100% success rate using authentic assessment? The Ridgewood administration would approve.

And yes, that came from vocational training in welding, that “low-paying,” shoddy, non-rigorous discipline that a Shaker Heights parent wouldn’t be caught dead suggesting their child explore.

As I developed my skills in high school, I saw with the aid of two solid teachers that welding played quite well with the New York State Regents chemistry curriculum. The connections between that trade and academics somehow managed to penetrate my grimy blue collar and seep upward to mix with the knowledge that one receives as he earns a Regents diploma. I realize only now with Stager’s help that it was nothing short of a miracle.

Though Stager seems to think that a student putting time into vocational study hasn’t a notion of the Ivy League, I stumbled on that, too. After a year of welding one period a day and 3 hours a week afterschool in the Technology Club, I spent a semester studying history and economics at Harvard. If Stager needs an example of one who has sprinkled the salt of the earth on the forbidden fruit that is an Ivy, he need look only as far as the photo on the right sidebar of this site.

Oddly enough, Stager’s argument reminds me quite well of the attitude I encountered time and again on that campus that semester. The other residents of Winthrop House called me “Rube.”

Again: Ambitious educational objective indeed.

Snark aside, the truth is that many trades position those without a college education to earn an excellent wage as they contribute to their communities and the economy as a whole. The average urban high school graduate is, as Stager says, relegated to low-paying positions. There’s simply too much competition for better jobs that require skills many high school graduates don’t have. Trades are an avenue to contributing meaningful, sought-after labor that yields good compensation.

Take a look at this thread on the American Welding Society’s forum – it discusses the pay scale for welders. Although pay varies regionally, this discussion shows the range of wages a welder is likely to earn based on his skills. A quick glance at the discussion shows that a certified welder starts around $12-14/hr. – a solid gain from a minimum wage, “low-paying” job – and a skilled, experienced independent welder pulls ~$70/hr. Shops can charge a bit more and, of course, safety incentives come into play for more demanding jobs.

I’m not sure how much Stager makes, but I’ll freely admit that a welder with as many years of professional experience as I’ve been out of high school makes quite a bit more per hour than I do.

There’s no reason to discount vocational education, consider it a replacement for an adequate high school curriculum or to unfairly categorize trade skills as inferior. It does a disservice to education and ignores the practical application of much of the curricula in which those in Shaker Heights and the suburbs place their unwavering trust.

Those who practice a trade won’t mind if you do, though. They make a good living striking arcs, fixing plumbing and repairing the cars of the pointy-headed. Who did you think pays those $70/hr. bills?

Welders may not be Kant scholars, but they understand that a snob’s dollar spends the same as any other. Then again, they might just be Kant scholars.

From MBA to Gym Class: The College of Business at Illinois State University

The $28k MBA Nanny

Congratulations, Illinois State University. You’ve turned your MBA program into a phys-ed class.

About two weeks ago, Illinois State University made the higher education newsrounds by requiring that students in the College of Business adhere to a dress code on campus. College Freedom expressed concerns about the restrictions and so did I [to date, I still haven't gotten a response from the College of Business regarding my prospective student status]. reports this week that ISU has decided to uphold the dress code – but they’ve tweaked the policy to allow for up to 10% of one’s grade to be determined by “professionalism.”

You know, the same way a K-12 student is punished for not having gym clothes.

Proper attire in a physical education setting is a safety issue. To date, I’m not aware of anyone in an MBA program bringing injury upon themselves or others for wearing jeans in a lecture. says:

While the original policy offered guidelines ranging from color choices (“solid” for women) to upkeep (“pressed and never wrinkled”) to skirt length (“no shorter than four inches above the knee”), the revision — which goes into effect as soon as professors can announce it to their students — states simply that affected classes “will operate under standards of professional behavior that parallel those applied in the business world,” including “being dressed in appropriate business casual attire for class meetings, unless business professional attire is required.”

ISU thinks its students are apparently too dumb to recognize themselves that jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt aren’t appropriate attire for a client meeting. Out of state tuition at ISU’s College of Business is ~$28,000/year. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have listened to your mother and, if that didn’t take, hire a part-time nanny to dress you before work?

The main difference is an additional emphasis on “other professional behaviors deemed appropriate for class by the professor,” such as arriving on time and not interrupting the lecture (although those guidelines are already covered under the college’s Standards of Professional Behavior and Ethical Conduct). Under the previous policy, students who failed to dress business casual could be thrown out of class — meaning a potential loss of credit for assignments completed that day. Now, they could theoretically arrive in jeans without fear of getting kicked out, but up to 10 percent of their final grades could be docked instead.

A common sign of backpedaling – especially backpedaling when one’s proverbial pants are already at one’s ankles – is overlapping a criticized policy with an existing policy. Codified standards of conduct are important and necessary to ensure a civil academic environment; unfortunately for the proponents of the dress code plan, they’re justifying the new draft by citing support for a code that already covers most of the regulations. It isn’t a strong case.

Moving on:

David Horstein, the student body president, said the idea is that 10 percent of an overall course grade can go toward “professionalism,” including a student’s dress appearance and also other factors of professionalism, with the “hope that a professor cannot abuse” the dress requirement.

“The way that I hope this works,” Horstein said, is that it “gives the professors a lot of discretion with policies like that.” (Tim Longfellow, the chairman, said he understood the policy as meaning that “we’ll look across the board” in evaluating professionalism.)

… and this is the real tragedy.

Horstein and a largely-complacent student body are comfortable with having 10% of their evaluation come from non-academic criteria – including in graduate programs such as the MBA track.

I’ll steal a one-line description of the MBA curriculum from Wikipedia:

“MBA programs expose students to a variety of subjects, including economics, organizational behavior, marketing, accounting, finance, strategy, operations management, international business, information technology management, supply chain management, project management and government policy.”

An MBA program is singularly demanding; it’s difficult enough to justify candidates [generally] needing to work for a few years before starting the degree. The context that work experience brings to the intellectual rigor of the MBA curriculum produces a graduate who is well-prepared to lead in the business world and tackle the ever-evolving problems inherent in the field.

And now 10% of one’s readiness for that world is determined by one’s fashion sense and commitment to ironing clothes before stepping foot on campus. 10% of that MBA is now vocational.

Unsurprisingly, ISU’s leaders are as patronizing and condescending toward Holstein and other student leaders as they are toward the student body as a whole:

[Marketing Dept. Chair Tim] Longfellow praised the student leaders in a press release, saying, “I truly believe that shared governance, a strong and valued tradition on this campus, has prevailed. The Department of Marketing is pleased and believes that the compromised wording for the business casual dress standard allows the department to accomplish its initial purpose for establishing the dress standard, to provide an opportunity to enhance the overall professionalism of our students and to hopefully provide them with an additional advantage as they begin their career search.”

They’re adults, Chairman Longfellow. You’ll notice their “overall professionalism” enhance itself when you start treating them as adults.

I’m not sure if Horstein and the student body are done with this issue, but it sounds that way:

Horstein began receiving complaints from students soon after the policy was announced two weeks prior to the start of classes this semester. “At first, I was afraid to even take on the issue,” he said, worrying that administrators would “make us look like a lazy student body” for protesting the dress code. Then he learned that the policy apparently ran afoul of the university’s Student Bill of Rights, which has an explicit prohibition against mandatory dress codes.

Yet they still appear to have given up.

Tim Longfellow’s lack of logic had to have hurt his GMAT scores a great deal:

In an interview, Longfellow said he has not received any direct complaints about the policy to date, and that concerns about accumulating appropriate attire to attend class were mostly exaggerated at a business school where most students have recently completed or will soon complete internships.

Most of your students “have recently completed or will soon complete internships” and your graduate students come in with work experience, yet the College of Business needs to mandate their dress to teach them about professionalism in the real world? I have to ask – weren’t those internships and jobs undertaken at real, functioning business in that real world?

The summary? Poor, offensive judgment, condescending treatment of its students, bizarre backpedaling and a total lack of logic.

Again, ISU: Congratulations on your new vocational business program that is, as Longfellow and your other leaders have demonstrated, 10% gym class.

Upstate NY Students Get Loans to Study Business and Farming

This week I read about an innovative, effective program that encourages Upstate New York youth to develop and execute business plans related to farming and agriculture. Rural Youth Loans, offered through the USDA, provides funds up to $5,000 for motivated youngsters ages 10-20 to build their businesses. The Herkimer Evening Telegram reports:

Sarah Weeks, a 13-year-old eighth grade student at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior-Senior High School in Mohawk, takes part in the program and currently has a flock of 25 Shropshire Sheep.

Weeks participates with the program through the 4-H Club and exhibits her sheep at the Cooperstown Farmers Museum Show and other New York State county fairs, winning several awards.

She used the $5,000 loan she received to provide adequate housing and pens for her sheep and makes payments by selling lambs and with money she makes from exhibitions at livestock shows.

These loans provide the start-up cash that young people desperately need to develop; they’re also given guidance in planning and operations. Just think – when you hear another high school or college commencement speech about how the graduates are “preparing to embark on a journey into the real world” and to getting ready to “leave the safe haven of academia,” Sarah will have been operating a financially viable business for 10 years. Who would you rather hire?

Sarah’s not the only one getting an education in the realities of business and farming – her younger brother plans to take part when he turns 10 this summer. The Telegram article also mentions the Donahoe family:

Audrey Donahoe has six children, four of whom have taken out loans with the program and the other two who plan to do so when they turn 10.

“The kids have learned so much, from the application process, to opening up a checking account, and to the bank and loan process,” said Donahoe. “These are basic life experiences not taught in schools.”

You got it, Audrey – your kids are getting practical, relevant education in addition to their normal school curriculum. They wouldn’t have come across any of these basic skills during the school day.

Donahoe said her children also learned the business side of farming, whether buying animals or dealing with awkward situations.

“It builds equity at a young age and gives children a head start in the industry,” said Donahoe.

Not just in the industry – they’ll be light-years ahead of their peers in the job market. If they add to this experience a broad liberal arts education, they’ll be powerful economic and community leaders soon enough. Sarah’s an honor student; it sounds like she’s on the right track.

Jennifer Collins, who works with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Herkimer County and runs the loan program, said the program gives an opportunity to youths to become mini-entrepreneurs.

“It teaches kids to be responsible and to realize cost input,” said Collins.

For more information on the youth loan program contact the FSA Office in Marcy by calling [315] 736-3316.

If you’re not in the Leatherstocking Region of New York, you can find out about USDA Youth Loans in your area by going to the Farm Service Agency’s website for youth loans. You can also read these documents about the program – just click the following to view the files or right-click and ’save as’ to save them.

I wish I’d known about this when I was 10.