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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.

11 Responses to “Vocational Education in Public Schools”

  1. It was like this when I was a teacher- the voc. ed. kids got looked down upon because kids thought they were less intelligent. Teachers treated the voc. ed. program like tracking (“well.. if Johnny can’t make it to college, then he can at least be a grease monkey”).

    Looking back, those kids in the voc. ed. got a more balanced education than any kid did in the “college” track. They learned something they could APPLY right away.

    I wish people still didn’t look down upon the tech trades. If it weren’t for the tech schools, we wouldn’t have a lot of things right now (like this fancy computer I’m typing at).

    ~Michelle
    beartwinsmom.wordpress.com

  2. Gary Stager says:

    Matthew,

    Thanks for reading my column and for taking the time to respond.

    Perhaps I was not clear or expansive enough in my critique. I am not against welding. I am against limiting educational options for children.

    Anyone who knows of my work with schools, kids and educators around the world realizes that I’m committed to ensuring that every child has the broadest range of meaningful learning opportunities and relevant materials as possible.

    I often tell educators that no education is complete without soldering and learning to develop black and white film. Both are magical, educational and deeply rewarding activities that turn kids on.

    However, Kozol is correct when he says that these “happy talk” urban academies are not in the pluralistic spirit of choice you and I embrace. Success isn’t in the title of any of the suburban schools I attended, nor were my parents promised that I would be trained to be or create the products necessary for America to succeed in the global marketplace. Such distinctions are reserved for the poor and badly educated in this country.

    Even the term, “academy,” is historically-loaded with memories of Southern academies created as protests against school integration.

    No, I don’t earn as much as a good welder. However, my educational focus is not a vocational one. If a kid wants to be a welder, or the favorite cliché – a ditch digger, after a well-rounded robust meaningful educational experience, God bless her.

    However, when bureaucrats say things like, “Not every child needs to go to college,” they are rarely speaking of THEIR child, but rather someone else’s child. That’s a lousy foundation for educational policy.

    To Michelle’s point, the answer to irrelevant poorly taught academic subjects is not welding, but better schools. She is quite correct that industrial arts teachers have often embodied the best of learner-centered educational methods and provided a great service to many youngsters for generations. Now if math class could be as good…

    All the best,

    Gary Stager
    http://www.stager.org

    PS: I loved your comment to the Ridgewood Superintendent. Someday, my memoir will chronicle my experiences in that district.

  3. I’m very much in agreement with this post.

    I would like to add that the distinction between ‘academics’ and ‘vocational’ education isn’t as wide as the academics might like to think. There’s a lot of movment back and forth (and also between those two and the ‘professions’).

    When I enrolled at Algonquin College, the computer program I signed up for was a trades program – it was a branch of electronics. When I was in univrsity studying philosophy it had achieved the status of ‘computer science’ and was an academic discipline. Today, a lot of the stuff I studied falls under ‘computing engineering’, a profession.

    When I regard someone like a plumber, mechanic or electrician today, I keep that thought in mind. In my father’s day, the people who worked with cars were the computer engineers of their time. They were working on the most advanced technology around (well, them and airplane mechanics). They could do things with metal and wire and rubber that we can only imagine – they had tools that built tools, if you can believe it.

    It still takes just as much study, and just as much smarts, to master these disciplines today. The people who are poor academics would also be poor mechanics, etc. The choice between the trade or the academic route often has as much to do with inclination as ability.

  4. Gary Stager says:

    Stephen,

    I knew a brilliant high school electronics teacher (who literally wrote the book) and taught in a suburban high school where 90%+ of students went on to four year college. His students built robots, burned ePROMS and programmed microprocessors in the 1980s. It’s safe to say that more science and mathematics were being learned in his class than anywhere else in the building.

    It was my friend’s greatest regret that college-bound students who wished to be engineers or computer scientists were steered away from “Electronics” since it took place in the industrial arts wing.

    This is one of the reason why I love using robotics in classrooms and teacher professional development. My colleague Seymour Papert points out that if you believe anything about human development (in a Piagetian sense), learning occurs from the concrete to the abstract/formal. Engineering is clearly a concrete learning context, yet the only people allowed to engage in engineering are rewarded for having endured 12-14 years of abstractions first.

    Without choosing which kids “should” weld, welding could certainly be something students do in a purposeful context. This is not an argument for tracking.

  5. Gary Stager says:

    PS: Check out how the great Sonny Rollins answered the question about the person he most admires.

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/09/proust_rollins200709

  6. Colin says:

    Steve,

    I agree with much of what you said, but this is going a little overboard:

    “The people who are poor academics would also be poor mechanics, etc.”

    It’s not that academics/tradesmen are mutually exclusive, but let’s be real here. I know quite a few very good mechanics/construction workers who were terrible students. On the other hand, I know far too many people who excelled at higher education who don’t know their ass from their elbow when it comes to the most the basic stuff (changing a tire, for example).

  7. Ms. Whatsit says:

    I believe that vocational education isn’t just the welding, auto-repair, nail techician, dog grooming kinds of classes. Vocational education includes any class where students use their learning beyond the classroom setting later on in life.

    The single most valuable class I took in high school was French. The language skills I learned landed me a job as an international flight attendant many years ago. While not ultimately the best career path for me, it was an eye-opening, enlightening experience that helped define who I am now. Conversely and ironically the single most useful college course I took–meaning the one from which I most used my learning in my personal life– was “Botany for Gardeners”. It inspired my life-long love of gardening and help me figure out to landscape my new homes without paying a wad of money to a company (which probably didn’t have a college graduate with advanced degrees at the helm).

    It dismays me that vocational education doesn’t receive more positive attention in public school settings, that the attitude is to discourage anything but taking the college track. If educational policy makers more often considered the notion that vocational education could open doors of opportunity and personal growth, then perhaps we would have better, more meaningful voc-ed programs available to students.

    We are all different and hold different strengths. I think that sound vocational education programs are necessary to put that theory into practice.

  8. Colin says:

    Ms Whatsit,

    I agree with your sentiments about vocational education, but your definition isn’t quite right. If “vocational education includes any class where students use their learning beyond the classroom setting later on in life”, then what’s college prep? Mental masturbation? I have a hard time calling French vocational training. Similarly, I use most, if not all, of my formal education in my current line of work, especially math and physics courses.

    I’m mostly just being a nit here, but I worry that marginalizing the distinction between the two could actually harm vocational education’s place in the discussion.

  9. Matthew says:

    Gary,

    You said:

    “I am not against welding. I am against limiting educational options for children.”

    You looked at a photograph, read a one-paragraph mission statement and concluded that there was likely a problem with this school delivering a solid education. That is intellectually irresponsible and unforgivable. There is no evidence in either that picture or the statement to suggest that SuccessTech’s students have such limited education options as to harm them. That evidence may be out there – I don’t know one way or the other – but you’ll need to find it before you make any claims. You didn’t bother.

    I can tell that you’re quite proud of some of your articles being “provocative” – you’ve used that word yourself to describe this particular article – but one can provoke thought while still being fair, honest and responsible. You ignored all three of those conditions in your article.

    Your strategy in this article is to make outrageous, uninformed statements that provoke one to prove you wrong. Not only is that intellectually irresponsible, it’s also terribly rude and discourteous. If you’re committed to dialogue and debate, do the work first and then seek discussion.

    In short, you impose your willful ignorance on others and force them to: a) accept it and leave it unchecked; or b) do the work with which you can’t be bothered.

    Stop making it everyone else’s problem. Not only is it intellectually lazy, it’s rude and it’s counter-productive.

    We both know how often this strategy appears on ed-tech blogs and I know that we both despise it. I’m shocked and disappointed that you would do it yourself.

  10. Gary Stager says:

    Matthew,

    You call me as many names as you’d like and attack my methodology, but I am relying on twenty-five years worth of experience in schools and am commenting on patterns I’ve observed in countless contexts. These observations have been validated by others. I would be happy to apologize if my admitted assumptions, based on life experience and the work of Jonathan Kozol, turn out to be wrong.

    Neither the school, with it’s peculiar name or the Cleveland Schools web site contains any information about their educational practices.

    I didn’t predict that the student came from a troubled home or that he had been bullied, although I probably could have. News reports suggest that classmates were told by the shooter that he planned to attack and one kid may have seen the troubled student strapping on his weaponry. Nobody did anything to prevent the tragedy. Does that sound like an A+ school to you?

    I read all there was to read prior to writing my column, which connected several news events in an effort to describe how I was feeling. Is that invalid too? The article clearly states my opinion. Am I not entitled to that?

    The district web site features the photos I showed and a letter from the district CEO describing their focus on test scores. Other authors and researchers I admire have observed the widespread use of corporate titles and motivational gibberish in our nation’s poorest schools. It seems that this school in that particular district fit the pattern.

    I’d be delighted for you to find examples of suburban public schools with CEOs, daily chanting of motivational slogans and names like “SuccessTech Academy.”

    The education of children is much more than a clever rhetorical exercise for me.

  11. Matthew says:

    “The article clearly states my opinion. Am I not entitled to that?”

    You’re absolutely entitled to your opinion – and I am entitled to parse it and show its inadequacy. It isn’t calling you names, it’s evaluating your content and how you arrived at it. Although feelings are genuine things, they aren’t to be confused with data or evidence.

    You cite the USA Today statistic about SuccessTech Academy’s graduation rate of 94%. You say there’s no data of any sort available. Where’d they get it?

    You explained that your inferences were based on years of experience, Kozol’s research, etc. If you’re playing the odds, fine – the odds are in this case with you – but applying general data and observations to a specific case is fallacious.

    “I’d be delighted for you to find examples of suburban public schools with CEOs, daily chanting of motivational slogans and names like “SuccessTech Academy.”

    How often are suburban schools designated as failing and are as a consequence overhauled completely?

    It’s also important to note that urban systems necessarily can afford specialization [think of the MATCH Charter in Boston] in a way that suburban areas can’t.

    It’s the same reason why certain boutiques exist on Rodeo Drive and not on Main Street in Cooperstown.

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