Fork in the road

Earlier this week after giving a presentation on the state of the district, I was asked what we are doing for our students who do not plan to go to college.  The expressed concern is that for some students, the final years of school are increasingly irrelevant to their lives.  As an example, it was noted that taking British Literature for some of our older boys is not all that appealing. I explained what we are doing with our career and technical education courses and partnerships and noted that we are doing much more today than in the past to prepare students for non-academic life after high school.  The question however, does raise the issue of what should be included in a high school education.  Is it important for our graduates to take all that we currently require, or, should there be more freedom to forgo some of the academics to instead take more vocational classes?  Such an option would likely include a fork in the road at the end of 10th grade that offers two paths: one for college prep and one for a vocational track.  This is a recurring conversation that on the surface is appealing. But when you look at the potential consequences of this model, you uncover some difficult questions.

Our mission statement (our purpose) includes preparing productive, responsible citizens and our vision (what we want to become) is to have engaged students who participate in their community and are prepared for the future.  For me, the key to meeting this mission and vision is that we train students to be independent learners who have the basic skills to pursue whatever it is that they want, and have a good understanding of how our society works.  While it is easy to argue that reading Jane Eyre is not that important, the greater importance of the humanities that help you see the big picture and in turn better understand how you fit into the whole, is an important part of meeting our mission and vision.  It is not enough to simply train someone to be a welder and hope that he or she figures out the rest.  A healthy, vibrant community and society requires an engaged citizenry who understand the importance of working toward a common good.  This means that the heavy equipment operator and the lawyer are both independent learners who recognize that one’s vocation is not the end all.

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  1. David Thomas
    Posted May 5, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Liberal-arts majors argue that the humanities must to be taught if we are to convey broad concepts, understand our place in the world, and develop problem-solving and communications skills. And for students continuing on to college – especially into the liberal arts – that is an approach that can work well for those students. But it isn’t the only way to teach about the broader world, communications, or independent learning. To give but a few possibilities:

    Whatever “wood shop” or “carpenter” is called these days (“cellulose-based construction technology”?), those students could construct a homesteader’s log cabin, some 3-story-high scaffolding out of bamboo, stick&waddle housing from Central Africa, and a rain-forest long-house. Then they’d not only learn some low-tech techniques that would serve them well, but also some cultural awareness and a sense of the planet’s huge economic disparities.

    In Cooking / Home Ec, Americans would typically use an electric mixer to make a merengue, but most of the world does that with a whisk (or, in a pinch, I’ve used a fork). So in a single lesson, cultural awareness, creative problem-solving, and some chemistry (copper ions help create a more stable merengue) can be taught.

    Germany separates students into university-bound and vocational-tracks in the 5th grade and Germany does quite well both in academic pursuits and in the skilled trades (there are opportunities to switch tracks later). The US errs on the side of “one-size-fits-all”. Even at a university level there are courses like “Astronomy for non-majors” and “Physics for Musicians”. How about “Math for technical trades” with a lot less continuous-functions but more demanding discrete math and measurement skills? Because the carpenter a roof doesn’t need to differentiate or integrate anything, but a practical understand of geometry and trigonometry would avoid cutting all the rafters too short.

    And, by serving the vocational-track students better, you also serve the college-bound students better. Math, science, English, and literature for the college bound should look different than for vocational students. “Tracking” is NOT a bad word. We have elementary schools around the district which “deal from the top of the deck” so each teacher gets a few stellar students and then distribute the more challenging students. That’s “fair” to each teacher, but I’d rather schools benefited the STUDENTS more. How does putting the most disparate students in the same room help? If that’s sound pedagogy, let’s make 2+5 and 3+6-grade classes. Some students KNOW they are never going to use radians, analyze literature, or work in laboratory. It wastes those student’s time, diverts the teacher’s time and lessens the opportunities for students who do belong in that class. The solution is not to make vo-tech classes a dumping ground, but to make vocational classes as challenging, broad, and relevant as college-prep courses are.

    • Dan
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I enjoyed reading your blog.
      I would just like to add that many students (even those that say they know “exacty what they want to do in this world”) change their career pathway 5-7 times throughout their lives. I recall a comment from one of our CTE teachers that said, “I tell students that they all need a skill or tade so they can at least put food on the table while they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with in their lives.” Some of us are still tryng to figure out what we want to do when we grow up, but until then we have a skill(s) that will make us self-sufficient.

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