Does Anyone Learn to Make a Living?

Posted: 2011/03/13 in Classroom Teacher, Education, Education Reform, High School, Students

The function of high schools today is to prepare every student for success in college.

You don’t believe me? My school district has declared that we can only teach classes that comply with UC (University of California) requirements. UC is all about academic standards and higher-level thinking. The quickest way to get a course rejected from UC’s almighty list is with one word — Vocational.

Even for those teens going on to higher education, most college students today need to earn money while heading toward a bachelor’s degree. That means that high school has to do something to help prepare them for the job market.

There used to be Vocational Ed classes — wood shop, auto shop, electronics — that prepared boys for real careers. There was also home economics for girls. (No gender mixing when I was in school. Tho, frankly, I wish I had learned some domestic skills.)

But Vocational Ed got a lousy reputation. In the bad old days of stereotyping, all Latino boys were placed in shop class (“those people are good at working with their hands, don’cha know”) and steered away from college prep classes. Too many girls were discouraged from taking academic classes and herded toward home ec.

Out of fear of that sort of stereotyping, Voc Ed as it once existed has disappeared. Preparing girls only for housework seems like a dumb idea in today’s job market. But is it true that America doesn’t need as many machinists, auto mechanics or carpenters? All those shop classes are pretty much extinct now. And what sort of knowledge do our academic kids need in order to earn money while attending college?

So now we work with the idea that every kid in high school should be on track to go to university. But is that really the only reasonable alternative?

There are young people who ARE good with their hands; the ones who like to build, make, repair; the ones who would truly thrive in careers rebuilding car engines or constructing houses. These are often the students who hate high school, who can’t sit still for hour-long lectures and who will never get an A on a math test.

Years ago I met a high school principal from New Orleans whose school was entirely made up of career academies. When she mentioned “Cosmetology” as one of the academies the assembled group of educators chuckled. But then she talked about the math classes where cosmetology students learned to keep books for a business, and the science classes where they learned about the effects of heat (or else a client’s hair might fall out), the chuckling stopped. It made sense.

But for schools offering the one-size-fits-all education system (and that one size that’s supposed to fit is preparing every kid for college) certain unmotivated students are labeled “bad” and “dumb” and “losers.” Kids tend to live up to the labels they’re given. There has to be a better alternative and a way to prepare these young people for lives in which they can succeed.

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