Monday, August 31, 2009

Valorization of the Trades - commentary

Persistent problems require radical solutions and public education has proven to be a persistent problem. So, let’s look at some radical solutions.

Camille Paglia, libertarian feminist and college professor, in a recent essay, says "I call for a valorization of the trades and for national investment in vocational schools to help salvage the disaster zone of urban public education."

We glorify a college education, mostly through economic comparisons: college graduates make X amount of money more than high school graduates. Why not compile statistics in other ways? Let's compare the incomes of skilled steel workers or pipeline welders against incomes of mediocre liberal arts graduates.

Why not compare life in an office cubicle against the open air work place of an oil field well driller? Whose life is most interesting, the worker who built the building or the paper shuffler who occupies it?

It is time to recognize trades for the grand opportunities they afford young people and make preparation for them on par with college preparation. A high school principal once told me that he did a study of his students and found that only thirty per cent of the students in the school went to college and only thirteen per cent completed a degree. Yet, ninety percent of the budget is spent on the thirteen percent. His school is not unique, yet the standard response is to try and persuade more students to go to college rather than fund preparation for the trades. Those who make such decisions need to read again Walt Whitman’s poem "I Hear America Singing." A career in the trades is every bit as glamorous as being a college educated, expendable part of some multinational corporation.

Professor Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D, of Widener University, argues for another radical solution: do away with grades eleven and twelve. He suggests those two grades are kept for social and cultural reasons rather than any academic need, things like the prom, the graduation walk, or a fourth year of football. He says, "Let's just stop pretending that the senior year in high school is all that important for the education of all seniors."

Rozycki says the GED test is based on a tenth grade level and that it is good enough to get you into most colleges. So, why not chop off those two grades and spend the money saved to upgrade the education in the first ten?

My contention is that the most important work of the educator is done in the first eight or nine years anyway. If a good job is done and the student can read, write, and cipher, he can pursue an education with or without a good teacher.

Rozycki also says we should drop any notion of "fullest potential," because we have no idea what it means and even if someone created a definition, you'd never get political agreement on it. "We cannot guarantee success with every child, no matter how imploringly that child's parents beseech us, no matter how ominously that child's parents threaten us."

A prestigious panel calling itself the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calls for similar action. They want to see a rigorous test given at the end of the tenth grade. Those who pass it leave high school at that point. The only students remaining after that would be those taking remediation so they can pass the test or those involved in challenging academic study so as to get in the elite universities.

In 1997, Leon Botstein, then president of Bard College, in his book Jefferson’s Children, proposed we do away with high school, kind of. He says we should start school a year earlier, say at four years instead of five and end it at age sixteen. After that he says young people should be moved into learning environments more appropriate to their individual interests and life goals.

He says our attempt to educate all children, those who are ready for serious academics and those who are not, creates a serious problem starting in the mid-teens: “The behavior of sixteen-year-olds is influenced by that of other sixteen-year-olds as perceived through popular fashion and trends…. In terms of educational performance, this translates into a powerful dynamic within the high school. The best are influenced by the weakest.”

As to college, he says, “…if a young person comes to college at age eighteen without a serious love of reading, without a reasonable comfort level with mathematics, and without a basic concept of science or history, it is usually too late to fix all this.”

Most students have decided by their tenth grade year whether they are scholars, and even if they have not, their performance speaks for them.

We know that most people are not going to go to college. Also, most people only have so many years they will devote to school of any kind. When we force these kids to spend all those years in academic classes rather than providing vocational training, we condemn them to lower end service industry jobs instead of better paying technical jobs or the trades.

And then there is a seldom mentioned aspect about keeping students around for two or three years after they are through learning: it demoralizes teachers. When you daily face students who have no interest, you too lose interest. We often refer to it as teacher burnout. All too often, when teachers burn out, they don't quit their jobs, they just quit being the best they can be. Interested students keep teachers sharp and both do better.

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