Another path to success

California is pushing all students into college-prep courses, ignoring kids who want to train for skilled trades. It’s bad policy, writes Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee.

With about a third of high school freshmen dropping out of school already, this inane obsession with college prep classes and academic tests, when coupled with the wholesale destruction of voc-ed, can only worsen that problem.

Meanwhile, however, auto repair shops, building contractors and other employers have thousands of jobs – high-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced to India — going begging. One auto dealer has been renting very expensive billboard space along Interstate 405 near Los Angeles International Airport to advertise for auto mechanics. California, meanwhile, creates 16,000 new construction jobs a year, many of which go unfilled.

. . . To suggest that some kids might, in fact, be better off as mechanics, carpenters, electricians or plumbers is to risk the wrath of parents, or even allegations of racist “tracking.”

Actually, many students would have to raise their academic skills to do real-world vocational ed. A high school auto shop teacher told me that he didn’t expect any of his students to go on to be auto mechanics, despite a good vocational program at a nearby community college. Some would go to college; the rest couldn’t read well enough to understand a manual, he said. The head of the building trades union said almost all would-be apprentices had to be sent to remedial classes to improve their math skills; most needed to improve their reading too.

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  1. The unions that work in entertainment, while complaining about runaway production, are skilled jobs that pay big bucks (and lead to other things–James Cameron was a Teamster). Yet, no high schools ever suggest that a kid become a grip or a DP.

  2. The problem with trades anymore is that they require more knowledge reading, writing, and math wise than they did a quarter of a century ago.

    The typical new automobile has at least 20-30 computerized modules on board, all of which require reading and writing skills at the 12th grade level just to be able to TRAIN for these positions (ever look at a automotive repair guide for new cars these days, it’s mind-boggling).

    Same goes for HVAC, Welding, Electrical, etc. Anyone who is considering going into the trades have better have fundamental grasp of reading, writing, and basic algebra just to be able to compete (sadly, most high school graduates don’t even have this much).

  3. Mike McKeown says:

    When I was in High school, I worked as a shop boy in a sheet metal shop. The sheet metal workers could certainly read, speak grammatically, do math and had an excellent practical knowledge of geometry.

    Another kid working there was the son of a sheet metal worker. Charlie was taking chemistry and probably second year algebra then. He wanted to go into the apprentice program after high school

    In may algebra II and my trig/analytical geometry class the kid in front of me planned to go into the service, while a close friend of mine in the class went directly into an apprentice program when he graduated.

    I was in an ordinary high school in a working class town. These guys I went to school with, who would stand out in the state college system now, went on to be the kind of people who manage to make things work. It must have been a different time.

  4. I already know I don’t have basic algebra skills, and likely couldn’t make it working in a trade like these. I can, however, teach kids to read and write. I’d like to do what I can to alleviate the burden of ill-prepared students–but refuse to work at the public schools. After I finish my degree work, I plan to volunteer.

    If you aren’t helping to fix the problem (and complaining isn’t helping), you are part of it. Get out and help a kid learn to read.

  5. Holly – You really struck a nerve. How do you know what these people are or are not doing to solve these problems? (..on their own time for free) What is the difference between raising important criticisms and complaining? Blogs are noted for people venting their frustrations … along with providing some very good advice and commentary that many of us would like to read.

    “If you aren’t helping to fix the problem (and complaining isn’t helping), you are part of it. Get out and help a kid learn to read.”

    It sounds like you are being a little arrogant here. I think you would be surprised what many of these people have done. I can tell you that I have offered my professional help to our public schools to make sure that all students are well prepared to take algebra by eighth or ninth grade. The school ignored me (and everyone else who offered) and went ahead and stayed with MathLand, a program that virtually guarantees that no child will be properly prepared for algebra. You have to understand that the goal is more than just trying to be helpful and teaching some child to read. I can (and do) teach kids all of the math they need to know. Wouldn’t it be better to fix the schools so that I don’t have to do that? I have heard your “complaining” argument before. It usually is in the context of derailing people who want to change what the schools are doing. Just label those people as complainers and maybe they will go away and let the schools do what they want.

    It took me a few years to realize all of the basic ideological and philosophical assumptions being made by our public schools. I think it will help many more kids to be able to change some of these assumptions. By the way, when you learned to teach kids how to read and write, I hope you learned about the power of direct instruction, phonics, and hard work.

  6. I’ve tried to volunteer mentoring kids at disadvantaged schools, the district said thanks, but no thanks…thus, I don’t bother anymore. I tutor students at the local comm. college where my lack of a 4 year degree specifically in education doesn’t seem to matter to the people who want help and get it for free .

  7. Georgia did this in the late 90s. I think they regret it already.

  8. Fuzzy Rider says:

    If you don’t complain, the higher-ups will assume that everything is just peachy…especially in districts that have ways (usually subtle) of punishing dissent.

    There are advantages to having been around a district so long that you can voice your opinions and not be overly concerned about retaliation!!!
    Somebody has to stand up against the clueless educrats.

  9. kamatari says:

    I think I agree that these kids still need to learn to read and need to learn math, but maybe it could be taught to them in a way that’s more applicable to the path they see themselves taking. I’m a literature teacher, and truly I think everyone can grow from reading Shakespeare or Molière. But not every 15 year old is ready for that. Many 15 year olds, who might be headed towards an apprenticeship program, have 10 years of thinking they’re not “good” in English and hence are not ready to open their minds to Shakespeare. She cannot see the beauty and is stuck behind the “hard” words and the density of the ideas. She might however, enjoy having to analyze a mechanical manual, read the paper, choose a Daniel Steele novel instead of Mark Twain…. She might enjoy having to calculate something relevant to plumbing, or mechanics or robotics, instead of hypothetical equations. I know education is moving away from “streaming” students, and I agree that kids should not be limited to the trades, but I also think we’re doing a disservica to kids by insisting on college and only college as the solution for them all.

  10. Kamatari,

    My point is that the trades these days have become as high-tech as any other high tech program in college (my local community college has a program for automotive technicians) and it is a 2 year degree program (Assoc. of Applied Science). The basic requirements are english, technical writing, human relations, algebra or higher (pre-calc I recommended), science (digital logic I recommended), sociology, and state history/constitution.

    The major specific courses are General Automotive, Electricity and Electronics I, Brakes, Steering, Suspension, and Alignment, Engine Repair, Auto Heating and A/C, Drivetrain Assemblies, Fuel and Ignition systems, Emission Controls, Diagnostics, Electricity and Electronics II/Power Train and Body

    This is a 75 credit hour course, so it is more detailed than a standard associates degree (and in my opinion, just as high tech).

    The only problem with high schools is that unless the student is well prepared in reading, writing, and math, they don’t stand much of a chance in either the trades or college prep.

  11. “…but I also think we’re doing a disservica to kids by insisting on college and only college as the solution for them all.”

    Most high schools that I know offer 2 – 4 different tracks for their students. I don’t know if these tracks are geared to specific after-high school paths – job, vocational school, college, etc. Perhaps someone on this list can give some insight about the prevailing philosophy behind these tracks. Are they carefully designed for future paths or are they convenient slots that students fall into?

    There does seem to be this modern drive towards getting a college degree. I’m not sure if this is good or bad. I guess it depends on what kind of college it is and what courses the students take. Some people (and employers) just want to have that little piece of paper. I don’t know if this college degree requirement is so great. One could argue, however, that high shcools are not doing a good enough job so more employers are expecting college degrees.

    As for vocational schools, they seem to be turning into colleges where students can obtain associates or full degrees. Some of these vocational colleges I have seen are very good and require a lot of hard work. Their graduates are in very high demand. Based on this, one could argue that it is not a matter of college or no college. It is about trying to help students learn about their career choices and making sure that schools do not limit (or eliminate) those choices with their poor curricula.

    Students should not be completely in charge of their curriculum. Adults have a lot of hard-earned experience in cause and effect. Perhaps it is not so great to allow students to read a “… Daniel Steele novel instead of Mark Twain.” When I was in high school, we had almost no electives. Now, it seems that it is the other way around, even for college prep tracks. Substitute video production for trigonometry? That’s OK, isn’t it? Well, you have just closed some doors. The goal of high school is not just to cater to kids’ whims. I would hope that one of the jobs of school is to teach kids that some goals require a lot of hard work in subjects that are not always very interesting.

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    Exactly Steve, well said. We are the adults. we can bring the children up to their full capacity.
    We can do it for all. Having university prepatory schools, vocational schools of different kinds and different levels will be very good. Of course, the argument against this kind of “tracking” is that it leads to a class system. I hope no one will again be fooled by that argument for now we have no class. A nation without varied classes,each educated, for the most part,to their full capacity becomes a “banana republic”. Moreover, a graduate from a good vocational school, will in very many instances, make more money than a university graduate.

  13. I took some great college prep classes in high school. Today, my alma mater no longer offers college prep classes.

    The city built a new high school that only accepts the brightest students in the district. Now, the other two high schools are for average students. The third high school is for the kids who are more likely to go to college. These kids have computers, newer textbooks, and are allowed to take college-level courses off campus.

    The competition to get into the better school is fierce. There are families who have kids going to different high schools.

  14. I didn’t mean to sound arrogant. It’s just that I’ve heard the same things from full professors complaining about how their students can’t read well enough to keep up with course work, or write well enough to be understood–and I KNOW these people are doing nothing.

    So, to those who I offended, I am sorry.

  15. Holly,

    If the student can’t read well enough to keep up with the classwork, and write well enough to be understood, the professor shouldn’t be responsible, but rather the person who allowed this student to be admitted in the first place.

    There is NO shame in admitting you need remedial work to make up for 20 years of being out of formal schooling. There is shame in allowing students who are fresh out of high school with GPA’s better than 3.0, some of which who have earned scholarships, to be enrolled in colleges where they find themselves in remedial courses.

    The simple fact is that the typical high school graduate today simply is NOT cut out to do what would be classified as college level work today (I know, I used to attend college 20 years ago), and I can see the differences in student achievement.

    The self-esteem monster has ruined a generation of kids who thought that they shouldn’t have hurt feelings, rather than a kick in the pants, when it might have done them some good.

  16. In response to >>>I hope no one will again be fooled by that argument for now we have no class.

  17. “If students with an aptitude/affinity for mechanics or other “trades” could be engaged via their interests, I think we might all be surprised at “how much” math, etc. they could learn.”

    There is more than enough of this catering going on today. The problem is that fluff electives are replacing tougher core courses. If they do learn math (etc.) as a by-product of these courses, it is minimal. I can hear the doors slamming. Who is in charge here, kids or adults? How are these kids going to fare in college when they come from a carte blanche high school education? I can just hear it now. “What do you mean I HAVE to take 2 economics courses, a sociology course and four semesters of language courses (plus a whole lot more) to graduate?” As I said before, replacing trigonometry with video production is a bad choice.

  18. cj says…”If students with an aptitude/affinity for mechanics or other “trades” could be engaged via their interests, I think we might all be surprised at “how much” math, etc. they could learn.”

    and Steve replies…There is more than enough of this catering going on today. The problem is that fluff electives are replacing tougher core courses.

    Why is this “catering?” Why couldn’t a trig course (for example) be taught with a heavy orientation to practical applications, like analyzing the rotation cycle in an engine or calculating materials for a building? I suspect that most people (and not only those destined for the trades) would gain a better understanding of what sine and cosine *really mean* from this than from the more formal and abstract approach typically used.

  19. “Why couldn’t a trig course (for example) be taught with a heavy orientation to practical applications, like analyzing the rotation cycle in an engine or calculating materials for a building?”

    … It could, but it perhaps wouldn’t be a trig course anymore. “…heavy orientation to practical applications…” The devil is in the details. It all depends on what you mean by this. Nothing stops a regular trig course from using real problems, but your heavy orientation to practical applications implies that this course might not properly prepare the student for higher level math. If you are talking about non-college prep tracks, then I would suggest that the content of the course should depend on what the school is trying to do with the curriculum, not just what would be interesting to the child at that point in their life. It is nice to get kids excited and interested in their classes, but this should not be done at the expense of the breadth or depth of material covered in the course. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Schools should make it very clear to the students which road they are being send down. Students need to know whether or not they will have to take remedial math courses when they go to college – vocational or otherwise. Catering to the future needs of kids is great. Catering to the current whims of the students is not.

  20. Tim from Texas says:

    Denny, I was being somewhat facetious when I wrote,”for now we have no class”. Sophistication would be a more direct term to use.

    When one argues in this country for an educational system which attempts to fill the learning/educational needs of all,specifically a system, wherein there exists university prepatory high-schools, vocational high schools of varying kinds and of varying levels of difficulty, a strict hierarchial system of apprentice to journeyman to master, which offers individuals a niche, the old and continuous argument against it is that such a system leads to a class structure which stymies upward mobility. This I argue is false. I contend that without such a system one gets what we have in our country today, which is a starving to poor class, a small middle class-the smallest now among the industialized nations as a percentage of population-and the proportionately- way- too rich class. To put it bluntly, we are rapidly becoming a nation of Walmarts and Nieman Marcuses with nothing in between. To allow this to continue in a nation full of resources and wealth is unsophisticated.

  21. We have classes in America. Every society has classes, from the poorest to the richest and everything in between. America is no different in this regard from any other country, and only the communists/socialsts would have it otherise. (Near as I can figure, they want a single class, governed by a higher class of ‘intellectuals’, of which they themselves would be members, of course.)

    No, the difference is not in whether we have different classes in our society. Rather, it is in the mobility between those classes. In most of the rest of the world, our kin in the U.K. included, you are born into a class and there you stay for life. The strength of our country is that you are not predestined by your birth class, but can rise (or fall) depending on your own will and hard work. Is it easy? No, but since when is anything that is really worth having ‘easy’? But it is possible, and that’s what matters.

    So to all those ‘social revolutionaries’ and ‘social engineers’ who want to remake our society in their image of a ‘classless’ society, I say that you are shortsighted and doomed to failure. Fortunately. Human nature itself is your enemy, and so is common sense.

    No, classes are not bad in and of themselves. What is bad is the attempt to restrict people to a particular class when they not only desire but have the ability and skills to be other. That is the crime.

  22. Trying to put all students on a college track will not eliminate classes, nor will it ensure high-paying jobs for all. Many students will get some meaningless form of “liberal arts” degree and face at future at the low end of the retail industry, when they could have trained for a craft job at twice the income and, probably, more job satisfaction.

  23. Tim from Texas says:

    Well, the Horatio Alger myth raises it’s ugly head again. Americans as a whole have bought into it hook line and sinker. If you look at the numbers, upward mobility in this country has never occurred in any numbers that could be called substantial numbers, or anything close to substantial numbers. Buying into that propaganda is unsophisticated exactly.

  24. AnotherScott says:

    Tim, thinking that people become Vaderbilts in one generation would be a little naive, though it happens. Thinking people could go from dirt poor to millionaire is a bit hopeful, though my father did it. Thinking that a family of immigrants could come here with nothing but set for themselves a decent middleclass life is buying into propaganda, of course my girlfriend’s family managed it, despite having ten kids.
    Upward mobility is possible, but it’s hard, it takes work. Often the biggest obstacle is lowered expectations. Maybe I’m a fool, but I’ve just seen it happen too many times not to believe in it. Don’t you know any immigrants? They usually provide the best example of it.
    Sure there are plenty of people who do well because they came from good backgrounds; I saw that a plenty at the Ivy League school I went to. As I’m from a depressed rural area, I’ve also seen the opposite end; and for sure some areas, really poor urban areas, ‘ghettos,’ etc seem to work to really hold people back. However, there is without a doubt an avenue for people to live beyond their parents dreams. You may find this attitude unsophiticated, but I find yours arrogant.

  25. Tim from Texas says:

    AnotherScott, I don’t think forming strong opinions and then expressing those opinions constitute arrogance. However, when one does have strong opinions and convictions, one does inherently express them with force. Therefore, I don’t express my opinions through anecdotes.

    I will digress here a bit with the following, I think, aprropriate example-anecdote. One can toss a dime into the air and say it would never land on its edge and remain standing on its edge, even if one tosses it into the air a thousand times. However, of course, it eventually will and eventually will again. But, what happens the overwhelming majority of the time? Well, we all know the answer to that. I don’t think anyone would want to bet anything substantial on the dime landing on its edge and remaining on its edge.

    Now when it comes to building our country and society and all,my argument is that when we believe in and follow and do our calculations and then our investing in accordance with the Horatio Alger myth, it is tantamount to betting a huge amount that the dime will land on its edge and come to a stop on its edge. But alas, many people buy lottery tickets and go to Las Vegas, why hell, now one can go just about anywhere in this country to gamble on that dime. MOST come back with many fewer dimes or no dimes at all. Of course, a few return with many a barrel full, and some win a little or lose a little or “break even”, but again, the question has to be asked. What happens most of the time?


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