Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vocational education? Bring that on

Time magazine recently had a jointly inspiring and confused commentary on what's wrong with education. The thing on which we'll focus here is what's inspiring. In the meantime, we need to dispel some confusion. 

Time's Joe Klein makes an impassioned statement on behalf of  vocational education, which scandalously has shrunk from the scene in public schools in the last 30 years.

The confused part of this plea is in his assigning blame. Klein would have us believe this condition is the fault of the "education establishment." A headline also makes liberals villains, saying that vocational education is "dismissed by the left."

Let me say first that if my liberal brethren were to blame for this, shame on us. But we aren't. And whatever share of blame it might have, the "education establishment" isn't to blame either for what's become of vocational education. That establishment is only responding to the whims of its bosses: state legislatures and (since No Child Left Behind) Congress and the White House.

There. Blame away.

Blame "school accountability," which could be called "the quest for educational uniformity." Blame duped taxpayers as well for assenting to the bogus notion that standardization is education and competence is excellence. Another wrong notion built into "accountability": that "college readiness" is what every effort should be about, by law, as if mind-numbing standardization could possibly produce it.

Blame high-stakes testing that forces schools to emphasize "test criteria" at the exclusion of everything else. This is most pronounced, of course, in "failing schools" (meaning: in pockets of poverty). They constantly are forced to ramp up their emphasis on basic skills and whatever the states demand of them.

And what do the states demand? That the schools produce students headed toward college through the straits denoted by the pillars of ACT and SAT.

The states insist that all students be directed toward college-level algebra. The states insist on increasing core-subject regimentation — so much English, so much science, so much math, so much this, so much that. 

Vocational education? Who has the time?

Time — the magazine — takes readers to a stunningly successful program that runs up against the college-track conveyor-belt fixation and bursts right through.

An agriculture sciences program at the school on the Navajo Reservation in Kayenta, Ariz., turns students on to real-world challenges like veterinary medicine and animal husbandry, while making them better overall students.

Unfortunately, one subtext of the expressed appeal behind such a program is slightly misguided — the subtext that this is solely about directing students toward careers — in this case the careers defined by a rural and agrarian lifestyle.

Careers certainly are worthy considerations. But a problem with education, and education "reform," is that too much of the attention is on careers. While we want students to imagine themselves in said fashions, the key to success in education isn't occupation; it is fascination. If we can't get students interested in something, they aren't going to try to learn the things we want them to.

As Time points out, while vocational programs too often are seen as places where scholastic hopes go to die, the Kayenta students in the voc-ed program are blowing state standardize tests out of the water. Why? Because the disciplines in question present an "alternative way to teach them math, science and reading" — you know, through fascination.

This — relevance, multidimensional learning — is how we "fix schools," rather than devising another, tougher test, more intense "alignment" between what the state requires and what schools do.

Recently Tom Pauken, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, speaking to the Texas Association of College Technical Educators, made the case for more vocational and technical education. At the same time he denounced the one-size-fits-all underpinning of "standards" as now enforced:

"We have accepted for too long this misguided notion that everyone should go to a university. That flies in the face of reality and human nature. We have different talents and different abilities."

He is right. To assign a broad-based system like public schools to focus on one end result —college — is a fool's errand.

Vocational education? Oh, my goodness, bring that on, along with a host of cross-curricular endeavors that allow students to see how learning translates into living.

Anything that supplies technicolor and relevance, anything that is hands-on and collaborative, anything that isn't bubbling in test sheets and prepping for bubbling in, is better than anything "school accountability" has ever brought us.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

No comments: