Isn’t it strange that students who are labeled as troublemakers, incorrigibles, or educationally challenged in their academic classes suddenly begin to perform significantly better in their career technical education courses? It’s possible that they learn in a different way than those who achieve academic success. The ability to learn from something that is relevant to you is essential.
While teaching high school classes and interacting with my teenage students, I have discovered that the vast majority of them lack any marketable skills necessary to either attend college or enter the job market. While trying to develop their skills, habits, mind-set, and work habits—all of which are necessary to be able to search for, find, apply for, secure, and keep a job or continue their education—I have also discovered that the vast majority of these students lack any marketable skills necessary to either attend college or enter the job market. These students have also set unrealistically high expectations for themselves in terms of the salary they expect to receive for doing work that they despise. They have difficulty in the fundamental academic areas of reading, writing, and mathematics.
In order to provide you with a better understanding of the students with whom I work, I’m going to take you way, way back in time to when I was their age. Traditionally, traditional vocational education classes, such as auto shop and woodshop, as well as metalshop and welding shop, served as a dump for students who did poorly in academics and caused trouble in other classes. While there were some of us who were actually getting good grades in school and just enjoyed working with our hands in the vocational classes, the majority of the students in those classes were considered “incorrigibles.” When I was growing up, “shop teachers” were generally not considered to be legitimate teachers unless one of the “real” teachers needed their car fixed, some tables or chairs made, or some nice programs or invitations printed for their class.
Not much has changed in the intervening decade, as I am currently completing my student teaching in a Regional Occupational Program (ROP). However, while a few new programs were introduced to supplement the traditional vocational education classes, the students remained the same: those who were struggling in school and needed credits to graduate. Likewise, we offered adult classes to assist those adults who wished to begin a new career, advance within an existing one, apply for and receive G.I. pension benefits, or simply wanted to get away from their wives and their “honey-do” lists.
In today’s world, Career Technical Education (CTE) classes, formerly known as Vocational Education classes, have increased to over 140 different programs, according to the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (CAROCP). However, as in the past, there appears to be a class gap between “real” teachers who teach in the “upper class” academic areas and those who teach in the “lower class” career technical areas. There are still rumors floating around that those who teach in vocational areas lack degrees and “legitimate” teaching certifications. It appears that vocational instructors are only a step or two above Neanderthals in terms of their educational evolutionary position. Academics are the ones who perpetuate these urban legends because they are unaware of the current requirements for obtaining a CTE credential or teaching in the ROP.They are unaware that all of these programs are taught by instructors who have a significant amount of practical industry experience, which is one of the most important credential requirements, and many of whom have post-secondary degrees ranging from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees in their respective fields.
There are also those who believe that there should be no vocational classes at all because they believe that it is demeaning to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and that, in essence, these classes are telling them that they are no better than common laborers, and that they should instead pursue other avenues of education. The fact that MIT and Cal Tech were founded as essentially vocational schools, as were Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, appears to be overlooked by all of them. They also fail to recognize that there is a genuine shortage of highly qualified technical personnel and that the situation is getting worse with each passing year.
Returning to the CTE students, the majority of what I discovered then, and what appears to be true now, is that these “troublemakers” were not stupid; rather, they were unable to make the connection between the material being taught in academic classes and what one would need in the “real world” in order to live, eat, and survive. I have my doubts that any of the math teachers could explain to their students, let alone demonstrate to them, how they would use algebra and the quadratic equation in the real world to solve real-world problems in the future. Even if “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet…”, a dime and a rose by any other name would still not get you a cup of coffee, so what’s the point? There was never a tangible connection established with these students. According to Dr. Worley, North Orange County Regional Office of Education Superintendent, and myself, this is an aspect of conventional academic classes that is true, as substantiated in the 2006 Longitudinal Study Technical Report by Dr. Douglas E. Mitchell of the School Improvement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside.
Academic classes teach theory, but not in the context of real-world application; that is, how all of this information, theories, and facts relate to the actual work of doing a job. This group of students believes that nothing tangible, such as what they can see, hear, or touch, has any significance in their lives. This disconnect will cause these “troublemakers” to tune out what is going on in the classroom, and, with all of their free time, they will start doing things that will disrupt the class and instructor, as well as get them into trouble with the law. These academic instructors will instruct the guidance counselors to remove these students from their classes and place them in an auto shop, metal shop, or woodshop instead of their regular classes. No one seemed to grasp the fact that these students are not stupid or mentally challenged, but simply learn in a different way. The “academics” don’t seem to grasp the fact that these students learn best by doing things with their hands and seeing firsthand the relationship between the academic bookwork and how it is applied to real-world problems that they encounter.
After being “dumped” into one of these vocational classes, many of them will eventually come around and actually attend class, complete assignments, complete homework, read books, and begin to earn good grades after a period of time. They are able to perform mathematical calculations, improve their reading, writing, and communication skills, and are beginning to develop a professional demeanor, among other things.
So, how did these troublemakers and incorrigibles begin to do the academic work that no one believed they were capable of doing? The professor and I believe that if students are shown that what they are learning is relevant to actually doing a job, making something work, or putting something together properly, their academic performance will follow. Dr. Miller’s 2006 Longitudinal Study Technical Report, which supports our beliefs, is yet another source of support. It was demonstrated to these students that what they were learning was relevant to what they would have to do in the real world, and it was demonstrated in a way that made sense to them. These students are tactile learners who require hands-on experience with something in order to grasp the concepts in their heads and comprehend the theoretical concepts they are being taught.
If incorporating relevance into coursework is the primary reason that these “incorrigible” students are able to comprehend and even excel in academic subjects, is it possible to incorporate this approach into regular academic classes and raise the level of achievement for all students? Our public schools must move in this direction according to two standards adopted by the California State Board of Education: the California Career Technical Education Model Curriculum Standards (2005) and the California Career Technical Education Framework for California Public Schools (2007). As a result of these standards, academic classes are organized into career pathways in which all of the academic classes (spelling, grammar, math, science, reading, writing, and compositions) revolve around one specific career pathway. For example, if a student is interested in the dental field, all of the academic classes would revolve around that profession. Every subject becomes more relevant as a result of this approach.
However, change is painfully slow in government bureaucracies, and for the most part, only CTE classes have been able to bring this relevance to their students’ lives, which is one of the reasons for the expansion of CTE programs across the country. A difficult task will be to break the current educational academic model because bringing real-world relevance into academic classrooms will require faculty members to have real-world work experience in their respective fields of expertise. This would necessitate academic teachers gaining work experience outside of the educational system as part of their requirements to obtain or maintain their credential in order to accomplish this. It will take years to persuade academic teachers and administrators of this, and it will necessitate fundamental changes to the structure of the existing standard credentialing system.
Students who are labeled troublemakers or incorrigibles in academic classes perform better in career technical education classes. These students lack marketable skills necessary to attend college or enter the job market. They have set unrealistically high expectations for themselves in terms of the salary they expect to receive. Today, there appears to be a class gap between “real” teachers and those who teach in the “lower class” career technical areas. “Academics” don’t seem to grasp that these students learn best by doing things with their hands.
These students are not stupid or mentally challenged, but simply learn in a different way. After being “dumped” into one of these vocational classes, many of them will eventually come around. Students are tactile learners who require hands-on experience with something in order to grasp concepts. If students are shown that what they are learning is relevant to actually doing a job, their academic performance will follow. Our public schools must move in this direction according to standards adopted by the California State Board of Education.
In the current model, academic classes are organized into career pathways in which all of the academic classes revolve around one specific career pathway. Achieving this will require teachers to have real-world work experience in their respective fields of expertise. It will take years to persuade academic teachers and administrators that this is necessary.