Who Will Do The Work Of Upgrading America’s Infrastructure?…Part 2

Part 2: We must prepare & produce more & better professional, technical, trades, and “straight-to-employment” career skills opportunities for high school graduates.

A Principal’s Trick: Title-1 school district schools are notorious for not going on school trips. And so, every year, I contacted the district official responsible for trip buses and asked for extra (unused) bus money, which I always received. One year he teased me: “Do you realize that your school goes on more trips than any other high school in this city, and even more than most elementary and middle schools!”
One benefit of having hyper-rigorous teaching and learning school environments is that your students can take advantage of that “plus-time” to engage in an often underappreciated learning activity —educational school trips. One of the objectives for our many trips was to expose students to the world’s vast numbers of careers and job opportunities. For example, taking students on a trip to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) labs allowed students to see the division specializing in underwater robotics research. Students were able to meet a broad spectrum of job categories and a career-tiered group of scientists, engineers, technicians, and other support personnel that constituted the whole comprehensive “lab team.” One student in teenage speak said: “You mean all of these different people get paid to have this much fun?” The key learning objective was her observation of the many different “job categories” for a career field that she found interesting.

For every music/dance/instrumental entertainment performance, TV-Radio show/program, professional sports events, theater play, movie, circus, etc., there are literally thousands of “behind-the-scenes” well-paying interesting jobs that most students have no idea even exist. Unfortunately, many young people may never be exposed to that job or career that is inspiringly well-suited for their individual gift, talent, and interest. And this is where public high schools, especially their Career Technology Education (CTE) programs, can be helpful.

CTE initiatives could radically raise the level of students’ career awareness and appreciation in a way that could lead to committed preparation and future participation…

High school pre-engineering (e.g., “Project Lead The Way”), applied technologist, mechanical/architectural drawing, airplane, car, train or bus mechanics, construction skills trades, the fashion arts, culinary, hospitality, graphic and performing arts programs, all fall under the vast programmatic umbrella of CTE. The key component that links all CTE programs is the high school concentration of courses offered, specialized professional instruction, projects/performance-based future career activities, mentoring, externships, and internships which can prepare students for a next-level professional certifying or qualifying career training program, or students being able to step directly into an employable or guaranteed employment opportunity before or after graduation.

Where did we go wrong?
Now somewhere in the devolution of our pedagogical thinking and wrong communication to the public, we went off track and created two categorical false divides: School and Work, and Hands and Brain work.
The School and Work divide problem is perhaps a “first-world” issue of having an overabundance of wealth coupled to a deficiency of strategic wisdom. The vast majority of the world (even in some so-called “first-world” nations) don’t allow high school students to treat high school as a place to “hang out” for four years; there is an urgency (lacking US financial resources) of asking students a societal collective question: “Ok, so where is this high school education you are acquiring going?” especially in those places where government funding for “public schooling” is very limited, and high school attendance for an individual could mean a sacrificial loss to the family of agricultural, manufacturing, and family-business labor support; and/or a student having a high school experience could also come at a great financial cost (school fees, uniforms, books, etc.) to the family.
Of course, high schools must always be places where young people can grow their intellect, creativity, civility, knowledge-information base, and invite the development of the best values of ethical and moral principles; but there is an adult-life-world of work and service waiting for them after high school graduation, and as professional educators we can’t ignore the realities of that world to which they are called to contribute their unique gifts and talents (Or, are we suggesting that they all live with their parents forever —Uh, probably not a popular idea!). But in the end, the high school building should not be that place where you “store” large numbers of young people, keeping them off-the-streets, and out of the job market; which means that the time spent attending high school should lead to some meaningful, fulfilling and financially productive post-high school life experience.

The Hands and Brain school learning divide in public education meant creating a college path (brain) diploma and a “vocational” physical-labor (hands) diploma. (There was an equally problematic “commercial” track, but I will put that to the side for now). Even today, I hear professional educators (including, oh my goodness, guidance counselors) who should know better say some educational laypersons version of: “We need more ‘Vocational Education’ for those kids not suited for, or incapable of going to, college” thus framing “vocational” (hands) aspirations as a negative, the anti-academic, anti-smart path; and the college-track (brains) as the more desirable, admirable, society endearing and worthy of respect, track.
Clearly, these individuals have never (as I have) observed an electrician or HVAC-R apprenticeship class or seen the syllabus and textbooks utilized by surface/underwater welders, or written (as I have) a curriculum for a solar-power installation and repair technician trainee program; all of these career areas require a lot of science, a lot of problem-solving, lots of thinking-skills, a lot of math, a lot of adaptive-creativity skills; and the ability to consume and analyze an amazing amount of governmental and professional regulations, industry rules and standards, safety protocols, and then internalize and actualize all of this information while learning the applied techniques of the job!

Unfortunately, we (professional educators) have messed things up with our intellectually lazy use of definitional language; attending an engineering school, theological seminary, social work school, school of education, or learning to be a physiotherapist are all, in essence, the acts of training for a vocation!
This is why I sought to destroy the faux Hands and Brain divide (vocational-academic) myth as a STEM-CTE principal by insisting that all students be fully prepared (transcript and diploma wise) to pursue, upon graduation, a four-year college path, including those students who would enter immediately upon graduation into a skills trade apprenticeship program, F/T business/industry employment, entrepreneurship, the military or a civil service path. By preparing every student with the “full high school academic learning package,” we don’t risk limiting their future career options for entering 2-year CTE programs offered at community colleges or 2-4 year technical schools, career promotion-supervisory opportunities in their chosen field, starting-a-business, or them just deciding to change their career or minds at some point, and opting to enroll in a 4-year college program.
Further, it was our belief that the exposure to rich and rigorous liberal arts courses in history, science, foreign language, english language arts, the arts, mathematics, etc. would make our graduates not only better in their chosen professional-path, but also better citizens, parents, and human beings. Therefore, a test for all high school principals is that your graduates who selected a non-college employment/career path (construction skills trade, civil service, the military, etc.…) should, if they so choose, have a transcript profile that will give them the ability to gain admission to a 2 or 4-year college or university program. And your students opting to follow a college path have some practical work experience, knowledge, and technical skills competencies.

Where are the US students who are being effectively prepared in high school to step into a post-graduation career training program?

Fortunately for US hospitals (and our good health), a large percentage of our health care system’s nursing needs are being met by nurses born and often trained in nursing schools outside of America; and thank goodness for them! But as an US educator, and specifically as a US STEM-CTE focused educator, I had to ask myself a question: “If it were necessary (by the absence of these foreign born nurses) could we public K-12 US educators adequately produce the required numbers of prepared high school students, who upon graduation could enter and succeed in a 4-year US college nursing school program?” This would of course mean that we adequately prepared those students for admission to and success in a college level nursing program by providing them with a strong and focused 4 year high school CTE pre-nursing program. This type of program, if done right, could be a game-changing practice that presents public education at its best. After all, nursing is a career path that could positively change the personal life profiles of people, families, and improve the employment conditions of communities that are presently under severe economic stress. Further, nursing is a very wonderfully rewarding and beautiful profession, with so many specialties, private/public, career advancement and teaching options, and because we are living longer as US citizens, it’s not like this is a career that is going away anytime soon!
And so, with one of the wealthiest PreK-12 public education system (with many nations in the world being unable to offer the Pre or K components to their student-citizens) budgets in the world, why are we not more successful at producing more certified nurses? And this same question could also ask be asked of our high school preparation programs for students entering other allied health fields, and construction skills trade apprenticeship training programs. And then there are the many applied science, computer technology related certifications (e.g., Microsoft/CISCO) programs where students could actually become fully certified while attending (before graduation) high school.
Allowing high school students to “major” in a 4-year CTE building/skills trades program in plumbing, carpentry, CAD/CAM, masonry, dental and emergency medical technicians, heavy machinery, etc., would create a careers pipeline leading directly into a post-high school training school or program, or directly into a P/T or F/T work experience. These students could also maximally utilize their high school “CTE certificate of completion diploma” to their financial advantage by being able to work full or part time to offset and prevent the long term college student debt that is haunting the futures of so many of US college graduates.

“When is a job opportunity not an opportunity?” —When it is not!

President Biden’s great Infrastructure Bill Initiative (IBI) can make significant economic, transportation, institutional, and structural improvements across multiple sectors of our society. But my study of the facts of US history and my decades of experience with public education informs and cautions me that whenever a major employment, education, or economic opportunity is introduced by local, state, or the national government, specific Americans are purposely or “accidentally” made unaware of its presence and possible benefits; in some cases prevented by law or just cynically excluded by “unwritten laws” from being able to obtain their fair, rightful and just participation in those programs. For example, Black veterans were prevented from accessing the great resources of the GI bill (aka The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) that was due them for their military service to the nation. Perhaps, many (but not all) of the “legal discriminatory” barriers have been eliminated, even as we see them being reinstituted by state legislatures in the area of voting rights all over the nation. But the disempowerment and disqualification caused by the insidious practices of providing some US children with: a poor/inadequate K-12 education, marketable skills training insufficiencies, STEM knowledge deficient school exposures, chronic “soft and hard” skills, employment unpreparedness, and the lack of job category licensing and certification qualifications, carries a devastatingly nullifying effect that is in many ways is more powerful and deadly than the use of out-in-the-open discrimination laws.

When the IBI calls (and it will call) goes out requesting a widely diverse job category of certified skilled craftspersons, too many of our public high school “graduates” concentrated in particular zip codes will not be able to step forward. We can’t continue to condemn whole communities of children to a fate of always being educationally “informationally a day late and knowledge and skills short” whenever major employment opportunities show up.

When the time comes (and it’s coming), some communities will clearly be overrepresented in IBI job acquisitions, and some communities underrepresented. There will, of course, be the standard protest rallies, the obligatory angry press conferences; those passionate cries of designed “discriminatory outrage” by folks whose own children are well educated but who don’t see how having a quality education could be of great value to other people’s children. There will be the clutching of the proverbial hypocritical pearls (“You mean to tell me that Black and Latino youth are not prepared to enter the certified construction and technology skills trades IBI job market?”). Then, the blistering avalanche of editorials and op-ed articles on IBI job inequality will arrive in full force: “The Construction Trades Skills Divide!” — “The Engineering & Applied Technical Support Employment Racial Gap!” — The “experts of explanations” will make the rounds of news media outlets “decrying that (but not understanding the reasons why) large numbers of Black and Latino young people can’t interview for IBI employment opportunities!” (that requires skills they were never taught in school, which has led to them now to a place of wanting jobs they are not trained or certified to do).

Sadly, many of the talented people we need to build back America more better, beautiful, and “great again” are sitting in US prison cells (but I digress). None of the bombastic IBI employment outrages to come will even get close to solving the real problems (and quite frankly, all of the actors in the drama aren’t interested in addressing the real issues) of US public schools being unprepared or unwilling to provide better career path opportunities for larger numbers of our students. Better learning experiences and exposures will produce higher (and better diploma quality) graduation rates and better outcomes for post-high school employment and education. And until we decide to solve this problem at its “not-hashtag-sexy” root causes, which means improving the quality of public school leadership, teaching and learning experiences and environments for all public school children, regardless of zip code, then when the “Build An Even Better Future Infrastructure Bill” is proposed 20 years from now in 2041; we will sadly be having the same useless outrage passion performances.

In Part 3, let’s look at a CTE educational program, curriculum, and operational/structural high school model that has the potential of producing the numbers of highly skilled Americans needed now, in and after 2041; a way to create large numbers of competently capable and confidently empowered citizens, who can both build-back and build-forward better!