The “shop” classes at my 1960s Brooklyn middle school taught me an early lesson about public education’s approach to “physical” and “mental” work. “Shop Class” was an opportunity for the gifted and talented students to connect our academic and creative educational experiences into some innovative, practical application (e.g., building bird feeding boxes). But for some classes (and students) in the school, the shop class experience was seen as an entry portal into some kind of vocational field characterized by physical, not mental, skills.
That experience reflected the terrible and destructive divide that existed and still exists in public education to a lesser damaging extent. This is the false divide between the work people do with their hands as opposed to the work done with their brains. This artificial division has severely limited the emergence and development of a promising effort in the educational field that recognizes that “hands” and “minds” can’t be disconnected.
That idea is one of the core assertions of an excellent Career Technical Education (CTE) program. I realized painfully in one city school district how hard it is to move the public’s (and professional educators’) misunderstanding and collective belief system away from the traditional “vocational educational” model into the modern ideas of Career Technical Education. At this very moment, professional “experienced educators,” working and retired, all over this nation are saying, with good intentions, that for those students who are struggling academically, poor readers, unable to pass standardized exams, etc., that we need a program that will allow these students to “work with their hands!” This is basically the modern version of the 1960s vocational educational thinking era.
Part of the problem is that the overwhelming majority of us working in the education profession are more than likely the products of a liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the humanities. Now, I actually believe that an educational program rich in the arts and humanities is essential for the education of all students. But often wrongly and quietly embedded in this approach is a pronounced bias that falsely favors mental labor over physical labor, the “speculative-imagined” over the “practically-applied.” In public education, our primary currency is books and reading (in all subject areas), theoretical math algorithms over functional math applications—the “college track” has always been the “major leagues” of public high school learning, despite our pronouncements to the contrary.
And we professional educators are also probably the products of a private or public school system that promoted the idea that “smart kids” should focus on academic classes (working with their brains) and “slower kids” need to focus on shop/vocational courses (working with their hands). Notice that “smart” is linguistically juxtaposed to “slow” instead of “slow” being measured against its true opposite “fast.” And despite the passionate protestations of our current national anti-authentic histography movement, race and class are always in play in American educational history; therefore, the kids who were more likely to be better at working with their hands than their brains, and assigned to a vocational program track, would, of course, be students who were poor/working class White, Black, and Latino kids. But ironically, we now find ourselves in a position of asking for an authentic CTE learning approach that would rescue our nation from a severe applied technical skills readiness “shortage” hole in which our public and professional misconceptions of how academic knowledge is expressed have placed us.
We have dug ourselves into a pedagogically destructive divide; now, how do we get out?
In public education, the false division between “brain” and “hands” work has hurt our efforts to successfully educate all children by ignoring the different biophysio-modalities and multiple-intelligences that students use to receive, process, and demonstrate curricular information and knowledge effectively.
We have also lost all sense of the many ways in which art, science, and mathematics are utilized to solve real-world, day-to-day problems. As a teacher taking students on a 1980s college tour, I fully appreciated the tremendously applied STEM-CTE work of those 1890s Tuskegee University students in designing and building the still-standing structures on that campus. But my experience of seriously learning about the unbreakable link between theoretical and practical work would fully emerge when I became principal of a STEM-CTE high school, for there is no better classroom for an educator to better understand and appreciate the level of complexity found in many educational initiatives than when you are responsible for a young person’s future life success or failure. At that moment, I came into a complete understanding of the pedagogical mess we professional educators made of “vocational education.” We wrongly sent out mixed and wrong messages that are still deeply embedded in our professional language, which means that it is fully embedded in the cultural-linguistic thinking and speaking of the general society. For example, a common phrase voiced by educators, “All students (re: the “dumb and dumber”) need not or should not go to college!” This statement is dangerous because, on the surface, it appears to address individual students’ needs and interests (which is an essential concern of any high school career-guidance program). However, the concept is really motivated by an underlying belief that the primary reason for not being “college worthy” is due to a “natural lack of academic capability.” This is why this assertion is always connected to “expectations,” which again, is always connected to class and race. The entitled and wealthy parents of our nation are not recommending that their children become plumbers or electricians, although they might want to reconsider that advice given the amount of money I spent each time I needed the services of either of those two tradespersons!
And then what is also often connected to that “not college material” assertion is a second well-meaning, but poorly thought out belief, that we need to provide “academic” programs that would allow the chronically truant, “intellectually slow,” SPED, ADHD, and the persistent and incurably misbehaving students the ability to have a pathway to graduation and a useful work-life after high school. But two central problems emerge from these two wrong thinking assertions. (1) Pursuing a professional career in any applied technology-construction skills field does, in fact, require high school-level mathematics and reading literacy skills, the ability to apply (even if it is not named) the scientific method, discipline, creativity, and thoughtful problem-solving skills. And with computer-related technology entering every aspect of the construction trades, there is a requirement that skills trades’ persons also grow their technical skills, as the role of technology increases in their profession. (2) With such a negative recruitment criteria (the “academically slow,” or the behaviorally/disciplined challenged) for admission to vocational education, it should not be a surprise that a large segment of parents and/or students would not find these programs attractive.
The hope and promise of CTE programs going forward are that we can revisit, restart, and revolutionize our entire thinking and approach to “vocational education.” And based on my previous experience with this effort, no CTE program can be truly successful in a school district (or school) unless that superintendent (or principal) engages in a system-wide (school-wide) and community-wide explanation and education process as to what CTE is and what it is not.
Clarifying the differences between vocational and career/technical education!
One of the great challenges we face (and too often fail at) in public education is the organization of our pedagogical practices and curriculum theory in such a way that it matches up with the world and the society the student will be facing in the near and far future after they graduate from our school systems. It is challenging to identify new careers that will be added, or in many cases, modified and/or completely eliminated in the next five to ten years; so, projecting twenty or thirty years into the future is really difficult. This is why an effective school’s academic program will seek to equip students with a bank of conceptual and behavioral (tactile) skills and competencies that are flexible enough to transfer over time to many different possible career opportunities. Further, for many of us, former school based/district leaders, who are now possibly in college teaching or education policy formation positions; our “baby boomer” way of thinking might prevent us from fully appreciating the incredible seismic shift that has occurred in the world of careers and work. My professional work life-path of entering a specific profession early in life (’20s); following a particular career ladder (e.g., teacher to superintendent), in essence, sticking with that same career until retirement, may, in fact, become a societal behavioral artifact; indeed, most of the young people in the 2022 high school graduating class will probably face a future where employment is translated to mean being engaged in multiple and perhaps radically different assignments on a single job and/or being employed (including self-employed) in numerous ways simultaneously, as well as completely changing careers several times throughout a work-lifespan.
This “new employment profile” requires the ability to transfer and translate a “survey” of diverse applicable skills in multiple employment settings. As a result, there could be a declining interest (or need) to stick with one specific undergraduate and graduate/professional school degree. Instead, a greater emphasis could be placed on how well individuals can creatively “stretch” their degree or prior training to cover multiple new and rapidly developing job requirements. For sure, specialized training (e.g., nursing, carpentry, computer coding, forest ranger, environmental biologist, anthropology, or civil engineering) will still exist. However, individuals may decide to take advantage of longer and healthier life spans by spending a third or half of their employment life in a particular field; and then switching to a completely different field, where the skills and competencies of both areas can be either integrated or expanded upon. It is also clear that technology will continue to assert its ever-growing presence in the world of “all” work-spaces.
The great present danger we face in public education is not only that we send too many unprepared and under(soft & hard)skilled students into the present job market, but it’s also our failing to graduate students equipped with a set of skills and competencies that will make them “employment relevant” for future job markets.
Science, Technology, Applied Engineering, Mathematics, the Creative and Liberal Arts; will continue to exert their innovative and formative influences in many present and future careers.
Think of all of the diverse “job categories” that are engaged as “teamwork” in a Kanye West production or in Rihanna’s multifaceted conglomerate projects that stretch across multiple business enterprises. Narrowly “knowing” one thing (even if you know it well) and not being able to at least have active and functional conversations across professional fields could make any potential employee or manager a liability rather than an asset.
Science, technology, applied engineering, mathematics, the creative and liberal arts will continue to influence and drive the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness in many fields, including the traditional construction trades like plumbing, welding, HVAC/R, electricity, and masonry. The above curricular learning principles and practices will also gain a more significant theoretical foothold into the training (e.g., use of computer simulators) of skills trades apprenticeship students and the day-to-day (CAD/CAM) operational procedures of the construction career fields. And further, “outside” of skills trades learning will be required to respond to ever-expanding connective/intersecting areas of health, politics, public safety, law, and environmental studies/concerns; the invention and innovative ideas for tools and equipment. The use of laser technology and robots; sophisticated technical probes and measuring instruments; and the almost universal expansion of computers in construction equipment; and the “on-the-worksite” computer usage by desktop, laptop, and handheld machines.
Further, for those CTE students who want to translate their CTE skills trades knowledge into an opportunity to serve in a supervisory and/or an entrepreneurial role; this will require a strong “liberal arts” academic foundation to expand into other applicable competencies, such as job proposal writing (“bidding”), business management, human relations psychology, customer service, effectively working with architects and engineers, the ability to read, interpret, and respond to codified labor agreements as well as governmental laws and regulations; and mastering the rubrics of budgeting; time management; and cost analysis. It is also probably true that the best creative, dynamic managers and entrepreneurs are those individuals who have been exposed to the arts, literature, philosophy, psychology, history, and ideas, people, and cultures other than their own. As international (and national) communication and human interaction increases, a leader’s success in the business world could increase the need for managers who have high levels of cultural-literacy skills.
Finally, there is without a doubt a growing societal and economic need for the development of a cohort of people in our labor force whose knowledge, abilities, and capabilities consist of having a full academic spectrum (“liberal arts”) of a high school education, a CTE program high school education, and a two-year technical/community college skills professional certification degree. In addition, there is a tremendous need for applied engineering technology manufacturing positions in STEM product or performance companies that cover everything from biomedical engineering, construction materials, machine and tool making, computer-aided manufacturing, automated farming, and food production; and further, for employment in computer-based delivery of information and products services corporations and service with governmental agencies. Even with the introduction of more computer-aided automated manufacturing production lines and robotics, we will still need a lot of humans who can code, develop, maintain, improve the performance, “troubleshoot,” and repair these semi(not wholly)automated systems. Needless to say, all of these high-demand employment opportunities require students to have more than the basic “hands-on-only” skills. For example, in medicine, our rapidly expanding (and longer-living) senior population could mean that we may want to expand the number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants to meet our growing medical needs (particularly in our rural areas); but that would require high schools to establish and strengthen existing pre-nursing school CTE programs. The positive growth of complex technology-based solutions to everyday human needs will also require greater problem-solving skills from technical support and maintenance practitioners. As our society creates an environment where more and more US citizens find themselves (voluntarily or involuntarily) in an expanded integrated relationship with “hard” and internet technology, outsourcing “technical support” to foreign nations may not be a viable (proximity) option, customer-friendly, customer-satisfaction desirable, or even in some cases, “legally feasible” for personal or national security reasons. So, where will these skilled US workers come from?
Career Technical Education should not be a “fallback-backup” or a “failing-falling-off” of the academic capability track option.
As a STEM-CTE principal, I was once invited to speak to a group of middle school eighth-grade students; and to my disappointment and horror, the principal gathered what could only be (keeping-it-professional) described as an “interesting” cohort of students. The group was made up of (primarily Black boys and a few Black girls) who had a collective “school profile” consisting of chronic absenteeism and lateness, multiple suspensions, fighting and bullying behaviors, the repeated disregard for school rules, and continuous disrespect for school staff, below proficiency performance on standardized exams, and academic classroom and report card grades. These are the middle school students we systemically/cynically cause to eventually “age out” of middle school (but in reality, they are not prepared to do high school work). Many of them have already repeated a grade in elementary school. These were the students presented to me by the well-meaning administration and guidance counselor, who thought that these young people were best suited for a high school CTE program. In other words, students who needed to: “work with their hands.”
I did not walk out, only because it would have been disrespectful and unfair to the students. Instead, I gave them (and they deserved) my standard-best middle-school/high-school “articulation” presentation. But the next week, I invited that principal and a few of his (I suspect, equally under-informed) middle school principal colleagues to meet with me after-school in my school.
Since most of what you need to know for your school leadership life you learned in your teacher-life, I thought this was a great time at the beginning of the lesson (meeting) to employ visual aids as a lesson motivator.
In my office, I pulled from the bookshelf the various high school “CTE majors” textbooks our students would utilize during their four years at the school. I also shared a few texts used in the post-high school trade union apprenticeship programs. I also informed the group that our students would also need to complete the district’s “college-ready” requirements for graduation; thus, the shock and awe began.
Because they were professional educators, there was an immediate, enlightened awareness of the required reading level of the high school pre-apprenticeship CTE textbooks, the extent of necessary safety information (and behavioral safety standards needed) to be learned and performed, the massive amount of technical knowledge being taught to students studying welding, carpentry, and the electrician, or plumber’s courses sequence. And further, the amount of general science and mathematical, conceptual (e.g., decimals, fractions, percentage, place value, etc.) knowledge that is needed. In addition, the algorithmic (e.g., competency in applying the rules of multiplication, division, etc.) skills that are required of the students.
I spent that day, and many of my days, in Washington, D.C., explaining to people that preparing young people to be successful in a high school (where they essentially had to earn “two diplomas”) and at the same time being ready to enter a post-high skills trade apprenticeship program was a serious and challenging task as students had to master a vast body of both theoretical and practical (application) learning objectives. Students who chronically failed classes had poor attendance and punctuality, exhibited a lack of discipline, and engaged in chronic behavioral problems were not the standard requirement profile for a high school CTE candidate. An individual student with severe control and behavioral issues constituted a greater danger to themselves and other students if they pursued a CTE program. I then took my principal guest on a tour of our CTE labs. They saw the very complex (and potentially dangerous) machinery and the many tools students used daily, tools for which a student in another high school would be suspended if they brought that item to school. I finally explained that standardized assessments work in the CTE world are equally divided between written Q&A short and extended answers exams and the individual demonstration of practical proficiency in their trade; the CTE students are required to pass all of these different and challenging assessments tools before earning a “CTE diploma” and being admitted to a post-high school 2-year technical/community college CTE program or a construction apprenticeship school. They were in such a saturated state of shock that I did not even bother to share the CISCO/Microsoft certification programs part of our CTE career path course offerings with them; alas, I did not want to “pile-it-on” as I compassionately sensed that they had seen enough! I believe at the end of our CTE “lesson,” those principals left with a better understanding of what CTE is, is not, and what CTE, if done right, requires of students. But how many educators in our nation were absent from my “lesson” on that day, and what does that mean for US students?
Admission to a CTE high school program should be a “gift,” not a “punishment” for students.
The greatest gift of CTE programs to students is that, unlike the old vocational educational model that existed on the outskirts (in exile) of the public education mission, Career Technical Education, if done correctly, forces itself to be placed in the center of the school’s academic work and mission. Students who are enrolled in CTE courses and programs, more likely than not, have a strong sense of what they want to do after high school graduation. Linking high school work to a career in the world after high school is that critical connection every effective high school educator is passionately working hard to establish. And having a “CTE-major” team of teachers and fellow students gives the CTE student a sense of camaraderie, shared purpose, and mutual support on the high school path to graduation. The special presentations and lectures, internships, industry-related summer jobs, and CTE-focused field trips, along with the continual exposure and interaction with powerful and influential industry leaders and skilled professional practitioners, provide students with a daily reminder of that goal they are pursuing. I would even go further here and say those students I observed who were seriously focused and fully engaged in a CTE program were the most goal-orientated and “end objective” minded students in my high school! The structure of the CTE program positively affected their punctuality, attendance, and behavior during the school year. The CTE program was also an excellent incentive for the enrolled students to successfully pass all of their academic subjects since the CTE classes are rigidly and sequentially structured for each of the four grade levels, and CTE students move along a 4-year path as a cohort. Any student failing a class and then being forced to take that class the following semester when a CTE-required course could be scheduled at the same time could cause havoc on a student’s schedule and even create a danger of not being able to acquire the CTE certification by the twelfth grade. I have employed many techniques over my eleven years as a principal to get students to pass classes; however, one of the most powerful influencing factors was when the students exhibited a self-directed and self-managed response to the high school experience. And no one was better at this than that CTE student who feared falling out of the CTE program completion sequence by failing some non-CTE course. Failing any class on their schedule placed a CTE student in danger of not receiving a CTE diploma, thus weakening their chances of admission to the competitive post-high school trade skills apprenticeship programs.
Technological progress and international economic realignment need not be the enemy of US employment…
The challenge is for our political leaders to have a brave and honest discussion with the American public (and thus their children), and say that those factories that have moved to places like Mexico and Viet Nam (and paying those nations workers’ salaries unrealistically feasible in the US) are never coming back; and further, in the case of some jobs like coal mining, where for multiple reasons (worker health, market forces, and environmental challenges/changes), won’t offer American workers a promising future job option. But a parallel version of that “brave and honest” conversation must also take place in our public schools; we must ask ourselves: “How do we best prepare our students for the “real” world that is and not the world we nostalgically imagine to exist (if it ever fully existed); and most importantly the world-of-work that is to come?”
The U.S. will need to step up its public schools CTE game to stop the denigration, degradation, and loss of CTE employment skills required to meet the needs of “Build Back Better Act” type infrastructure projects that the US must undertake in the future. Let’s face it, many of our national bridges, clean water delivery systems, shipping/receiving ports, roads, tunnels, rail lines, etc. have reached their “maximum-time-usage-capacity”; at some point, we are deciding (and in some places like Flint, Michigan have already tragically decided) to put the citizenry at safety and health risk. At the same time, we are seriously harming ourselves economically.
President Biden’s Build Back Better Act (BBBA), although “wounded” ironically by elected officials whose states and citizens could have significantly benefited by the bill’s original (2.3 trillion dollars) tremendous scope, is still a potent job-producing project. And despite the undermining efforts of some political forces to reduce its efficacy, the 1.75 trillion BBBA will still create a long-term national need for a significant number of applied technology and construction skills trades trained and certified workers. The question (I’m going to keep asking): “Who will be trained, certified, and qualified to perform those jobs?”
In Part 4 of “Who Will Do The Work Of Upgrading America’s Infrastructure?” — With high school CTE students, we can, academically and operationally, both “bake bread and contemplate the artistic/poetic beauty of roses”: Why it’s essential to integrate CTE courses and the school’s other academic offerings to create a “dual-diplomaed” graduating student.