Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vocational education can keep students hooked on school

Thursday, April 26, 2007
Career Education: Jack Scott

From the Los Angeles Times
Vocational education can keep students hooked on school
George Skelton
Capitol Journal

April 26, 2007

Sacramento — Sen. Jack Scott, a career educator, remembers when his daughter broke the news that she was going to marry a commercial fisherman.

"This guy was not too happy," the Altadena Democrat says, referring to himself.

His daughter's suitor "was not highly educated; he'd never gone to college," recalls Scott, who at the time was dean of instruction at Orange Coast College, and later would become president of Cypress College and then Pasadena City College.

Scott's attitude reflected the typical academician's mind-set of the day — indeed, much of society's. If you weren't a rock star, a big league athlete or a rich heir, you needed a four-year college degree to become a success. Short of that, you were doomed to be second class, if not a failure.

The senator's view has changed, in no small part by watching his son-in-law Paul, whose father and grandfather also had been commercial fishermen.

Paul went to Alaska, bought his own boat, then another, and acquired an interest in a third. He fished for cod, pollock, halibut and crab in the Bering Sea. He worked and froze his rear off and "made enough to retire at the early age of 42," Scott says with admiration and amusement.

"The lesson is," the lawmaker continues, "we find our own self-fulfillments. We make a real mistake if we think everyone is going to receive their self-fulfillment by studying humanities or pure math. They may get self-fulfillment by being good plumbers or auto mechanics or nurses. Or commercial fishermen. We've got to design our courses to meet the needs of these people.

"If not, they'll just drop out."

And that is what they've been doing.

In California, roughly a third of ninth-graders eventually drop out of high school. In L.A., it's around one-half of blacks and Latinos.

A Gates Foundation survey of high school dropouts nationwide found that 88% were getting passing grades. So most must have left school because they were bored.

One major reason they're bored in California is that classwork doesn't seem to bear any relationship to whatever they envision as their life's work. It relates primarily to getting them qualified to enter the state university system, which many either aren't interested in or consider a pipedream. Only around 20% of ninth-graders ever will graduate from a four-year college.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of students each year who could be learning middle-class job skills — as future nurses, auto mechanics, computer programmers, home builders. Name it. There are some successful school-business training partnerships, but not nearly enough. There's a shortage of skilled workers in California, business groups contend.

Our public schools used to offer many vocational education courses — metal shop, drafting, etc. — that have been drastically reduced in recent decades. In 1987, three-fourths of high school students took at least one voc ed class. By 2005, only one-third did.

"Those great shop classes have disappeared," says state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), a former teacher who intends to run for state superintendent of public instruction in 2010. "That's a tragedy. Because those classes motivated students to stay in school."

The classes have disappeared because of two primary reasons: First, the elitist attitude that it's on to the university or bust; everybody else just get out of the way. Second, voc ed courses, with all their equipment that constantly needs updating, aren't cheap. They're among the first to land on the chopping block whenever state politicians face one of their periodic budget crises.

"The notion of voc ed went out of favor with many education bureaucrats," says Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido). "What's tragic is that while all other industrialized nations have highly developed systems, our existing system has been battered.

"It was replaced by a notion that was well intentioned, but utterly foolish and communicated incessantly that the only thing of value for a young person is a college degree. Not only that, the message was that you're not of value unless you're going to college. The name 'voc ed' connoted being less worthy."

But voc ed now is making a comeback under a new euphemism: career tech.

It's not the top priority at the Capitol, but it is a priority. Scott, Torlakson and Wyland all have introduced legislation aimed at upgrading career tech.

Scott has a bill to simplify credentialing for career tech teachers and provide more flexibility in what they can teach. Wyland wants to eliminate the requirement that voc ed teachers have a bachelor's degree. Torlakson proposes requiring every high school student to take at least two career tech courses.

The $10.4-billion school construction bond approved last year by voters contained $500 million for career tech facilities.

There's also $52 million in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for various career tech programs. The trick will be keeping it there, since the state is spending with red ink and tax revenues have been falling below expectations.

But the public will back the politicians' spending on career tech. A poll being released today by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that 67% of adults consider career tech curricula to be "very important." The figure is even higher, 71%, for parents with kids in school.

Schwarzenegger has been promoting voc ed. "I myself," he told a "summit" on the subject last month, "am a product of career tech education. Between the time I was 15 and 18 I went to school in Austria to learn how to be a salesman."

He learned very well.

George Skelton

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