Vocational education war erupts
The Sacramento Bee
By Dan Walters
The old axiom about evil thriving when good people do nothing has a political corollary in the law of unintended consequences.
Single-purpose, shortsighted political decisions made by voters and/or their elected officeholders often interact with each other to create negative impacts that no one really intended.
One of California's more egregious examples has been the erosion of job-oriented high school teaching, what used to be called "vocational education" but more recently has been updated to "career technical education" or CTE.
Educators' professional bias toward college, parents' natural desires for their offspring to have white-collar careers, fears among minorities about discriminatory "tracking," and the political mania for academic testing combined to create a negative atmosphere for continuing to teach high schoolers auto repair, carpentry, metalworking and other skilled crafts. The state's high school dropout rate soared even as employers began experiencing acute shortages of skilled workers.
The good news is that after years of neglect, CTE has become trendy, thanks in large measure to having a champion in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had high school job training in Austria. The state even had a brand new set of CTE curriculum standards.
The bad news is that a bitter, three-sided political war has erupted over what path renewal should take, threatening to stall progress on an issue that's vital to the state's economy and to countless thousands of at-risk students who might remain in school if given educations that match their interests and aptitudes.
Sensing, it would seem, that popular support for technical education is growing, the education establishment has created a glossy, foundation-supported "Coalition for Multiple Pathways" to push the superficially appealing notion that CTE can be combined with academics to qualify graduates for both jobs and admission to four-year colleges.
Jack O'Connell, the superintendent of public instruction and the embodiment of the establishment, kicked off the coalition's official launch last week by declaring that it embraces "a new philosophy" of instruction that eliminates the divide between vocational and college-prep curricula. "The two are not mutually exclusive," he said.
The coalition is pushing its concept on a broad front, including legislation, and that alarms the advocates of traditional vocational classes, who contend that "Multiple Pathways" will bypass students who aren't interested in and/or capable of college-prep academics.
As Multiple Pathways was being launched, the California Industrial and Technology Education Association issued a bulletin denouncing the pending legislation as "scary stuff" and worrying that if it's passed, O'Connell would complete the destruction of traditional vocational classes by redirecting money to the establishment's new framework.
The group says that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass' Assembly Bill 2648 would "turn CTE into delivery models that can focus on college prep at the expense of CTE programs that really prepare students for careers they can enter after high school."
A third technical education advocacy group called "Get Real," created by business and labor groups, is caught in the middle of the crossfire. Its co-chair, Jack Stewart, says there's nothing wrong with Multiple Pathways for many students but it's "too narrow" to deal with the entire problem. "We don't think Multiple Pathways is the right way to go," says Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.
Stewart and Get Real make a valid point that Multiple Pathways could love vocational education to death. It's an issue Schwarzenegger is in a unique position to resolve, and he should do it as a legacy for his otherwise so-so governorship.
© 2007 California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley