|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, May 10, 2004
Sacramento Bee 5-10-04
Dan Walters: Kids with tool belts also deserve educators' respect
When Andrew deBrito went to school Thursday, he strapped on a tool belt rather than a book bag.
The 17-year-old Wheatland High School junior was one of about 200 Sacramento-area builders-in-training - 13 teams from 12 high schools - who took part in a two-day design-build competition at Cal Expo, sponsored by the Sacramento Builders' Exchange to boost vocational education.
Voc-ed, as it's called, needs all the help it can get. The state's educational and political overseers have a very evident disdain for the notion of training high school students for jobs and have reworked state policy to reflect a wholly fallacious, if popular, assumption that every high schooler is headed to college.
Indeed, just a day before the saws began whirring and the hammers began pounding at Cal Expo, state schools chief Jack O'Connell issued a press release crowing about initial legislative approval of his high school "reform" program whose centerpiece measure would put every student on a college prep track. A Senate committee analysis suggests that its provisions would undermine voc-ed classes because they would not meet specified college-track standards.
Already, countless carpentry, mechanics and other voc-ed programs have been abolished or severely reduced by administrators who are under heavy political pressure to raise academic test scores. With about a third of high school freshmen dropping out of school already, this inane obsession with college prep classes and academic tests, when coupled with the wholesale destruction of voc-ed, can only worsen that problem.
Meanwhile, however, auto repair shops, building contractors and other employers have thousands of jobs - high-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced to India - going begging. One auto dealer has been renting very expensive billboard space along Interstate 405 near Los Angeles International Airport to advertise for auto mechanics. California, meanwhile, creates 16,000 new construction jobs a year, many of which go unfilled.
DeBrito is planning to fill one of those jobs, and perhaps become a licensed contractor himself, after finishing high school.
"My whole family is in the trades," he says. "It's like sports."
His team, and the others in the competition, were given identical sets of construction materials, but each had to design and build its own structure, a small outbuilding that might be used as a storage shed or workshop. After grading, the structures were to be displayed at the Sacramento County Fair and then sold, with the proceeds going back into the high schools' voc-ed programs.
The politics of the one-size-fits-all approach to high school are evident. Parents - particularly middle-and upper-middle-class parents who are politically active - universally want to believe that their children are destined for college and professional careers. Indeed, we've almost been brainwashed to believe that anyone who doesn't pursue that path is somehow a lesser being - even though common sense tells us that not every kid is suited for academe, and even though society is absolutely dependent on the skills and energies of people like Andrew deBrito to build its houses and offices, fabricate and maintain its machinery and otherwise do its real work.
Politicians and educational administrators pander to the myth because it's the safest attitude to take. To suggest that some kids might, in fact, be better off as mechanics, carpenters, electricians or plumbers is to risk the wrath of parents, or even allegations of racist "tracking." And the state's colleges exacerbate the trend by making it very difficult for would-be voc-ed teachers to gain credential-worthy training.
Privately, many superintendents, principals and teachers decry the college-or-nothing assumption, and the destruction of voc-ed that it generates, but feel helpless in the face of pressure from above.
California and its kids would be much better served if we abandoned fallacy
and embraced reality, creating the kind of high schools in which the vocationally
oriented - the kids who want to work with their hands as well as their
brains - were accorded as much respect as the academically oriented, and
educational programs were tailored to individual needs.
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