Learning for a Living

Frankford High School is in a rough neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. Forty percent of its students drop out before making it to their senior year. Its test scores are low, and 75 percent of its pupils are eligible for free or reduced lunch. So it seemed predestined that a new documentary, Pressure Cooker, filmed during the 2006–2007 school year, would focus on these and similar shortcomings, pegging Frankford as yet another sad example of that much-lamented establishment: the gasping inner-city high school.

But the documentarians took another route, and Pressure Cooker, which opened this July, is not about Frankford’s failures but about one of its brightest successes: its culinary arts class, run in conjunction with the national nonprofit Careers through Culinary Arts Program. The teacher, Wilma Stephenson, believes her course offers Frankford students a unique and valuable opportunity to escape the worst aspects of life in Northeast Philadelphia; we see her in the documentary telling her new pupils that 11 members of the previous year’s class earned over $750,000 in scholarships. The point is that for those past winners, and possibly for some of the students Pressure Cooker follows, Mrs. Stephenson’s class is not merely a means to a wicked chiffonade. Rather, it can be a means to a better life.

Yet for all their successes, programs like Frankford’s culinary arts class are typically left out of the larger conversation about K-12 education reform. When people talk about educational choice, they generally talk about vouchers or charter schools—both of which concern where students attend class. Far less often is educational choice discussed in the context of what it is—sociology? sauté?—that students learn once classes begin.

Curricular debates certainly occur, but they almost always take place solely within a college-prep paradigm. Thus, the educational purveyors multiply, but most offer the same academic meal. Young diners may supplement their pedagogical prix fixe with a bit of à la carte—by signing up for a software elective course, say, or by attending the district’s “math and science intensive” institution. Such options, though, are mere accompaniments to the basic and enduring college-prep curriculum. Why?

Begin with what is perhaps the sturdiest consensus in education: that too few students attend college. To reject this consensus is to invite derision because the advantages of a college education are so plain. College is remunerative: Its graduates can expect to earn $20,000 more each year than those for whom high school is the educational terminus. And college is chicken soup for the soul: 42 percent of college graduates claim to be “very happy,” but only 30 percent without a university degree say the same. College graduates are also more likely than their non-grad peers to have strong marriages, save money, be personally and professionally mobile, make better consumer decisions, vote and volunteer, and have better health. What kind of public-policy grinch, the consensus crowd asks, would dare deny these benefits to any student?

But just as policymakers should not (and do not) deny college to well-qualified pupils, neither should they discourage education that does not culminate in a four-year college degree. Yet, this is precisely what they’ve done. The major error of postsecondary education’s apostles has been to assume that all students want to attend college and will, with appropriate academic preparation, flourish there. Their error has had practical consequences. In too many high schools, pupils either submit to passage along a purportedly college-prep track—a track which in many places is too remedial to prepare them adequately for any decent college—or they drop out.

No Child Left Behind and the golden calf of standardized testing have only fortified this design. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act—the major federal funding stream for classes once cataloged as vocational education or, as it’s now called, career and technical education (CTE)—came under sustained attack by the George W. Bush administration. President Bush aggressively pushed his own college prep-based education philosophy and sought to eliminate Perkins grants altogether (Congress intervened to keep the legislation alive). Since 2002, Perkins has lost $42 million in funding; it now receives approximately $1.3 billion per year. The Obama administration, despite its talk about vocational training, has not signaled that it will increase this allotment.

Imagine a 17-year-old who does not want to attend college (or at least not right away); who finds parsing Macbeth maddeningly immaterial; who yearns to learn a practical skill and put it to use; who feels his personal strengths are being ignored and wasted; who is annoyed by his school’s lackluster teachers, classroom chaos, and general atmosphere of indifference. Too often, such a pupil has no other options. He has no educational choice.

No surprise, then, that a recent Civic Enterprises survey found that 77 percent of high-school dropouts quit school because they were bored. Past surveys have reported similar findings. According to a 2006 Gates Foundation study, for example, 88 percent of dropouts had passing grades—i.e., they didn’t abandon school because they couldn’t do the work; they abandoned school because they thought the work was unchallenging and pointless. (And yet Civic Enterprises found that “only 20 percent of teachers and 21 percent of principals felt boredom was a factor in most cases of high school dropout.”)

Despite these data, policy thinking about the content of high school curricula remains dominated by the college-prep model and by the insistence that college enrollment is the best and only outcome of a successful secondary education. But an educational system that effectively offers only two options—college or dropping out—is a lousy system. Among its many ills is its implicit disregard for students who have no interest in an academic bachelor’s degree and would prefer to study a trade, such as cooking, plumbing, electrical wiring, or auto mechanics. This slight stems from yet another disregard—that which policymakers (almost all of whom attended college) have for the trades themselves. As Hans Meder, a former deputy assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, said earlier this year, “For the people who have driven education policy, a four-year degree is all they’ve ever known. . . There’s this kind of perception that that’s the one road to success.” Matthew Crawford elucidates this view in his incisive book, Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2009):

Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined.

The worry that a plumber’s life is determined by early manual training arises from the popular but skewed 21st-century dogma that the ideal worker must be able and willing to hop from job to job and industry to industry—that “knowledge workers,” as they’re called, must be highly adaptable, mobile generalists. But the current recession has illuminated the expendability of precisely this type of white-collar worker. Those who work in the skilled trades (the kind taught in today’s CTE classes) are far less dispensable: The New York Times reports that although unemployment is at 9.4 percent, certain “skilled trades like welding and pipefitting are in high demand now, among the jobs that cannot be filled with unskilled labor or outsourced overseas.” The plumber can be content knowing that sinks will always leak, and people who fix them will always be in demand. The plumber’s job cannot be outsourced nor will it evaporate in the mists of a corporate merger. In this case, “determined” is merely a pejorative synonym for “secure.”  

The other worry—that directing students into either a vocational or academic track is anti-egalitarian—is more serious, but it patronizes the very students it attempts to rescue by assuming that teenagers aren’t capable of selecting a career that suits them and directing their studies around it. More basically, it presupposes that the two tracks must be separate: that the division between thinking and doing is fundamental—that plumbing, for example, is “stupid work.” That’s untrue. The distinction between thinking and doing is artificial but nonetheless persists, sometimes even within CTE programs themselves. For the most part, though, today’s trade-based CTE has jettisoned this imprudent approach.

CTE is about a hundred years old. Around the start of the 20th century, keeping children enrolled in school beyond the eighth grade became, for the first time, economically feasible for large numbers of middle-class American parents, and high schools swelled with students. Previously, high schools had taught mostly the children of wealthier households, and their curriculum—the classics, mathematics, history—was designed to prepare pupils for college. The new arrivals didn’t take to this classical education, though, finding it to be boring and economically useless. High schools assuaged them by offering a new, alternative course of study: vocational education.

Vocational education was born out of pedagogical disagreement, and its birth only provoked more of the same. At the time, educational theorist John Dewey expressed many of the misgivings about vocational education that are commonly expressed today. For example, he wrote in Democracy and Education (1916) that vocational schooling “is likely to assume and to perpetuate [the industrial regime’s] divisions and weaknesses, and thus to become an instrument in accomplishing the feudal dogma of social predestination.” He continued:

Such a vocational education inevitably discounts the scientific and historic human connections of the materials and processes dealt with. To include such things in narrow trade education would be to waste time; concern for them would not be “practical.” They are reserved for those who have leisure at command—the leisure due to superior economic resources.

Dewey opposed systems of teaching that would rigidly segregate the work of the mind from the work of the hands, as early vocational education did. But he did favor including classroom instruction in what he called “occupation” (“a mode of activity on the part of the child which reproduces, or runs parallel to, some form of work carried on in social life”). Pupils at his experimental elementary school at the University of Chicago studied, among other trades, shop work, cooking, and sewing as part of their broad intellectual exploration.

Today’s trade-based CTE is, ever more, rejecting its dual-track roots and adopting an integrative approach, too. It is, in other words, rejecting concocted divisions between thinking and doing. The widespread “Math in CTE” curriculum, for example, helps instructors identify the math concepts already inherent in CTE courses (carpentry, for example) and create lesson plans to make that content more explicit to their pupils. CTE classes now teach skilled trades at an advanced level of detail, which usually requires that they teach the pertinent traditional subjects, like math or science, at a similarly advanced level.

It seems likely that a curriculum that combines thinking and doing would help many students feel a greater sense of usefulness, and impart to them what Crawford calls “the satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence.” Perhaps it is just such satisfactions that explain why teenagers enrolled in CTE programs are less likely to drop out—especially so-called “at-risk” students, whose test scores and GPAs are one standard deviation below the mean. A 2008 report by the Center for an Urban Future is only one of many studies to illustrate CTE’s retentive effects. It found that 64 percent of New York City pupils who began CTE in 2002 had graduated by 2007, while only 50 percent of their non-CTE peers did the same. An earlier study, conducted in 1998 by the University of Michigan, discovered that at-risk students are eight to ten times less likely to drop out if they’re enrolled in CTE.

CTE has other salutary effects, too. For instance, of those high schoolers who enter the workforce directly after graduation, CTE students can expect to earn the highest wages and experience the least unemployment. Many pupils can integrate their CTE training with a college-prep curriculum, and some 60 percent of CTE “concentrators” now go on to college after finishing high school (80 percent of CTE students complete the same number of math and science credits as their college-prep peers). As a result, CTE enrollment is rising precipitously. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of CTE students jumped almost 55 percent—this despite the disdain many policymakers have for it and losses in federal funding.

Clearly, American students want the option of a curriculum that doesn’t underrate the importance of learning to make and fix things—one that doesn’t ignore the skilled trades. For some, like those in Pressure Cooker, CTE offers an alternative to the uninspired educational drudgery they encounter each day. Students deserve more control over what they learn. It’s time for proponents of educational choice to broaden their advocacy beyond vouchers and charter schools.

Liam Julian is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and managing editor of Policy Review.

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