Commentary

Vocational Education Teaches Students 'How To Learn'

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Wellford W. Wilms, in "Job Training Not a Job for Schools'' (Commentary, Feb. 18, 1987), thinks the Reagan Administration's proposal for cutting all federal funding for vocational education in 1988 is good news. He argues that not only are technical students deprived of a basic education, but that the skills they learn at technical centers are obsolete. He then claims that too frequently "narrow skill training is substituted for education with students who do not fit the academic program.'' As an English and government teacher at a technical-education center, I know firsthand that Mr. Wilms is wrong.

All vocational students, as with all high-school students, are required to pass courses in English, mathematics, history, and science in order to receive their diploma. In fact, many students stay in high school honing their basic writing and math skills only because they wish to remain eligible for courses in technical trades. Thus, a student who wishes to stay in school to study carpentry also has to pass 12th-grade English. Take away technical schools and that student may not even be in class.

Indeed, the entire structure of the vocational school is conducive to reaching the "at risk'' student. Classes are small and scheduled within larger blocks of time, compared with classes at a regular high school. Thus, a masonry instructor may have 10 students for three hours every afternoon. I know from teaching my own classes within this framework that this educational setting is effective with students who have "failed'' within larger, more traditional classes.

A teacher has time to be patient, time to review, time to demonstrate. And, as a result of the small class size, students feel more exposed when they fail to participate in class or neglect to hand in a homework assignment. In short, they feel pressured to be more responsible, and to teach a student to be more responsible is to teach a student how to learn.

Yet, according to Mr. Wilms, technical schools do not educate, they only train,and the training they provide is obsolete. He argues that faculty members at vocational schools are incapable of keeping up with the rapid changes in our high-tech society. In addition, Mr. Wilms contends, "the supply of jobs and the demand for labor will ... continue to fluctuate rapidly and unpredictably,'' making it difficult for technical schools to know what jobs will be available and, therefore, what training to provide.

Ironically, Mr. Wilms refutes his own argument when he exclaims that educatorsmust "go back to the basics.'' By so doing, he acknowledges that there is a core curriculum that is timeless. No matter how complicated or technical our society may become, an individual will always need to know how to add and subtract. In a similar manner, no matter how advanced the field of electricity may become, no electrician can ignore Ohm's law. Within the technical trades, as with almost any field requiring expertise, there is a body of knowledge that never becomes obsolete.

Besides, vocational schools are changing with the times. Many technical centers are shifting their focus from job-specific training to occupational clusters. Thus, a student in carpentry would learn not only carpentry, but also cabinetmaking, dry-wall construction, and roofing. As a result, Mr. Wilms's fear that technical students are being trained to do "specific tasks associated with limited vocations'' is unfounded. In fact, the advantage of a general education in the technical trades is similar to the reward of a liberal-arts education: The student gains a solid understanding of a variety of disciplines. In the case of a technical school, students not only broaden their minds, but also their job possibilities.

In our district, vocational instructors keep in touch with local employment needs through "active program advisory committees.'' These committees are made up of individuals from businesses and industries related to the technical trades. Thus, a continual dialogue is maintained between teachers and future employers. Committee members provide estimates on the number of employees they will need, the kind of skills these employees must have, and the type of equipment the vocational center should buy. Indeed, Mr. Wilms would be surprised to learn that in 1986, 74 percent of our technical-school graduates were placed in jobs directly related to the skills they learned while in school--hardly evidence that demonstrates a problem with supply and demand.

In addition, Mr. Wilms argues that:
[...] even if schools were designed to be responsive to market forces, their internal organization precludes rapid responses to change. Vocational teachers in high schools and community colleges get tenure, and are protected by union agreements: Rarely are they fired for incompetence or lack of up-to-date vocational knowledge.

True, some incompetent teachers lurk within the educational system, but there are also incompetent history, math, English, and science teachers. They too are rarely fired for incompetence or a lack of up-to-date knowledge. But, in fact, most technical centers require their staff members to return to industry on a regular basis for in-service training. Not only are vocational instructors trained on the new equipment, but manufacturers send representatives to the technical centers to help teachers introduce the new technology to students.

Finally, one of the main advantages of a technical education for a high-school student is that many technical instructors come from the very industries students will be looking to for jobs.

Unlike teachers within the regular high schools, who are trained in academia, vocational teachers can tell students firsthand what these companies seek from an employee. That represents going "back to the basics'' in a different but equally important sphere.

Vocational education is not for everyone, but neither are the humanities. My students do not mock me for my love of poetry, and I do not ridicule them for their desire to gain expertise in the technical trades. Society and the public-education system have a need and a place for both of us.

Vol. 06, Issue 28, Page 22

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