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Applied Academics

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Carl wanted both—to prepare for both a good job and a good college.

Most students in Carl Skluzacek's high school must choose either a vocational or an academic (precollege) curriculum. But Carl wanted both--to prepare for both a good job and a good college. To do this he worked after school as an apprentice on a construction crew that was building a swimming pool at a nearby hotel. Little did he realize how much mathematics he would need for this job:

  • To lay out the pool, the crew made repeated measurements with batter boards, levels, and plumb lines, checking to be sure that the pool was both level and square, yet sloped "just so" both on the bottom and the top.
  • To meet code specifications for the poured-concrete foundation, they calculated sizes of plywood forms and located reinforcing rods at appropriate intervals.
  • To create attractive designs with the tiles, they planned patterns that join coherently at corners and edges, as well as on the apron around the top of the pool.
  • To conform to the required quality-assurance standards, every worker documented in writing all the planning and calculations required for the job.

As it turned out, Carl used on this project many of the things he learned in algebra, geometry, and science classes--especially about gathering and recording data, making measurements, calculating answers, and interpreting results. But he learned something else as well: that practice is not the same as theory, that "work work" is not the same as "schoolwork."

In contrast to the rules taught in math class, the reality on the ground is that the diagonals of a rectangle aren't exactly equal, nor are the angles precisely 90 degrees. Nothing that Carl heard in class helped him decide how close was close enough. When could he stop measuring and start building? Would a half-inch variation in a concrete form cause real difficulty later in the job? To make these judgments--which are central to the "art" of applying mathematics--Carl needed to consult his construction foreman rather than the formulas in his math book.

Carl's experience is typical of thousands of high school students who are fortunate enough to be involved in innovative "tech prep" or "youth apprenticeship" programs that seek to prepare students for work in a high-tech economy. Many of these programs also meet challenging academic standards, thus preparing students both for higher education and for technologically intensive work. But most remain deeply entrenched in the old form of vocational education--training for specific jobs--that leaves students ill-prepared for postsecondary education.

Thus millions of students still face a premature and unnecessary choice: either rigorous college-preparatory programs devoid of work experience or listless vocational programs designed for students deemed not to be "college material." This dichotomy does both groups a grave disservice. Students in the academic track leave high school with no realistic sense of the complex demands of the contemporary workplace, and students in the vocational track leave high school deficient in many prerequisites for the further education that they will inevitably need.

The evidence about the relation of education to employment is hard to miss:

  • Most competitive jobs in today's world require some postsecondary education, but the majority of jobs that pay well do not require a bachelor's degree.
  • Many bachelor's degree graduates enroll in community colleges to learn the practical skills necessary to land good jobs.
  • Students who leave high school unprepared for postsecondary education face dismal career prospects.
So why do parents and educators support the dichotomy of vocational vs. academic education?

So why do parents and educators persist in supporting an outmoded dichotomy of vocational vs. academic education? Because most of us find it easier to believe old myths than to confront new realities:

MYTH: Applied learning is not academically respectable. To be sure, many traditional vocational courses were (and still are) slough courses that students could pass without either effort or accomplishment. Worse still, many taught narrow skills that did not provide a good basis for a lifetime of work and learning. But applied courses can be as rigorous as academic courses and--as Carl learned at the construction site--can develop higher-order problem-solving skills that do not emerge naturally from traditional school curricula.

MYTH: Vocational education is for blue-collar work. As technology and science permeate the world of work--from manufacturing to agriculture, from medicine to business--the distinction between white- and blue-collar work is no longer meaningful. Indeed, many new factory jobs are "white smock" jobs where workers are responsible for computer-controlled equipment and quality-control procedures. Today's workers--even college graduates--need a mix of both blue-collar production skills and white-collar managerial skills.

MYTH: A bachelor's degree is the best route to a good job. For a few--primarily the 15 percent who go on to earn graduate or professional degrees--a B.A. does provide access to the upper tier of American society. But the majority of good middle-class jobs with career-growth potential require only a year or two of postsecondary education. In fact, only one in four workers holds a bachelor's degree.

At the heart of these myths is the conviction that only some students are capable of higher education. In contrast, the academic-standards movement advocates a common foundation for all students. At last spring's National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y., the nation's governors and corporate CEOs highlighted "standards" as the key policy lever for educational reform. Indeed, over the past few years, dozens of recommendations for standards have been issued--both by academic disciplines (mathematics, science, language arts) and by occupational clusters (agriculture, hospitality, bioscience). In fact, educators are at risk of being inundated with voluminous and sometimes conflicting calls for standards. Unless these diverse communities establish constructive dialogue, this proliferation of standards could easily amplify traditional tensions between academic and vocational programs.

But it need not be that way. By working together, we can develop programs that achieve high standards for all students. The active pedagogy of effective vocational education illustrates perfectly the constructive hands-on teaching strategies recommended by the academic standards. Moreover, modern vocational programs, geared to technology and industrial standards, can provide the same level of rigor to which traditional academic courses aspire. Indeed, the skills required for critical thinking, communication, and teamwork advocated in the academic standards are just what students need to prepare for work in an internationally competitive economy.

To make high standards a reality--both in academic and occupational areas--and to prepare all students for both work and study, schools need to forge new alliances between the applied and the academic. The best place to begin is right at home--with the faculty across the hall, or down in the basement. Local projects that blend the academic with the applied not only will serve students well, but also will open teachers' eyes to the new realities of work. Despite appearances, there is really just one standard: competence.

Susan L. Forman and Lynn Arthur Steen are professors of mathematics at Bronx Community College in New York City and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., respectively.

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