Published Online: March 1, 2004
Published in Print: March 1, 2004, as Cutting Classes

Cutting Classes

Driver's ed. is on the chopping block.


—Art by Glynis Sweeny



In schools across the country, electives are disappearing, and even classes once considered part of core curricula are on the chopping block. Administrators say the culprits are shrinking budgets, an increasing emphasis on college preparatory and computer-driven courses, and pressure to raise state test scores. Something's gotta give, they say, and if it comes down to home economics or learning to use a computer, they'll risk graduating a group of students who can't bake a cake if it means they can be computer literate instead. While many parents, teachers, and students agree, some are bewailing the loss of hands-on classes that prepare students to join a workforce hungry for skilled labor.


DETOUR AHEAD

Cut Class: Driver's education.
The Culprit: Budget cuts.
What's Missing: One might think that abandoning driver's ed in Motor City's own state would be tantamount to suicide, but Michigan officials have done just that. Until 1997, state law required free and mandatory driver's education courses in public schools, but increases in the amount of required academic class time, coupled with hikes in gas prices and car expenses, have since driven more and more school districts away from the course.

Rationale: Although some districts in Michigan still subsidize driver's ed, many schools can afford to offer the classes in the summer only. As a result, administrators say they're losing students to private driving schools. "At this point,...we are contemplating whether it is even worth continuing," says Willow Woods Elementary School principal Ben Trombat, who runs the driver's education program for suburban Detroit's Warren Consolidated Schools. "High school kids want what they want, and I'm not sure many are willing to wait 'til school's out."

Reaction: With students demanding licenses as soon as they turn 16, many parents are willing to foot the higher cost of private driving schools.


OUT WITH THE OLD

Cut Class: Home economics.
The Culprit: Computers.
What's Missing: Middle schools in Maryland's St. Mary's County have junked mandatory home ec classes in favor of courses that teach students how to use computer spreadsheet, desktop publishing, and other software. The St. Mary's County Board of Education decided this past June to offer "family and consumer science," as home economics was known, only in 8th grade, and only as an elective. As of this school year, 7th graders are required to take a computer class instead. "It's disappointing that it's no longer offered in the 7th grade," says Jacqueline Gray, a former home economics teacher at the district's Spring Ridge Middle School who was retrained as a technology instructor. "But I guess we have to move along with the times."

Rationale: The changeover had its origin in students' poor reading scores on the Maryland School Assessment tests. Administrators initially proposed a double reading period for 7th graders, but the extra reading time has since been replaced by the computer classes.

Reaction: Parents and students protested the change and presented petitions signed by more than 500 residents wanting to keep family and consumer science as part of the curriculum, but to no avail.


SORE SPOT

Cut Class: Medical training.
The Culprit: Low test scores.
What's Missing: Miami Edison Senior High School in Florida is getting rid of its popular medical classes, including nurse, first-responder, and medical technician training. The abrupt change came after a majority of Edison upperclassmen failed to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for reading and math. The state also handed the high school three F's in four years, for its poor showing on measurements of student learning and improvement.

Rationale: The classes were dumped, district officials say, so that students could receive double doses of basic math and reading. Once the school is out of its academic "hole," they add, the medical classes will return. "We had to revise schedules and give these students the extra math and reading courses they needed," says Lois Lee, Miami-Dade County Public Schools' executive director for school choice and parental options. Along with the low test scores, administrators say an enrollment drop of 600 students meant Edison had to eliminate many nonessential courses.

Reaction: Parents and students are outraged by the elimination of the courses, especially because the cancellations came with no warning. "They didn't sit down to see what we were feeling," Nadeige Jean, who was in the nurse's assistant program, told the Miami Herald. "It's really a slap in the face."


COLLEGE BOUND

Cut Class: Vocational education.
The Culprit: College preparation.
What's Missing: Clovis High School in Clovis, California, has turned its welding shop into a student fitness center, and its construction lab is now a janitor's shed. The renovations reflect a broader shift away from vocational training as schools face growing pressure to prepare all students for higher education. Only 38 percent of the Fresno region's public high schools prepare students to be auto mechanics, only half of the high schools in neighboring counties teach welding, and fewer than a quarter have woodworking or construction classes. All told, California lost about 16 percent of its high school vocational classes between 1997 and 2000.

Rationale: "It's all about the promised land of college," says Gary Giannoni, secondary curriculum administrator for Clovis Unified School District. Many students tell guidance counselors that they want to attend a four-year college, even if many never get that far. And officials also feel pressured to prepare students for high school exit exams designed with the presumption that a university degree should be students' ultimate goal.

Reaction: Despite the assumption that all students should be prepared to enroll in the state's flagship University of California system, only 10 percent actually attend UC schools. Even some school officials concede that in a region with persistent double-digit unemployment, schools should be training students for jobs. Diane Genco, the Clovis district's career education director, says people need to start looking at careers that don't require a college degree. "New-home development and auto mechanics are two of the biggest industries in this area, yet employers call us and say that there aren't enough kids trained in these fields," she says. "They say, 'We'll hire them if they're qualified.'"

—Urmila Subramanyam

Vol. 15, Issue 5, Page 18

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