Talents Unrecognized

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If all children graduate from high school, go to college, and enter professional careers, who will enter data in our computers, style our hair, paint our houses?

Imagine every child’s being successful in the current American model of education. All children would graduate from high school and go to college, preparing to enter professional careers. A vision of heaven? Think again. Who would repair our plumbing, fix the car, hang the signs over our stores? Who would enter data in our computers, style our hair, paint our houses? Our world would be utter chaos without people in these careers; indeed, all societies are built on a solid base of manual labor, agricultural jobs, and trades. We would not survive without them. But politicians and cultural attitudes would have us think otherwise. Academic standards are being raised all the time to produce college-ready high school graduates. And what parent today brags vociferously, "My son is a welder!"

I do have a welder for a son, and am exceedingly proud. He does his job well. I know what he does is just as important as designing a new freeway overpass,or splicing genes. But I have been anguished watching him falter through school, as I have seen so many other students do, with little interest in what is being taught. He is a "hands on" guy, but schools are not set up for those kind of students. Generally absent from today’s schools are courses like shop and home economics. But over and over, I have seen students who slowly lose interest merely because they are forced to sit without any kind of physical engagement. It’s a perfect setup, for some, for behavioral problems. Yet these same students have shared with me how they built their own bikes or computers, created beautiful drawings, learned how to get a cranky VCR to work. Why not offer more classes—or tailor existing ones—to appeal to their talents and skills? Are we not supposed to educate every child, and help all of them become fully actualized? Why keep cramming math theorems and Shakespeare down their throats when they would rather be learning something more functional for them?

I propose that our reform efforts include all students by offering more options to serve individual needs: a return of truly hands-on classes, such as industrial arts; academic classes tailored to support vocational education training; and more apprenticeship-style programs, such as are envisioned in the school-to-work model. These reforms should begin in middle and junior high school. Why? As a teacher, I know that too many students in the bloom of adolescence give up on school because it doesn’t meet their needs, talents, and interests. At an age when they are trying to "find themselves" as individuals, what a crime it is to impose a one-way-only ticket for their education.

What kind of student will benefit from such an approach? Here are a few examples from the hundreds of 6th grade and older students I have taught over the years. Their names have been changed, but I know from conversations with colleagues that these students’ stories are typical and speak for many:

John, a 6th grader, has been a perpetual behavior problem. He constantly gets up from his desk and moves around the classroom, pestering other students. While seated, he may pull out the wire from his spiral-bound notebook and wind it around his finger, forming a nearly-perfect spring. Of course, little schoolwork gets done as he distracts himself. Classified as a special-needs student, John does get extra help in reading and writing, which frustrates him and holds little interest. But he has bragged to me about how he can take apart his bicycle and put it back together again. And often, he says, he helps his dad fix the truck. On one momentous day, John was able to demonstrate to the class how to divide fractions. He did it by using fraction pieces, manipulatives he had been able to use in the classroom that day.

Carla is an 8th grader with an attendance problem. Despite the school’s having contacted her parents, she continues to feign illness to avoid coming to school. Reading and collecting her thoughts in writing are major chores for her, and she, like John, is receiving extra help. But her motivation lags. Both her fellow students and the school’s teachers, however, have noticed the beautiful drawings Clara makes on her notebooks. When she is given options for her assignments, she turns in the ones that can be drawn and does well on them.

Vivian, a passing student in 8th grade, participates very little in class. She gets in trouble quite often for talking, and seems bored most of the time. But nobody ever fails to notice Vivian’s unique hairstyles, decorated with an array of clips, jewelry, and other accessories, or her beautifully manicured and painted nails. She also has a remarkably accomplished knack for makeup

And then, there is my son. Never fond of school, he spent too much time talking and not enough doing his work. He was often reprimanded. Reading had never been easy for him, which also contributed to his lack of success. Still, a perceptive 3rd grade teacher noticed his fondness for physical types of learning and put him in charge of the class’s pets. That was his best year. He did little in school after that, and eventually dropped out at the age of 16.

My son was always happiest when he was tinkering at home with his bike or some other vehicle in our garage. Without ever having taken an auto-shop course, he was able to disassemble and reassemble the engine in our truck. That activity, of course, forced him to read a repair manual (a great motivation to read). The truck ran better than it ever had, and my son finally felt proud of himself—not only for having learned something valuable, but for "passing the test" with flying colors. Now 21, he builds robotic creatures for Disneyland and other amusement parks while taking welding classes at a community college. His previous schooling, unfortunately, did little to prepare him for his job.

I doubt that any of these students will ever want to go to a four-year college. So why do we push them in that direction? Because we think it’s more prestigious? Why not give them the skills they can use, skills that match their talents? What if John had an industrial arts class? What if Carla had a class in graphic design? Would Vivian be more interested in learning if there were a cosmetology class she could take? Why not prepare such students realistically for functioning effectively in society? I would even go so far as to suggest that national crime rates might drop further, along with drug and alcohol use, if disengaged students had the chance to feel more successful. If all people could find a productive niche in society, the motivations that drive criminal and self-destructive behavior might abate.

In a speech this year before the American Vocational Education Research Association, Wanda Stitt-Gohdes put it this way: "Our educational system is a classic model of determining convenient educational experiences for millions of children without ever seeming to care one whit about the extent to which they are the most appropriate educational experiences for those children."

Why do we keep jamming square pegs into round holes? Why not teach skills that the community needs and that many of our students want? Many dropouts might stay in school if they were learning something relevant and useful to them, something that enhanced their own talents.

Academics, of course, must never be discarded. Employers are the first to decry deficiencies in students’ ability to read, write, and do math at a high school level. But the fear of watering down the curriculum that lurks in the minds of most vocational education critics is overwrought. To some of these critics, college is virtually synonymous with aspiration, status, even family values. We only have to listen to cocktail-party chatter to realize that.

Others fear incrementalism, or having the government pigeonhole students into jobs that meet the government’s needs, rather than the student’s. But "forced curriculum" is not the intent of vocational education—choice is the issue here.

Why do we keep jamming square pegs into round holes?

Now is the time to include vocational education in our reform thinking. We cannot afford to have even a small percentage of students who, after high school, are neither prepared for a job nor ready for college. And vocational education works. In those districts where it is implemented, test scores have risen in science, math, English, and writing. Enrollment figures attest to student interest.

Here, then, is my proposed K-12 curriculum:

(1) Students from kindergarten to 7th grade would be introduced to various careers through literature, field trips, and guests in the classroom.

(2) In middle and junior high school, students would be able to choose, as an elective, a hands-on class in industrial arts, natural resources, or arts and communications.

(3) During 8th grade, students would focus more on the choices that are to come in high school. Using computers, books, information from school speakers, and what they learn in their hands-on classes, students should begin to narrow down the career options.

(4) High schools would provide clustering, including apprenticeships, in arts and communications, health services, human services, natural resources, industrial and engineering systems, and business and management. Those students whose career choices required only graduation from high school would receive, after meeting course requirements, a certificate of completion in training for that career. Academic classes would be tailored to the needs and interests of each cluster.

I also would propose a task force in each district, made up of parents, businesses, students, teachers, and school administrators, to adapt the program to fit the specific needs of that community.

Decisions we make at this moment in our history—the turn of a new century, and a new millennium—are liable to be scrutinized for generations. Why not make them using history as our guide? Our country has endured and prospered because its founding principles stressed individual rights and freedoms. Today, the right and freedom of an individual to be educated according to his or her needs demands our support. This is what vocational education is all about. We must not let our children down.

Sandra L. Mishodek is a middle school teacher in Redlands, Calif., and is working on a master’s degree at the University of Redlands.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 34, 37

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Talents Unrecognized
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