On the day before our April Break, Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston published an article in the New York Times, entitled “Straight from High School to a Career”. They opened their piece with a reflection that “there are hundreds of thousands of ‘middle skill’ jobs in the United States that are—or soon will be—going unfilled because of a dearth of qualified workers.” Like others before them, they called for using career and technical education (CTE) centers as training grounds for these jobs, jobs which Newman and Winston state, “provide a middle-class wage without a traditional four-year degree.” They argued for more funding for technical training in high school—never a bad thing—but I think by pushing so hard against the “college for all campaign”, they overlooked another option.
Like other pundits or politicians who talk about career and technical education, they slid back into the kind of language that endorses tracking—telling young people at an early age, well before they have fully developed, that they are suited for college, or not. This kind of system exists in other countries, and even as recently as 50 years ago existed in our schools. As Newman and Winston put it,
American high schools once offered top-notch vocational and apprenticeship training, preparing young people for jobs like these. But over the last 70 years, our commitment to such education has waxed and waned, reflecting the country’s ambivalence about the role of school in preparing young people for employment and the value of blue-collar work itself. Progressives have argued that technical education tracks low-income and minority youths toward second-class citizenship; hence they often advocate ‘college for all.’
Winston and Newman are right to be concerned about the lack of qualified candidates to fill these “blue-collar” jobs, but the answer is not to steer sophomores and juniors in high school into CTE centers. A better antidote to both the tracking mentality and to the dearth of students being trained for those “middle-skill” jobs is to place a career and technical education program in the middle of a comprehensive high school. By integrating our CTE program into our wider curriculum, which includes a larger and more diverse Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curriculum, humanities, and the arts, we provide students with even more options and have allowed them to succeed at the highest levels.
In the weeks leading up to break, we saw the fruits of this model. Dozens of students medaled in SkillsUSA, Future Business Leaders of America, and FIRST Robotics competitions. These awards marked them as the best in the state and the region at what they do, and some are now headed for national competitions. Who are these students? One is an award-winning chef who is also acing a high school/college dual enrollment English course and who had the starring role in the fall musical. Another is a three-sport senior athlete who, with his sophomore teammate (also an honor student with thoughts of college), medaled in construction. A third is another dual enrollment student/athlete who helped create and drive an award-winning robot. These students, and many others, have had the opportunity to explore both the college-prep and the career and technical fields, and they have both career paths available to them as they finish high school.
Newman and Winston bemoan the drop in career and technical education, attributing it to “inadequate budgets that translate into obsolete equipment, insufficient support for teacher training in new technologies and inconsistent connections to industry, which render them less able to stay current with the skills in demand.” We have experienced none of these things. Thanks to donations from benefactors and area partners, a healthy professional development fund for our teachers, and willing partners among area businesses, our students have access to a high-tech Maker Space and up-to-date technology in all of their shops and kitchens. They also have access to internships and apprenticeships in the local community. All of this support has led to the many awards mentioned above and dozens, if not hundreds, more over the past decade.
But this integrated approach to CTE education is about more than awards. One young man who did not medal said it best. Praising his classmates and his teacher, he described his experience as “like being part of a championship team.” Even when they are competing in individual competitions, these young people learn the value of teamwork and collaboration, two skills that Newman and Winston leave out of their article. They learn to take as much pride in their team’s accomplishment as in their own. I believe that this team-oriented aspect of our program is perhaps the most important. This was clearly evident in a recent front-page article in the Caledonian-Record on the benches being made and distributed around our community by teams in Matt Stark’s Woodworking class. These woodworkers not only take pride in what they have accomplished together, but they go a step further in realizing that they have a responsibility to give back to their community. Being a responsible, dependable, and effective teammate with an eye toward serving others is vitally important to any career and is difficult (maybe impossible) for an employer to teach.
By combining the excellent skills that won them awards with the ability to sacrifice for and work with others, our students are not only prepared to enter those middle-level positions that Newman and Winston mention, but they are also ready to succeed in whatever professions they enter. As Robotics teacher Jim Baker likes to say, “This is a team on which everyone can go pro.” And when they do go pro, they will be well trained for success.