Need For Vocational And Technical Education In Inner-City Schools - And Response

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Within the last year, as Tennessee began to develop new standards mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Unity Group has been conducting a review of education in Hamilton County. The ESSA plan contains many aspects that merits broad-based support, particularly in the All Means All section. Notwithstanding, many of the plan provisions are serious points of contention, such as Black/Hispanic/Native American as one subgroup, the intervention in priority schools which includes establishing partnership zones, Title II and Title VI spending, and the development of career, technical and vocational education. Comparably, there are a wide variety of issues that we have both dissented against and are currently identifying that if allowed to further permeate throughout the system will have detrimental and damaging effects on schools and communities. 

One pressing issue is trade and vocational education, which can be illustrated by reports we've received that Howard High School might once again bear the brunt of rash policy-making as the removal of the Welding and Robotic Arm programs are under serious consideration. 

The state of Career Readiness, which encompasses CTE, is a persistent source of dismay for many inner-city residents. Indeed, from the establishment of many HBCU’s at the turn of the 20th century, to the prowess of figures such as Booker T. Washington, CTE has been vital in helping to provide employment and opportunity within marginalized communities. One school that followed in that tradition was Kirkman Technical High School. The ramifications and ripple effects upon its closure in 1991 can still be felt because the transfer of that programming was a promise that remains unfulfilled. Valuable equipment was allowed to sit idly by; course offerings diminished as the state and system choose to implement single track “college-bound” graduate offerings that did little to enhance the diverse needs of all students; and negative stereotypes and perceptions became to be associated with trades and vocations as many students became to equate programs with ineptitude and failure.

Likewise, the system adopted a career academy approach which shifted instruction and specific programming to a half-dozen schools across the district, which further diluted the effectiveness of faculty and participation level of students, and when CTE was reconstituted, programs were sent into the outer fringes of the district while giving minimal attention to the ability of poor, minority and “transient” students to successfully participate and complete programs.

Equally damning, elements that once supported successful entry into the workforce such as internships, apprenticeships, and entrepreneurship, which connected youth to employers and the business community, have been limited in inner-city schools. Further, as The Schott Foundation Report on Public Education and other scholarly reviews note, while careers of the 21st century require a well-rounded education, CTE can help reduce the dropout rate for many urban youth. 

As it currently stands, a cloud of desuetude and obsoletism has been allowed to engulf our inner-city schools and it greatly endangers the quality of education, viable career prospects and upward mobility of poor, African-American and minority students. This is in direct conflict with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, and Perkins CTE Act of 2006.

We call for Hamilton County Schools to disavow itself with all signs of ambivalence, impropriety, and malfeasance by ensuring that CTE programs at Howard High and inner-city schools remain intact and are expanded upon, and adopt measures that will readily provide equal educational opportunities and access to resources, technology and instructional materials to all students. 

Sherman E. Matthews Jr.
Chairman Unity Group of Chattanooga

* * * 

Why only the inner-city schools?  Are the inner-city schools specifically being short-changed?  Is vocational and basic technical education really an integral part of any local schools now? 

Jim Richardson wrote about this lack of public education in a column titled Clear and Pleasant Danger in Hemmings Classic Car magazine, July 2011: The website of the organization ‘Sons of Danger’ bears this statement, “Learn an honest trade and you will never have to knuckle under to any man.” Richardson comments, “Most trades have a certain amount of danger involved in them if you don’t know what you’re doing. ... because of the potential danger, financially strapped school systems are using safety as an excuse to do away with shop classes. As a result, we are turning into a nation of helpless wusses. A big part of shop classes is learning to deal with danger. ... But learning how to deal with such dangers is not just part of learning a trade–it is part of being a man. ... Not only is dealing with danger part of being a man, most men actually pride themselves on overcoming dangerous situations and their fear of them.” X-Games-type danger is not for the novice: “Think how much more glory there is in being able to get a disabled car back on the road than doing a header on a dirt bike and having your friends drive you to the hospital. We must channel young men’s need to overcome danger into useful areas. I’m just glad there were shop classes when I was a kid, where a fellow could learn an honorable (and dangerous) trade and not have to knuckle under to anybody.”  

I'm an independent mechanical engineer and have worked in and visited fabrication shops all over Chattanooga, and I often tell individual workers that if their wives knew just what they do all day, every day, to earn a living -- they'd be looking for a new, safer, gentler job tomorrow.  Jim Richardson is right; there is danger in many of the jobs that we routinely do, and even the simplest manual tasks demand some care and precaution. 

As I reviewed Richardson's column, some details become obvious.  First, wood-shop and metal-shop and auto-shop equipment is not cheap for schools to purchase and maintain.  But neither are desktop computers, laptop computers, and all the different glorified plastic toys that are used to teach what's called 'engineering' in schools now.  Shop tools rarely go out of date the way computers and other electronics do; I have tools in my own home shop that belonged to my grandfather.  And, before you protest, any practical worker needs to learn to use old-fashioned hand tools before worrying about becoming a high-paid CNC machinist, etc.

Second, there is some inherent danger in using any tool; Roy Exum recently pointed out his experience at introducing clueless doofuses to pocket knives, and I can add my own tales to that.  Learning to work with danger, to accept danger and to handle it ... well, that used to be part of becoming a man; now that isn't exactly the case, not in the popular perception, anyway.  Ask the average man if he's carrying a pocket knife, for instance; it's really not typical any more.  

Third, we know that nobody in education or anywhere else in government is interested in turning out men who won't knuckle under to anybody.  Clueless, mindless doofuses are much more desirable for their purposes. 

Perhaps the biggest problem where public education is concerned is that the top dogs in charge, the $100,000-plus salaried people, often cannot do anything vocational or technical or physical or practical themselves, and are therefore unqualified to appreciate such talents and skills in others.  They aren't qualified to outline, organize, and execute any programs having to do with vocational and technical training.  You don't need a PhD degree to manage a wood shop; you need years of practical experience working with hand tools, power tools, and wood.  You don't need a PhD to manage a metal shop; you need years of practical experience working with hand tools, machine tools, and metal.  You don't need a PhD to manage an auto mechanics shop; you need years of practical experience working with hand tools and automobiles.  All of that, of course, goes directly against what is called education today. 

There's not a lot of hype or flash or bragging rights associated with basic vocational and technical education.  It's usually not high-tech, and it's often noisy and sweaty and dirty work -- something the School Board and executive offices aren't familiar with and don't want to talk about.  Everybody seems to have an opinion about how much a supposedly lowly plumber charges for his supposedly menial work, and it probably gripes the educators that a hardworking, dirty and sweaty plumber can earn as much as a teacher.  But if your pipes have burst or your toilet is stopped up, who you gonna call -- your local plumber, or your local principal? 

Now, I'm not against education, real honest high school and college education; getting two degrees in engineering from Purdue University cost me quite a bit in money, time, and effort.  But I never have, and never will, look down on any honest worker who can actually do something, who can actually make something, who can actually fix something.  I've learned nearly as much from those guys as I did from all of my 'real' teachers. 

So with all due respect, it's not just the inner-city schools that need to be teaching modern clueless and useless doofuses how to do, make, and fix things.  It may embarrass some educators to think that a 19-year-old apprentice plumber or electrician or carpenter can get a good job earning good money while learning the trade, while future teachers are just getting started in their expensive professional education, but again ... when you need a plumber, you really need a plumber, not another B.A. or M.A. or PhD.  

And the professional educators need to get over themselves and admit that only a relatively small percentage of their public school students are ever going to need or earn a college degree.  But every one of them will eventually need a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, a refrigerator or automobile or home repairman.  

How long will it take the School Board to realize and accept that, huh? 

Larry Cloud
Lookout Valley

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