Rethinking Vocational Education for 'The Forgotten Half'

April 12, 1992|By LINDA CHION-KENNEY

Half of America's high school graduates don't go to college, and of those who do, most don't graduate. That means we're patronizing a business -- primary and secondary education -- that's ignoring the needs of its main consumer -- the student not bound for college.

Put another way: Public school systems are set up largely to prepare kids for higher education, while our shops and factories and communities fill up with kids who can't think on their feet. Think about that the next time you're waiting for your change to be counted out at a fast-food joint.

"Our economy is being damaged and, more importantly, young lives are being damaged, by our collective failure to help young people make a smoother transition from school to work," notes the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship in its 1988 report on "The Forgotten Half," the term it uses for the nation's 20 million non-college-bound youth between the ages 16 and 24.

As William E. Brock, former secretary of labor, told a business audience in Washington last year: "We have to forget this notion that you're less than human if you don't go to college. [Our success as a nation] depends on our front-line workers, and not on our college graduates."

In a report released this past week, "Learning Work: Redefining Success in Vocational Education," the Education Writers Association identifies and describes a handful of schools that are reaching and teaching students to thrive in their communities.

* Ninth graders at the Rindge School of Technical Arts use the city of Cambridge, Mass., as their text, depicting life in oral histories, portfolios, photographs, artwork, three-dimensional models and maps -- all with an eye toward meeting needs in the community.

* The Oakland Health and Bioscience Academy in California recruits students at risk of dropping out into a program that honors students scramble to get into. Studies with prestigious universities, hospitals and community organizations are designed to turn students into community health-care advocates and professionals.

* Rockbridge High School in Fairfield, Va., eliminated the general education track, "soft" electives and grouping by ability, and found that by requiring students to take tougher courses tied to real-life experiences, dropout rates went down and achievement went up.

* At the Paul M. Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School in New Castle County, Del., seniors not only must write a research paper, but also must present -- and demonstrate -- their findings to a panel of teachers and business representatives.

This is not your father's shop class.

These schools, the EWA notes, represent "a marriage -- not a sibling rivalry -- between academic and vocational education; between using your mind and testing your talents in both chalk-and-talk and hands-on learning environments.

"Unfortunately, for the great majority of youth in America, education grounded in real-life applications is, if not ignored, then given short shrift."

Meanwhile, in Maryland, education officials try to put a positive spin on (or even mask; "You could say we did everything not to report the numbers," one state bureaucrat was quoted in The Sun) the dismal performance of students on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

Following state board of education guidelines, a team of more than 200 Maryland teachers designed the test to see how well children could use what they've been learning in the classroom. In nine hours of testing over several days, students in grades three, five and eight applied their knowledge to essays, graphs, charts and elaborate, real-life situation word problems.

Overall, 40 percent of the 160,000 students scored in the lowest of five levels of proficiency. Another 35 percent scored in the level just above that. Only 2 percent scored at the highest level.

Some administrators and teachers say the results, which in fact point to a huge gap in "real-life" learning in schools today, shouldn't be used as a score card but as a guide for the future. After all, schools have until the end of the millennium to actually achieve the goals of the MSPAP. (None of which helps the tens of thousands of students who will continue to suffer as educators stay the course a while longer.)

To find fault with those educators who discount poor results by finding fault with the test itself, we, the people -- the consumers and would-be benefactors of our schools' products -- would have to re-examine our own biases and dismal performance in expecting the most out of the students we allow our schools to neglect.

And we had better do that soon.

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