from San Francisco Chronicle
March 26, 2007
Anyone who has read Mike Rose's powerful books knows that he speaks from experience about vocational ed.
There has been a long-standing debate in California about the merits of vocational education (now called career and technical education) and it has been given new energy by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support. "I love career tech, love it," he said in his State of the State address. He has backed his enthusiasm with dollars, reversing years of decreased funding for career and technical education in his first term, and proposing an increase of $52 million in his 2007-08 budget. Things look good for career tech.
What the governor wants to do is laudable and in line with contemporary thinking about reforming vocational education: beef up the courses with academic content (e.g., put more math in health-care courses); build better partnerships with community colleges and industries; design courses targeted to growth industries.
But this is not the way to truly develop vocational education. Such efforts rearrange or augment existing pieces of the school curriculum rather than rethink it. They don't get to the heart of a fundamental barrier to a real reform, that is, calling into question the 100-year-old division of the school curriculum into "academic" and "vocational."
This distinction between academic and vocational curriculum is central to the problems vocational education has, not only in gaining the credibility the governor desires, but also in developing its potential as an intellectually demanding, as well as an occupationally fruitful endeavor. There have been attempts over the past two decades to strengthen vocational education with academic coursework, and in some cases -- as in career academies -- to combine the academic and vocational courses of study. To date, however, the governor's plans accept, rather than challenge, the vocational-academic divide.
If the governor's proposals are to move forward in a fruitful way, some basic assumptions about career tech will have to be addressed. Otherwise, we'll keep having the same old debates, pitting the academic curriculum against the vocational, missing the ways that the two might enhance each other and that career and technical education could develop richer intellectual content.
Vocational education was created at the beginning of the last century with models of mind that were influenced by terrible biases about work and workers -- for example, that youngsters who end up in "voc ed" are "hand-minded," concrete thinkers incapable of abstraction, while those in the academic track were "abstract-minded," endowed with higher-order intelligence. Though such gross labeling would be avoided today, the beliefs beneath it persist -- that, for example, kids who enjoy mechanical or practical tasks think in fundamentally different, and less advanced, ways than kids who do well in traditional academic pursuits. Unfortunately, these assumptions rest right below many discussions of career and technical education, and more than a few educators share them.
These biases about "work of the hand" versus "work of the brain" keep us from seriously considering the intellectual content of many kinds of work: the richness of the knowledge base; the abstracting, reasoning and problem-solving involved; the ethical and aesthetic values the work can reveal. The biases also lock us into a narrow definition of intelligence, one limited to traditional school-based tasks. And the biases keep us from questioning the academic-vocational divide itself, the very separation of human activity in this way.
Thus, we tend to think of job-training and workforce development in strictly functional ways, targeting specific skills stripped of broader intellectual goals. And we miss opportunities to enrich the academic curriculum. The best vocational classrooms, where facts and principles are applied to real problems, provide a true test of understanding. Students are motivated, as they bring what they are learning to bear on the world.
Deliberations about the vocational curriculum, though politically weighty, tend to take place at the margins of school-reform efforts. But the vocational-academic debate could become the site of a broadly significant conversation, one that would not only affect career and technical education, but extend far beyond it, helping us think about intelligence, achievement and education itself in a fresh way. That's a conversation the governor should begin.
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and author of "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker" (Penguin, 2005).