The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "How I Learned to Quit Being a Snob and Love Vocational Education" by School Shop/Tech Directions, April, 1992.

Original Title:
Vocational Education and Applied Academics, Or,
How I Learned To Stop Being a Snob and Love Vocational Education
by Barry McGhan

From the beginning of my career as a mathematics teacher I had little contact with vocational education, and like many academic teachers, held it in low esteem. What would you expect? My father was a math teacher, one brother trained as a philosopher, the other a Ph.D. in physics, our sister with a B.S. in Computer Science. Vocational education in our family was from an earlier generation, where my grandfather was a skilled tradesman in the auto industry.

Along the way, I entered a doctoral program in the social and philosophical foundations of education. My classwork and research gave me two key orientations toward education. One was a solid appreciation for John Dewey's ideas about experiential education. The other was a firm belief that tracking was a major flaw in American education.

Subsequently, I saw vocational education, not only as inferior, but as a key part of the tracking system. A system that shortchanges millions of youngsters who are, somehow or other, judged to be not good enough for the college prep track. I felt that the very existence of vocational education programs allowed schools to do less than their best for all students.

Prof. Jeannie Oakes at UCLA puts it succinctly,

"... vocational education is used as a dumping ground. The classes are for kids seen as not capable of making it in more challenging courses."

Then, a funny thing happened to me on the way to retirement. Budget cuts resulted in the elimination of the nonteaching position I held at the time and my reassignment to a new mathematics post in a vocational-technical center.

Once there, I learned that vocational educators are becoming increasingly interested in "applied academics." Driving this interest are four trends. First, the "Nation At Risk" report caused schools to increase graduation requirements in basic subjects. This reduced the time students had to devote to vocational subjects, and encouraged vocational educators to look for ways to give credit for academic work covered in vocational classes. Second, funding sources are starting to require the integration of vocational and academic skills. Third, the work roles for which vocational teachers prepare students have greater intellectual demands--one now has to know how to use one's hands and one's head. Fourth, and most distressing, is the failure of academic instruction to provide vocational programs with properly educated students. In response, vocational programs have had to sacrifice some time to beef up the academics that students should have learned elsewhere.

Vocational schools survive by being in touch with changes in fields of work, and providing them with properly educated students. Vocational education, born and raised during the height of the industrial age, has been used to slot people who only seemed competent to work with their hands into appropriate jobs. But that kind of "industrial age" work is rapidly disappearing. Much more is required of vocational programs now than in the past--developments in technology have greatly changed the conditions of work and the preparation for it.

Listen to the auto shop teacher at my school. "Years ago mechanics saw hundreds of cars with similar problems. It was easy to be a good mechanic. Automotive technology is better now, and more complex--and there are so many different models. Today, mechanics see only 10's of cars with the same problems. They have to read complex manuals, run computer diagnostics, and solve problems. Would you want the typical vocational student I get working on your car?"

As the first academic teacher in the school, I had to make up the rules as I went along. At first, I just hung around and tried to figure out what was going on. The vocational teachers complained that their students didn't know math. So, I tested them and found out that they did have a grasp of basic math. But they couldn't use the math they knew. They understood the routines, but not how to apply them to their vocational class problems.

For vocational teachers, mathematics is not a spectator sport. They favor approaches that mathematics curriculum reformers have only recently embraced: more calculators, less memorization, more study and research skills development, using a project approach, and cooperative education strategies. I saw vocational teachers trying to provide their students with real problem-solving situations. Clearly, John Dewey's philosophy of learning by doing was in action at this school every day.

I began to see vocational education in a different light. It's what good education is all about. It involves students. It asks them to work together. It asks them to put their "book learning" to work to solve real problems. It gives the kind of education that Lee Iacocca and thousands of other businessmen say their employees need--and aren't getting. That is, education that helps people learn to solve problems, be creative, and adjust to new situations.

As I worked with the vocational students, I began to wonder what academic teachers had been doing with students' time. I knew from personal experience how easy and comfortable it is to assign 30 or 40 problems that are only slightly different from the preceding day's assignment--then test occasionally to see how much was retained in short term memory. Math teachers' emphasis on skills and drills have made their students somewhat successful in their computational performance. This satisfies the teachers' accountability burden--but the students' ability to transfer computational skills to problem-solving seems non-existent.

I can now make a judgment I probably would never have made had I stayed in a strictly academic position. Most mathematics teaching is too academic, too sterile, too unconnected with anything in life that could give it meaning.

Although the trend for vocational programs--out of necessity--is to move toward greater involvement with academic subjects, I believe that vocational education has more to offer to academic teachers than vice versa. What it can offer is an example of how "hands-on" experiences inform and enlighten the mind and its understanding.

Things that are intrinsically interesting are easier to learn--and more meaningful--than things that aren't. The usefulness of something often makes it intrinsically interesting. Thus, vocational students have a genuine involvement in their studies that captures their attention. In this sense, vocational education can put some life back into mathematics, and perhaps other academic subjects as well. It can bridge the gap between the real world and the academic world, provide the kind of well-educated workforce leaders of business and industry say they need, and play a significant role in helping to make us less "a nation at risk."


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