Culture Clash

I saw a tweet recently to the effect of…”My teacher used to tell me that if I didn’t study I’d end up as a garbage man, never telling me that the garbage man made more than he does.” That stuck in my mind as I read a new article in Education Week titled, “Why the High-Achievers Have Moved to ‘Shop’ Class.

The article begins:

A new breed of students has flooded into career-technical education, and they’re transforming a slice of the K-12 world that’s long suffered from stigma and disrespect.

These students are focusing on professions like engineering and health care instead of traditional trades like manufacturing and agriculture. They have higher grades and test scores, and more positive attitudes toward school. They come from better-educated families and are more likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers in old-school career-tech education or what was once known as “vocational education.”

Let me say that I’m happy that more people are discovering CTE – really happy. However, this whole article reeks of the kind of bias CTE practitioners and advocates face on a daily basis.

There are a lot of people who think that academics are an end in themselves. The “good kids” are the ones who take academics seriously by working hard and getting good grades so they can go to a four-year liberal arts college. They attend that college to get a “good” degree – the kind that the academically minded can ooh and aah over. Once their educations are done, way too many of those “good kids” are loaded up with debt and have nothing but a piece of paper to offer prospective employers.

I was one of those good kids – good grades, good liberal arts university, though I deviated from the academically divine path and sullied myself by majoring in business. And let me tell you, even in the business program I didn’t learn anything that would actually help me land a job or perform in the workplace! Aside from my own summer and evening jobs, I never once came face to face with an employer. I never had a single opportunity to experience or prepare for the world of work.

When the author talks about students who “have higher grades,  test scores, and more positive attitudes toward school” as being a “new breed” of students (meaning better than the current breed), her bias is obvious. And what she doesn’t realize is that school is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Students aren’t going to stay in school for their entire lives: at some point, they’ll graduate at whatever level, and most will need to find jobs. Those grades, test scores, and positive attitudes about school mean very little to employers. What does matter is experience, practical knowledge, and skills.

Quoted at the end, Kate Kreamer of Advance CTE has it exactly right:

“We run the risk of re-stigmatizing the more traditional CTE, and creating two new tracks, with ‘These are the programs we put these kids in, and these are the programs we put those kids in,’” Kreamer said. “We need to think about CTE as one system and figure out how to serve everyone well.”

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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