Retooling education Eliminate the chasm between academics and ‘vo-tech’

In 1968, I was the first member of my family to attend a public school in my sophomore year of high school. Up to that point, my sisters, brother and I had all attended parochial schools. While enrolling for my high school courses, I was told by the counselor that I was college preparatory (I don’t know who determined that), so don’t sign up for any vocational courses, and these were his exact words: “Those are for the kids who don’t do too good in school, the farm kids and the girls (sic).”

As an immature kid, I was scared away from those groups. Thus was my indoctrination into the cultural prejudice that academics and vocational studies were separate and wholly unequal.

I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, and there were a half a dozen large factories in my town, filled with mostly male members of the Greatest Generation. There were women working there, but in the secretarial pools, not out on the floor. The educational pedagogy that produced these workers was created out of the Industrial Revolution, stressing conformity, standardization and the basics necessary to find employment in our industrialized society.

As the Greatest Generation toiled away, building America, raising their families (the baby boomers), they created the mystique that their kids were going to have it better than they did, and that included going to college. What they saw in their world was that a college education equaled success, and the people who went to college had better-paying jobs and did not have to work as hard.

The chasm between academics and vocational grew even larger because why would anybody going to college take any of those courses?

Fast forward to today. Most of the factories are long shuttered, most of the industrialized jobs are outsourced to other countries, parents and schools are still maintaining a “college (read four-year college) for all” mentality, schools are still using the same pedagogy that they used, by and large, for the last hundred years, states are using high-stakes testing to make sure schools are doing their jobs, and teachers are teaching to the tests.

Children are being sent off to colleges, but according to Harvard’s 2011 Pathways to Prosperity, which emphasises the importance and necessity of career and technical learning within eduction, the United States now leads the Industrialized World in the percentage (56 percent) of students who start college and not earn a degree within six years, if at all.

Those earning a degree find jobs scarce or just nonexistent, unless those students went to college and earned a two-year degree or certification in one of the many career and technical educational areas such as health services, fashion design, welding, culinary arts, veterinarian technicians, graphic design, agricultural science, electricians and automotive technicians. Those students are finding that good-paying jobs do exist.

Career and technical education used to be called vocational education, and it is time our society and educational system acknowledges that “college for all” needs to be retooled to “college, including two-year programs or postsecondary training for all.” “College for all” is an insistence that we educate our children for our past, not for their future. High schools can, and should, offer career and technical education programs where students can earn certificates to enter the workforce directly. Bayfield offers a firefighter course where students can earn a wildland firefighter certificate.

Unfortunately, schools see CTE courses as the first to go when budgets get tight. Two years ago, Durango School District 9-R cut its automotive program. Last year, Bayfield School District 10 JT-R cut its business program. This year, Durango is planning to cut the family and consumer science programs from both middle schools, and Bayfield is planning to reduce its high school family and consumer science program to half-time.

The districts say students are not signing up for the courses, and with financial constraints, they have to make the hard decisions. Very true, but why are the students not signing up for the courses? The cultural prejudice that those courses are vocational and not for college prep still prevails.

A recent letter to the editor (Herald, April 6) using the threat to just change Fort Lewis College from a four-year liberal arts college to a vo-tech – scary, really scary – school doesn’t help. For my money, FLC might see a spike in enrollment if it offered more CTE programs providing two-year degrees or certificates. Plus, it might see more locals attending the school and staying in their hometowns filling the jobs that CTE prepares them for.

Industry often has to retool or perish. It is often expensive and unsettling, but necessary for survival. Education needs to view retooling in the same vein. Successful educational retooling stories are out there. One of the most notable is the new veterinarian science program in the Kayenta, Ariz., school district.

Colorado is leading the way in preparing students for their futures through two pieces of legislation – Senate Bills 256 and 212.

The first mandates all students in grades nine through 12 must create individual career and academic plans, which when completed in conjunction with parents and schools, map out a path to finish high school with the coursework and skills necessary to pursue successful postsecondary pursuits – not just college. It should be in place in every Colorado high school right now. Ask your students about it, and if they and you don’t know about it, call your school and find out why, it is important.

SB 212 mandates that all Colorado standards prepare students with 21st-century skills and postsecondary and workforce readiness.

Both of these processes, when effectively implemented, will help students make better, more informed decisions about their future, including course selections, which will help districts make better, more informed decisions when looking to provide the courses to meet their needs. It is a complex puzzle that, when all the pieces fit together, completes a positive picture for our children’s future, not our past.

Gregg Janus is a retired educator who taught both academic and career and technical education courses in Bayfield and Durango. He is president of the Bayfield School District 10 JT-R CTE Advisory Committee. Reach him at