By Representative LaKeshia N. Myers
When I was in middle school, I took a class called “tech ed” (which was a fancy name for woodshop), my teacher was Mr. Douglas Yarn. Mr. Yarn was a master educator; he could create just about anything out of wood and he made sure that each of his students understood that woodshop was, “not just about wood…but about life.” In between teaching us how to properly operate the drill press and table saw, he would weave into his lessons stories about his life growing up in Mississippi and about his college experience at Jackson State University. He would often tell us, “don’t ever be afraid to work with your hands [because] people who work with their hands make just as much money as doctors and lawyers.”
In his 2015 article entitled, “Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools,” Forbes contributor Nicholas Wyman discusses the phasing out of vocational education in public schools. He states that in the 1950s a different philosophy emerged: the theory that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability. He wrote, “The idea was that the college-bound would take traditional academic courses (Latin, creative writing, science, math) and received no vocational training. Those students not headed for college would take basic academic courses, along with vocational training, or ‘shop.’” Wyman goes on to note that ability tracking was not well-received by educators or parents, who believed some students were assigned to tracks not by aptitude, but by socio-economic status and race. The result being that by the end of the 1950s, what was once a perfectly respectable even mainstream educational path, came to be viewed as a remedial track that restricted minority and working-class students, according to Wyman.
The result of this pedagogical shift was that American high schools began to steer all students toward university. While this was taking place, the marketplace for unskilled labor was slowly disappearing from the American landscape and being replaced by computers and machinery that required post-secondary training (such as AutoCAD). Meanwhile, the vocational trades (plumbing, electrical, brick masonry, steamfitters, etc.) workers were growing older and there were fewer individuals entering these professions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 68% of high school students attend college. Furthermore, almost 40% of students who begin four-year college programs don’t complete them, which translates into loss of time and higher instances of student loan debt. Nowhere is this issue more evident than in Wisconsin. While 91.7% of Wisconsin residents have earned a high school diploma, only 29% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet, despite the evidence that the traditional “college only” curriculum is not working for all students, there has been very little investment in career and technical education at the high school level. Instead, school districts are often on their own when pursuing partnerships with technical colleges and establishing apprenticeship opportunities for students. These opportunities only reach a few students, and often not the ones that need them the most. It is my hope that our state invests in education at all levels during this biennium. Our students deserve equity and access to quality programming across the board.