Lawrence W. Cheek
Seattle Public Schools will face yet another round of changes: new board members, another new superintendent, and what is probably Leadership version 14.0 since I became involved in the 1970s, professionally while on Mayor Charles Royer’s staff and personally during my children’s K-12 years. So when I began to consider the upcoming changes, it struck me that it’s a good time for the district's leaders to re-examine a part of their system. They need to focus on vocational education.
Recent news reports about our schools reflect concerns about birth retention statistics, dropout rates, and underachievement. These are some of the same issues I heard at school board meetings 30 years ago. Now, a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education gives a perspective that reinforces impressions I formed back then. Three stories on my experiences at the local, national, and international levels will serve to illustrate why I came to the conclusion about what is missing in the schools that might encourage potential dropouts to remain in school.
When I worked for Mayor Royer, I visited a center for dropouts. I talked with two young women about why they left school. Both said their high school counselors strongly advocated college. It seemed they did not offer alternatives when told by the young women that college did not interest them.
One young woman said she wanted to be a cosmetologist but was not allowed to transfer to the high school that provided some training. I surmised that neither woman found the school day to be relevant or felt there was no reason to stay in school. A sample of two is not a survey, but it made an impression.
My second story comes out of the nine domestic study missions I organized for the Seattle Chamber and City of Seattle. The first trip was to Baltimore. Royer was interested in examining the city's successful low-income housing programs and the Chamber was interested in their convention center, and both wanted to learn about the Baltimore experience with waterfront redevelopment. When I asked the Baltimore mayor's staff for suggestions on other programs we could learn from, they recommended a visit to their vocational high school.
The principal took me on a tour. As we were walking through the auto repair shop, he whispered to me, “These young boys want to learn how to repair and modify cars. We are teaching basic skills. You want to repair a car, you must read the manual. You also need math. Our secret is using their interest to keep them in school and teach them skills.”
He said that while the classes taught job skills, they were also teaching basic skills in all the vocational subjects. If you want to be a cook, you need to read and do math. The vocational program was a means to an end, not an end in itself and seemed like a reasonable educational approach.
After that visit, I had a staff member prepare a memo on vocational programs in the Seattle School District. He found that most programs had been eliminated. Community colleges were once part of the school system. Edison Technical School was established in 1946, offering vocational and adult education classes for returning vets who wanted to finish high school. Twenty years later, it morphed into Seattle Community College. After that, vocational education became available only after graduating from high school. Obituaries following the recent death of the highly respected George Corcoran, one of the founders of this system, remind us of this story.
Educators developed a new policy for our country called “college for all” during this period. The problem is that many of the kids drop out during high school. They don’t go to a university or community college, and don't receive the skill training.
The third story comes out of organizing 13 international study missions for the Trade Alliance of Greater Seattle and the Seattle Chamber. On two of the trips to Germany I had the delegation explore the German educational system and its vocational component. Students on a vocational track went to high school two or three days a week and to the company training center the other days.
The company training centers were excellent. The city of Stuttgart had one for their utilities. In Munich, the BMW training center was very modern, and although separate from the actual factory, had students producing parts that went into the cars. Student applicants had to be accepted by both the company and union. Upon graduation, they had a guaranteed position, provided they maintained a good standing in their training.
From these experiences, I concluded that those students not inclined to go on to college or university should have an opportunity for a good quality vocational education. But conversations I had with local officials on vocational training made me feel guilty, since I questioned the college for all philosophy.
Then I read Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Pathways to Prosperity.” The first section of the report discusses the challenges: the over 20 million non-college bound youth and the changing nature of work requirements, including the need to receive at least a high school education. It's referred to as "the persistence of the forgotten half." The report contends, “Teens who have good high school work experiences are more likely to be inspired to stay in school, graduate and adopt ambitious goals.”
The second section of the report explains why the current system fails so many youth and makes suggestions to fix it. “College for All might be the mantra, but the hard reality is that fewer than one in three young people achieve the dream,” the report finds. It may be the dream of educators but it is clearly not the dream of all students.
The United States has the highest dropout rate in the industrialized world, according to the report. “Many drop out because they struggle academically. But large numbers say they dropped out because they felt their classes were not interesting and that high school was unrelentingly boring. In other words, they didn’t believe high school was relevant, or providing a pathway to achieving their dreams.”
That passage reminded me of that experience sitting on the front steps of the dropout center many years ago talking with those two young women.
The Pathways report, which I would recommend for reading by our school leadership, contends that the European system provides young people a better method to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It suggests the Nordic system as a better fit for our country rather than the German system we examined during our international study missions. In Finland and other Nordic countries, students are allowed to choose their educational direction at a later age than in the German system.
Finally, the report recommends that our youth need multiple pathways as a vision for school reform. We need to re-examine technical education in the Seattle school system and work to make schools relevant to all the students.
Washington state has a series of skill centers. Each serves multiple school districts. The Sno-Isle center in Everett serves 14 school districts. The Puget Sound center in Burien serves four districts. The Seattle district does not use the Puget Sound center. In fact, the district’s strategic plan does not make vocational education a major priority.
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