Ever wonder why students who are labeled troublemakers, incorrigibles or educationally challenged in their academic classes begin to do much better in their Career Technical Education classes? Relevancy is the key to better learning.
While teaching my high school classes and interacting with my teenage students and trying to develop their skills, habits, mind set, and work habits; all skills that are conducive to being able to search for, find, apply, secure, and keep a job or go on to higher education; I find that most of these students severely lack any marketable skills needed to either go to college or enter the job market. These students also have high, unrealistic expectations for the salary they want for the work they don't want to do. They struggle in the basic academic areas of reading, writing, and math.

Drill of Math for National Exam - Vocational School Non Technical Program

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The traditional Vocational Education classes like auto shop, woodshop, print shop, metal shop, and welding shop, etc. was the place to dump the kids who did not do well academically and caused trouble in other classes. Sure, there were a few of us who actually were getting good grades academically and just liked working with our hands in the vocational classes but for the most part the classes were made up of those "incorrigibles". Back then, the "Shop Teachers" were generally not regarded as real teachers unless one of the "real" teachers need their car fixed, some tables or chairs made or some nice programs or invitations printed.
Moving forward about a decade, and now doing my student teaching in a Regional Occupational Program (ROP), not much had changed. There were a few different programs added to the traditional vocational education classes but the students were still the same ones that were not doing well in school and needed credits to graduate. We also had adult classes to help those adults who wanted to start a new career, advance in their current position, get their G.I. benefits, or just wanted to get away from the wife and the "honey-do" list.
Fast forwarding to today, the number of Career Technical Education (CTE) classes (formerly known as Vocational Education classes) has grown to over 140 different programs as published by the California Association Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (CAROCP) but now as it was then, there seems to be a class gap between the "real" teachers who teach in the "Upper Class" academic areas and those who teach in the "Lower Class" career technical areas. The rumors still circulate that those who teach in the vocational areas lack degrees and "real" teaching credentials. It sounds like the vocational instructors are just above Neanderthals in the education evolutionary scheme of things. These urban myths are perpetuated by some in academia who are ignorant of what it currently takes to achieve a CTE Credential or to teach in the ROP. They do not know that all of these programs are being taught by instructors who have a vast amount of practical industry experience, which is one of the main credential requirements, and many have post secondary degrees ranging from Bachelors to Doctorates.
There are also those who actually believe that there shouldn't be any vocational classes because they think it is demeaning to the students of lower social economic background and in essence these classes are telling them they could not be any better than a common laborer. They all seem to ignore the facts that MIT and Cal Tech started out essentially as vocational schools, not to mention Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and Rochester Institute of Technology. Moving back to these CTE students, most of what I found then and it seems to be true now is that these "troublemakers" were not dumb but could not connect the material being taught in the academic classes to what one would need in the "real world" to live, eat and survive. I doubt that any of the math teachers could tell their students, let alone show them, how they would be using Algebra and the Quadratic Equation in the real world to solve real problems. No tangible connection was ever made for these students. This is an aspect of conventional academic classes that Dr. Worley, North Orange County ROP Superintendent, and I believe to be true and is substantiated in the 2006 Longitudinal Study Technical Report by Dr. Douglas E. Mitchell of the School Improvement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside.
All the academic classes teach theory but not in real world terms, that is, how all this information, theories and facts actually relate to doing a job. In the minds of these students there is no relevancy to anything tangible, anything they can see, hear, or touch. As a result of this disconnect, these "troublemakers" will tune out what is being done in the classroom and with all their idle time, start doing things that will disturb the class and instructor and get themselves into trouble. These academic instructors will tell the counselors to get these kids out of their class and put them in auto shop, metal shop or woodshop. No one seemed to understand that these students are not dumb, or mentally challenged, but learn in a different way. The "academics" do not seem to understand that these students learn by working with their hands and actually seeing the relationship between the academic bookwork and how it is used to solve real problems.
After they are "dumped" into one of these vocational classes, many of them will begin to come around after a time and actually attend class, do assignments, do homework, read books and start getting good grades. They are able to do math, improve on their reading, writing, and communication skills as well as begin to develop a professional demeanor.
So how did these incorrigibles and troublemakers begin to do the academic work no one believed they can do? Dr. Worley and I believe if they are shown what they are learning is relevant to actually doing a job, making something work or putting something together correctly their academic work will follow. Again, our beliefs are backed-up by the 2006 Longitudinal Study Technical Report by Dr. Miller. If bringing relevancy into the coursework is the major reason that enables these "incorrigible" students to understand and even excel in the academic areas, is it possible to incorporate it in the regular academic classes and raise the level of achievement for all students? According to two standards adopted by the California State Board of Education; the California Career Technical Education Model Curriculum Standards (2005) and California Career Technical Education Framework for California Public Schools (2007), it is the direction our public schools need to go. In these standards, the academic classes are incorporated into career pathways where the spelling, grammar, math, science, reading, writing and compositions all revolve around a specific career pathway so, for instance, if a student is interested in the dental area all the academics would revolve around the dental profession. In this way relevancy is brought into every subject.
But like most government bureaucracy, change is painfully slow and for the most part only the CTE classes have been bringing this relevancy to their students thus the reason for the expansion of CTE programs. Breaking the current educational academic model will be a difficult task as bringing real world relevancy into the academic classrooms would take real world work experience in their area of expertise. To do this the academic teachers would need to have work experience outside of the educational system as part of their requirements to obtain or maintain their credential. Convincing the academic teachers and administrator of this will take years and means changing the structure of the standard credentialing system to the core.


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