I started teaching in 1973 at a well-equipped shop in a junior high school. That shop no longer exists; it was replaced long ago with a technology lab.
When I graduated from college, there were numerous schools that offered career and technical education degrees in the state of Illinois. Today, I can think of only a few. Just like many professions, retirements today far exceed the number of new people entering the profession. My name will soon join this elite group.
One approach to counter the loss of technical education teachers is for schools to switch to a new curriculum called “Project Lead The Way.” The goal of this curriculum — available to more than 600,000 students nationwide — is to reverse the shortage of engineering professionals. During the last few years, the curriculum has changed slightly to incorporate more math and science to accommodate today’s federal Common Core standards. As a result, design and drawing instruction has taken on less importance.
Some schools have replaced most of their career and technical education classes with “Project Lead The Way,” while others run more traditional shop programs.
Shop programs are often easy targets when budgets have to be cut, especially since they require expensive machinery and raw materials to be run properly. They also take up a lot of floor space that schools now need for other programs. And, to make matters worse, there’s less funding available from state and federal governments.
But there are other factors in play.
Rigor and relevance
These are the new buzzwords in education. Administrators want to see improved test scores. Their survival and future ambitions are based solely on this fact. Test scores are also a major factor for real estate property values. In many schools, students are routinely directed into college readiness classes more so than career readiness classes.
But in many schools across my state, less than half of the high school graduates are considered college-ready. Those below the line are often short on math and English courses. In some districts, students not interested in college are limited in what they can take. Electives continue to be cut. In short, the perception is that these classes don’t support the rigorous agenda that is being pushed today. Many times, schools inflate their advanced placement or honors class enrollments just for it to look good on paper when, in reality, many of these students don’t belong there.
At a recent college job fair in Illinois, 125 schools came looking for teachers and only found about 20 candidates. One local university started a one-in-four campaign nearly three years ago, asking every technology and engineering teacher in the state to identify just one student every four years who they believe would make a great teacher. The response has been very poor.
As a teacher, I wonder why anybody would consider the profession, especially with the increased licensure requirements and diminishing retirement benefits. The level of respect from students and their parents isn’t what it used to be. Do you remember disrespecting your teachers when you went to school? If you did, there were serious consequences from your teacher and your father. Today’s unruly students receive counseling and pleas to behave.
Industrial arts and automotive repair have become dumping grounds for students deemed to have little interest in academics. But the reality is these students are being taught math, science, physics and other subjects to learn skills they’ll need in these demanding professions.
In my opinion, the most import skills being taught are a strong work ethic, how to work with others, completing what you started and having pride in your accomplishments. In other words, traits for which employers are looking. So why is it that some administrators continue to place little importance in these classes? These traits can’t be measured with test scores.
Today, the term Common Core is frequently used. In essence, this means using a common curriculum for all students with a common set of expectations. How can woodworking or autos programs increase test scores? If taught correctly by knowledgeable instructors and given the monetary support to have the latest equipment, it can succeed.
The days of having a sequence of cabinetmaking classes at most schools is over. But it’s not for a lack of teachers. Students no longer have the time in their schedules, which are dominated by increased graduation requirements in English, math and science. Think of it: how much can you really accomplish in a class that lasts 50 minutes or less?
Several years ago, students could take multiple class periods of woodworking each year of school. Our district used to have a building trades class that designed, built and sold a house every year. It was a shame when this ended. Time was a big factor in its demise. I wonder how many schools still have the luxury of doing this program.
Call to action
So what can be done?
First, write your local politicians and voice your support for career and technical education in your school district.
Donate machinery, tools and supplies.
Attend school board meetings and voice your concern over cut backs or the lack of career and technical education opportunities.
Ask to join advisory committees.
Finally, consider teaching. Visit a local college or call a high school administrator and ask what their requirements are to teach. Many states, like Illinois, offer provisional licensure for career and technical education instructors that allow you to teach. Sometimes a few extra classes taken at a local college can get you in the door.
Your input is critical for the survival of woodworking education in our schools. Please help before it is all gone.
Jerry Hund has been a high school career and technical education instructor for nearly 20 years.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.