Policies throw wrench into school programs

The charms of a one-size-fits-all approach to high school education are obvious. Parents – especially middle-class parents – want to believe their children are destined for college and white-collar careers. But not everyone is suited for the academic world, and society and our economy depend on the skills of people who build things, make things and fix things.

The challenges of providing a comprehensive high school education that truly meets the needs of all students have become even greater with the passage of federal legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. Local leaders in education and business recently gathered to discuss ways to strengthen technical education offerings while continuing to meet academic requirements.

“Comprehensive high school used to be, in some sense, a shopping mall high school, where students would go from class to class (with) not much connection in between … Teachers didn’t really even talk about what was being offered from department to department – that’s gone,” said Jan Zettel, assistant superintendent secondary education for the Santa Barbara School Districts.

“With the stringent accountability measures that we’re finding in NCLB … no longer can we have those individual teachers in the classrooms not talking, not sharing and not working together,” he continued.

Zettel recently attended the state’s first High School Summit in Sacramento and shared some of the highlights.

“Career technical skill attainment is an empty victory without the mastery of academic skills. So a student who is able to set up an excel spreadsheet but has never mastered percentages, has no idea how to write a formula to calculate a sale price when you have mark-up percentages, that doesn’t work,” Zettel said.

“Students who are in those academic classes master those skills at both the knowledge level and the comprehensive level that will get you a diploma but it won’t get you a job. Not in today’s market.

“… We need to continue to push for small learning communities … your academies, your magnet programs, working together with business partnerships, those are key,” said Zettel. “… Because if we don’t educate all kids to the highest level, college preparatory level, our economy is going to tank.”

A broad coalition of California business and education organizations – including the California Chamber of Commerce, California Building Industry Association, California Restaurant Association, and California Industrial & Technology Education Association, among others – recently banded together to relay to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger their concerns about career and technical education.

“The impacts of a weakened career and technical education system have been felt by both our students who are increasingly leaving our public schools without employable skills and employers who face significant challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled workers to meet the needs of the marketplace,” wrote the coalition.

Among the group’s recommended guidelines for education policy: Greater flexibility and choices for the student learning experience; a stronger emphasis on hands-on skills training and education; and attention to the relevancy of education to the economy.

Along those same lines is the TRADART Foundation, formed in Santa Barbara about four years ago to support the skilled trades and career technical education. The group advises the Dos Pueblos High Construction Academy, provides continuing education classes for employed construction workers and summer internships for high school students.

TRADART board member Frank Schipper summed it up: “Expecting all high school students to complete a college preparatory curriculum ignores the range of skills and education required by the labor market today. … High school programs need to engage all students, be relevant to their futures and be academically rigorous. … Career technical education can and must be an integral part of this effort.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on November 11, 2004.

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