No Child Left Without A Skill: The Case For Vocational Education In the Building Trades

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The public schools in Champaign and Urbana are meeting
the needs of some students very well but are not meeting
the needs of other students, low income and minority students
nearly so well. All students should receive a secondary
education that would enable them to go on to
higher education if they choose to do so. But many students
will not be going on to higher education and they
need to be given an education that will prepare them to
support themselves and their families.
The building trades offer such a possibility. The remuneration,
especially in the commercial sector where prevailing
wages are paid, is substantial. At one time, there
were substantial offerings in a number of trades in the high
schools. Those opportunities have been severely diminished.
Part of the problem was that vocational education
was part of a two-tier tracking system. Students were identified
early on as either potential college students or as
potential skilled manual labor. Following a program in
vocational education precluded the possibility of going on
to college. But judgments of people at an early age often
turn out to be wrong. They are also often driven by the
class and racial identities of those who make the judgments.
Thus doing away with such a tracking system was a
good thing. But doing away with the possibilities of young
people to have a choice in which direction they want to go
was not a good thing. Many leave high school with no
skills and too often find themselves with low paying and
dead-end jobs, too often engaging in illegal activity such as
selling drugs, and/or winding up incarcerated.
It does not have to be this way! High school, and perhaps
middle school, vocational education in the construction
trades would be of benefit to both students who will
go on to higher education and those who will not. For
those who will go on to higher education, it offers useful
and satisfying life skills and could offer a more concrete
and hands-on preparation for such professional careers as
architecture and engineering. I was talking last week with
a very accomplished engineer whose firm designs duct
work and steam and cooling systems of hospitals. She said
that she wished that she had had such a program available
to her in high school because her engineering curriculum
was too theoretical and mathematical for her to fully
appreciate the work in installing the systems she designs
For the person who does not go on to higher education
it offers the same skills and satisfactions, but it also offers
attractive career opportunities as both a wage worker and
an independent contractor. Construction jobs cannot be
outsourced abroad. They will always be here. It is a myth
that graduating from college assures one of a high paying
job. Construction jobs pay more than jobs that many college
graduates perform. A significant program also offers a
motivation to attend school regularly and to perform well.
Many students now go to school because the law requires
it and the state enforces it. If this were not the case, they
would not be there at all. Many students sit in math classes
with glazed looks on their faces. They know that they
will not be going to college and that they will never actually
use the math. So, why study it? But if there were a program
in, for example, carpentry, and the instructor taught
applied math, the student who chose not to go to college
would have a motivation to be attentive and do well in
both the general and the applied math courses. Furthermore,
courses preparing students for these trades would
also emphasize the virtues of dependability, promptness,
and the ability to work cooperatively with other people.
There are a number of ways that one could rebuild
strong programs in the construction trades, and they are
not mutually exclusive. One would be to establish a vocational
and technical academy for both students who will
go on to higher education and those who will not. But the
latter are still prepared to further their education if they
choose to do so later in life. In other words, no student
would be tracked out of that possibility. Such schools exist
in Chicago and St. Louis.
Another way is to significantly build up the scaled-back
programs already existing—such as those in Champaign
Central and Urbana high schools—in collaboration with
our community college and tie them to union apprenticeship
programs and internship.
Finally, we could offer summer programs that might
include middle as well as high school students. Why
should our schools be closed down in the summer when
students could be learning in them?
I don’t want to discount some of the hurdles we must
overcome in order to meet the challenge I am proposing.
First, school funding is inadequate in many areas of the
state, including ours. Second, the federal mandates associated
with No Child Left Behind, which were intended to
help minority and poor students are actually hurting them
by tying the hands of schools districts. So much time is
devoted to testing that there is little left over to try different
approaches. Third, universities and colleges that prepare
teachers have almost completely stopped training
teachers in the construction trades. Thus, I am not blaming
the school administrations, principals, and teachers for
not seeing the desirability of going back to more extended
programs in the building trades.
But with the cooperation of community organizations
and individuals, state agencies such as Education for
Employment, skilled trades people who are willing to
serve as tutors and mentors and perhaps even willing to
become certified teachers, the building trades and teachers
unions unions, Parkland College, other units of county
and municipal government and the park districts, we can
overcome these obstacles. Too many of our young people
are being lost to not meet this challenge. We can, and WE

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