Friday, January 30, 2009

Apprenticeships, not electives

Recently posted on the blog operated by members of my local board of education was a comment about electives. Why Home Ec? It was a reasonable question and if we really took it up, we could have a positive impact on regular education, special education and the community.

An example of an elective that makes sense could be designed after a new program discussed in Solar Today: Training the green collar workforce. This program is being replicated in a few places around the country, included west Contra Costa County. We should jump on this wave now and paddle hard, or we will miss it.

Electives-- introductory courses that offer breadth and opportunities to explore a new field or discipline-- should be offered early in elementary and middle school. They should include REAL things like courses in electricity, plumbing, carpentry, child development, public health, water treatment and other non-traditional but essential topics that can lead to meaningful work with living wages.

By high school, "electives" should be phased out and replaced with courses of study. A student completing a course of study in electrical studies, for example, would have work experience and be ready to enter any number of union apprenticeships, which require passing grades in algebra and understanding of physics. A student completing a course of study in science would graduate with the experience and prerequisites needed to enter majors in pre-med or pre-engineering. Either way, students would have a solid foundation that prepared them both for meaningful work and a changing workforce.

We should have the courage to reinvent the remedial "work" mandated under the guise of NCLB-- math work that is in complete contradiction to every finding in the TIMMS study and reading work that contradicts research about adolescent literacy. Instead, math course work should be strongly linked to the science curriculum and math studied for what it is, a language that describes real world phenomenon. Reading should expand what readers know and want to learn about relevant and engaging topics.

This quality of education is currently denied to students who score in the "lower" half of the tested students. These students reasonably may decide they have better things to do than pretend to learn from this below basic education. Why would any student continue to manipulate numbers on a worksheet in order to prove their worth to a system that has written them off as "low performing"? Why do we pretend that they have to read things like "Doggie and Hoggie like Froggie" before they can move onto more complex things (like IPOD directions). Given the opportunity to see concepts brought to life while doing complex things like wiring solar systems on existing roofs can catapult these "slower" kids into income brackets that their teachers will envy and position them to do work they are worthy of.

It is time we cast off the classist and classical education of the 19th and 20th centuries and start treating all education as if it mattered. Maybe then all students will experience learning, and no one would leave school behind.