What do students think about the many faces of public education?

There comes a time in every teacher’s life when they should stop teaching and start learning from their students. I’ve been teaching for over three decades and just complete a conversation with one of my students that made me do just that. It concerned how technical education was taking over pubic education in both substance and quality. He also questions the attitude and readiness of students entering college.

This student, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a Top Ten ranked senior who is not going to college. He decided that he wanted to help people learn about the Bible by going into the full time ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t pretend to know how to do such a thing, but I do know how adamant this student is to accomplish this. This decision will prevent him from accumulating debt that could define a good portion of his life. How could I possibly argue with this reality that too many of our children will have to face before they are allowed to enter their future.

This student discussed how the Seacoast School of Technology (SST) was interested in changing their image. The image of technical schools is, presently, as follows: a means by which students who do not do well in a classroom setting could achieve their degrees by studying subjects such as Automotive, Computer Design, Biotechnology, Culinary, Early Childhood Education, Nursing, or Farming. I know there are more subjects taught at SST, but these are just some that I know of.

This student believes that the problem is that many students enroll into technical schools to escape the rigors of a traditional high school education. In other words, he states that many of the students he works with at SST simply do not want to be there, but use the technical school as a means to be anywhere other than their high schools for a few hours a day.

This student goes on to describe his experience with a focus group assembled by a marketing firm that was hired to improve SST’s image. Part of this company’s strategy is to rephrase the term “technical school” to “career technical education.” Two posters were presented to the focus group. One poster featured the header “Choose Your Future,” the second poster “A different way to do high school.” Both of these ‘advertising’ points demonstrate an apparent clash between technical school’s efforts to enroll more forward-thinking students, and the need to fill class rosters, usually, by underachieving students.

It seems to me these ‘alternative’ schools are attempting to change their names instead of changing their curriculums. It’s comparable to renaming the title “janitor” to “custodial engineer.” The name is different, but the job is exactly the same. This student agreed with me on this. He goes on to explain how the target audience of these schools have become sophomores in High School. In the past, the target audiences of technical high schools were juniors and seniors. I can’t understand how fifteen year-olds, whom technical schools are attempting to appeal to, had any concept of what they wanted to do in life. I also explained that a student’s deciding on a career this early in life eliminates any possibilities of their pursuing, wholeheartedly, a liberal arts education.

Our conversation led to a discussion about college. He spoke of how guidance departments are perpetually pushing a college education, even as soon as these students first appear in middle school. These students are usually 12 years-old. In other words, where a student wants to go after high school becomes more important than what they ultimately want to do in life. 

This student explained to me that many of his peers have no clue as to what they want to become after college, or even after high school. The technical schools promise a career but restrict a child’s potential. This student stated that many of his peers decided to enter college because the idea of not going to college is heinous in the eyes of their parents, teachers, and administrators. Some of these students either lack the means or readiness to easily enter college. As a teacher I never knew this; student teaches teacher.

This student threw some statistics at me, quoting Brad Plumer’s May 20, 2013 article in the Washington Post, headline: “Only 27% of College Graduates Have a Job Related to their Major.” I countered by asking this student to research how many technical school graduates continue in a career related to their study. I should get my answer soon.

It’s important to note that this student does not favor technical school over traditional high school. However, he feels strongly that if a student is going to attend college, he should do so with a career goal in mind. He believes that it is dangerous to go to college for the sake of going to college; that taking on massive amounts of debt is a risky means by which to figure out what one wants to do in life.

There comes a time in every teacher’s life when he or she should stop teaching and start learning from their students. This argument over the value of a public education versus a technical education should continue. The concept of draining a larger and younger population of students to a technical education can be dangerous. A person’s life can’t be defined only by what they do but it also has to be defined by what they are. The reality that technical education wants to change their name and image in order to attract more students is simply foolish. This student and I agreed to disagree.

Jim Fabiano is a teacher and writer living in York, Maine

 

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