Not My Father’s Vo-Tech

By and large, the way we go about educating young people today is not substantially different than it was 100 years ago. Sure, modern kids learn to use computers — basically word processing and how to make slide presentations. Think how much the world has changed in the last 60 or so years, yet our education model is still old-school, typically involving one teacher talking to students seated for the duration.

Our public education system was crafted to shape factory and industrial workers. Its goal was to give workers some basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, teach them how to show up on time, listen to directions, and stay put for several hours at a stretch. Back then, there was a teacher’s creed that went, in effect, “Sit down, shut up, and listen to me.”

It worked for a while. One of the reasons our manufacturing economy was the envy of the world for so long, some education researchers say, was that the system worked. Into the middle of the 20th century, dropping out of high school was not unusual.

My own father was forced to leave high school after ninth grade after his father died. He had to work to help support the family. In 1947, that’s what kids in his situation did. Fortunately, thanks to his stint in the “vocational” high school, he was ready for the marketplace of the day. He was able to put seven children through college and retire at the age of 53 with a nice pension.

The space age, the information age, and the global economy — everything has changed since the ‘40s. Except the way we train teachers and teach kids. You could take a kid from 1947 and drop her or him into a modern classroom, and the routine would offer comforting familiarity.

One area of public education, though, has changed with the times. Career and technical education has continued to evolve and innovate. First came the shift toward programs to prepare students to earn a postsecondary credential or industry-recognized certification. Now programs are emerging that create that bridge within the high school classroom.

In this edition, we offer the first of three articles by Jess Clawson on new and — we think — exciting changes underway in Clarke County. It’s a lot different than it was in Dad’s day, as it should be.