Student Engagement

Shop is Not a Four-Letter Word

A new look at technical career education

February 2, 2012

This blog is the first of three in a series on Career and Technical Education.

A Viable Alternative to "Success"

What shop class is not:

  • A predetermined destination for students with discipline issues
  • The alternative venue for teenage offenders opting to avoid prison
  • A bandage for an oft-bleeding system
  • Shop class from the "Happy Days" generation
  • The academic elitist's unspoken four letter word: a dead-end

What shop class is:

  • A road between "When will I ever use this?" and "using this"
  • Engaging for students that are not always easily engaged
  • Part of the solution: an opportunity.

Most importantly, it is not a "One Way" street sign firmly embedded in the university-only parochial concrete that points to college as the only means to ensure success. Indeed, it is surprising that so many educators believe that all children -- regardless of interest or skills -- should attend a four-year college.

A New York Times article from September 2011 cites a study by the nonprofit Complete College America that brings to light how many students entering the post-secondary arena are simply not equipped or engaged to see the process through to fruition:

"In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only two of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only seven of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, five graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree."

So why do we insist that higher ed must require college-level pre-calc and advanced chemistry?

Why Not Culinary Arts and Sheet Metal?

College works for many, many students -- just ask your physician! But the truth is that students are not one size-fits-all. College is not the predetermined path from cradle to career that we think it is. We coddle and coerce, we tutor and talk, we insist on the square peg fitting snugly in the round hole.


The world has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and shop class is not shop class -- not the way it used to be. Now called "career education," it is for the inspirable students, "in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat," as Theodore Roosevelt put it, that are learning hand-held trades. "Shop class," "technical education" and "vocational pathway" are not dirty words. In fact, technical education is the foundation that can work for many of our students.

Not Your Father's Shop Class

I began my third career as a teacher with little idea of what to expect. I wanted to teach, that much I knew. Trade school, I thought, was my career path. High school? Not really. A vocational school? Certainly not. After all, that's where kids go instead of jail.

But when I got there, I realized that I could not have been more mistaken. On my very first day, my supervisor, Mr. Wells, walked me through the halls. He introduced me to Mr. Davis, Automotive Technology instructor. Davis explained that his students are almost always in demand, often securing good employment before making the big walk in June.

I saw students working beneath the undercarriage of cars, suspended with myriad of diagnostic cables, wires and hoses that made a surgical suite look plebian.

I saw the Carpentry classroom, complete with a house being built from the foundation, wired by the Electrical Trades students and run with pipe by the Plumbing crew. Mr. Wells hustled me off to Medical Assisting where a patient was splayed out on gurney with all the requisite needles and beeping monitors you would see at Cedars-Sinai or the Mayo Clinic. The Welding room was glowing with the azure, electric-white glow from plasma torches ripping through metal. The din from the Automotive Body Repair garage was deafening. Mr. Wells explained that we were witnessing a team on a hard deadline to finish the repair and paint work on a '77 Corvette that was heading to a car show the following week. And the tour went on and on.

There have been many references to contemporary vocational education as "not your father's shop class" -- so much so, that a quick search lands you on no fewer than a dozen pages of articles. There is nothing wrong with the hands-on education your father received. Actually, it was alright, but somewhere along the way, we forgot just how lost we'd be as a society without it.

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  • Career & Technical Education
  • Place-Based Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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