George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Not My Father's Shop Class: Fusing Career Tech with College Prep

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

In the late 1970s, when I moved into my very first apartment at the start of my junior year in college, my father gave me a gift. It was a gift fit for his daughter -- a box of nails, and a hammer to pound them with, pliers, a set of wrenches, a flat and a Phillips screwdriver, and a manual drill, all neatly arranged in a blue metal toolbox. The handsaw, being too large for the box, was packaged separately.

Murray Baron teaching industrial arts at PS 218, New York, NY in the early 70s. Credit: Unknown

Over the past 30-plus years, I've used those tools to hang art, assemble cheap furniture and trim tree branches. There was one year, during meager times after grad school, when I used a bent screwdriver to bypass my car's erratic starter. My college-educated guy friends were impressed.

My father knew how to select quality tools and he made sure that his children - two boys and two girls - knew how to use them safely. For more than 30 years, he taught industrial arts - or shop, as it was known in the day - to junior high school boys in the New York City public school system. It was a time when all the boys took shop class, while the girls learned to sew and make jam in home economics. In my home, my dad expected that all four of us would attend college and be comfortable around a workbench. But, by the time my father's students entered high school, taking shop meant being on a track to a skilled blue collar or trade job -- construction, automotive, plumbing. By and large, the boys learning to assemble car engines in the garage behind the school, didn't cross paths with the kids learning trigonometry or reading Hemingway.

This Hogwarts-style "sorting hat" that had begun with apprenticeship programs of Colonial America, continued through the 1970s and early 80s, until two landmark government reports (Work in America by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and A Nation at Risk from the National Commission on Excellence in Education) lambasted the tracking model for failing to educate half the student population -- generally by race and income. Soon after, states and the federal government embarked on an historic era of high school reform.

Most of the new policies failed to make any lasting improvements. But one reform is showing positive, research-based results. Career academies and career pathways are reinventing vocational education by merging it with a rigorous academic curriculum to prepare all students for both college and careers.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when my father was teaching, shop was still the domain of boys who weren't headed to college. But my dad was ahead of his times. Just as he taught his college-bound daughters to measure twice and cut once, he encouraged his students to think beyond shop class. My favorite story of his was about a boy who was such a good artist that it took a long time before he was nabbed for counterfeiting. My father persuaded the boy to transfer his talents to the legitimate art world of advertising.

Murray Baron teaching industrial arts at PS 218, New York, NY in the early 70s. Credit: unknown

If they were enrolled in today's career academies, those boys would have a world of options after high school: from four-year and community colleges to professional certification in everything from welding to dental hygiene. What's more, the evidence shows that students in these programs who are considered at risk, are more likely to stay in high school and will increase their earning potential once they're in the work world.

The latest installment of Edutopia's series, "Schools That Work", goes inside several of California's best career academies and pathway programs for a first-hand look at what makes them successful. There are tips and downloadable guides, practical advice, and videos that show how to get started on a high school transformation that some are calling the first comprehensive high school reform in more than century. Hammers are welcome, but not required.

-- Kathy Baron, Edutopia Features Producer and Research Editor

Was this useful?

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

LeAnn Wright's picture

I have been blessed with the ability to instill Science concepts, whether it be hands on, brainstorming, or relating a concept to an every day part of life. i know how to teach them in a way that they use their brains to do scientific problem solving. I am currently unemployed and taking care of my one year granddaughter. Science is a big part of my heart. If any out there knows of anyway I can get involved to us my talents and desires to make eventhe life of one child successful

researchpaper's picture

This is something that I've been constantly thinking about since I became involved in blogging and all the internet activities - I've also been keen on these practical classes, and I can very good remember that physical work was considered as essential by many last century's ideologists and pedagogues.
But, now the society and the life is changing. Forbes' predictions for the future say that in the next decade home-workers will work on farms, and many other professions become more focused and dependent on the internet. So, with the new technologies emerging is there still a need to educate students in the workshops?

Agriculture Teacher's picture

Most shop programs have gone by the wayside over the past ten years. I graduated from high school in 2002, and the shop program was gone before I got there. Our small high school lost the "industrial tech" teacher last year due to retirement and funding cuts. Currently there is a short supply of shop teachers waiting to fill positions mostly created due to retirement.

I do not feel myself at all qualified to teach any type of shop class. Some of the agriculture classes include working on small engines and building small things like bird houses. I get so busy that we usually never make it to these sections...partially due to me not really wanting to teach them. My FFA chapter has taken on the project of restoring an antique tractor. I have had to rely on mainly my husband's and other community member's help to work on this project. There are not too many students interested in this restoration. Many students are more interested in greenhouse-type hands on activities rather than working with tools.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.