McEwen: Fresno Unified needs vocational education

February 4, 2012 

The global economy is fast changing and technology driven. Public education in America, meanwhile, is tradition bound and limping along like a 2000 Ford Excursion with a bad transmission.

A solution: emulating vocational education that produces higher graduation rates and more jobs for young people in many European countries.

There's no better place to start than Fresno Unified, which despite an annual budget of nearly $600 million, continues to be one of the nation's most troubled districts.

The vocational ed programs I'm talking about aren't metal shop and wood shop. They're not hastily conceived programs of last resort for troubled students, either.

What Fresno Unified and other many other urban school districts need is an approach that offers students a path toward a full-time job by the time they're 18 or 19 years old.

Students would attend school two or three days a week and spend other days working. Class studies still would be demanding. In fact, students on this track -- because of technical skills gained from work -- would graduate with knowledge equivalent to someone with an associates degree.

Nancy Hoffman, vice president of the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future, describes the European high school model in her book, "Schooling in the Workplace."

Hoffman writes that a majority of students in three countries -- Austria, Germany and Switzerland -- choose the vocational track instead of pursuing a traditional university path. All these countries have graduation rates above 90% for vocational students.

Starting such a system here would require a radical shift in thinking, not just among educators, but also politicians. In our country, the drum beats that school is the end-all and be-all. But it isn't. Students can learn just as well or better in the workplace.

Public schools provide a service, all right, but the customer -- the student -- has little input. This is the reverse of how things should be.

Gov. Jerry Brown says the state will give districts flexibility to design programs to meet student needs. Fresno Unified should take him up on that and consider the radical step of offering world-class vocational education and training in addition to the traditional college track.

Many of the district's 73,000 students are impoverished and English learners. Some are the children of substance abusers. Some grow up without fathers. Others frequently change schools. Yet the district insists that all students are best served with college-prep curriculum. This is nonsense.

Some very bright kids don't want to go to college. Or they want to delay college until after getting a taste of the work world. Some kids don't have the capability or the means to make it through college.

The shame of it is, odds are 10,000-to-1 against Fresno Unified doing something bold and meaningful such as investing more in vocational ed.

The board will keep meeting on Wednesday nights. The community will keep debating whether Michael Hanson is a good or bad superintendent. The teachers union will continue to oppose change.

Meanwhile, the world will keep evolving -- speeding far ahead of a district stuck in concrete.

The columnist can be reached at or (559) 441-6632. Listen to his talk show daily at 4 p.m. on KYNO (AM 940). Follow him on Twitter: @fresnomac.

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