A couple months ago, I wrote a Valley Voices commentary about why we need more vocational education classes in high schools, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Two things have happened since then, prompting me to write again.
The first thing got me really excited. I was meeting with the head chef and food services manager of the Manteca school district to discuss their school lunch program, and they suggested meeting at their new culinary school and café, located with the district offices.
The chef was obviously proud of this latest addition to Manteca Unified's career-ed academy and offered me a tour. Class was in session and the kitchen was a beehive of activity with high school students making soup broth from scratch. The chef asked for samples and two students, whom I'll call Richard and Rosa, appeared with finished soup dishes topped beautifully with garnish. In addition to the kitchen, the building had classrooms and a full-service café. The students were enthusiastic and learning every aspect of food service en route to good-paying careers after graduation.
The second thing made me angry. I was sitting through jury selection before two young defendants in their early twenties, whom I'll call Mike and Matt, accused of stealing a car, evading arrest and endangering the public during a high-speed chase.
The attorneys spent a lot of time discussing tattoos to avoid jury bias against Matt's facial tattoos, mentioning sports heroes we admire in spite of their tattoos, etc. One of the older jurors spoke up saying Matt had a nice smile and seemed like a nice boy, but that she couldn't get past her negative association with tattoos. She was dismissed, and I sat there picturing a younger Matt as a nice boy, getting angrier by the minute, wondering what his life would have been like if he'd been enrolled in Manteca's Culinary Academy in high school.
I wondered where we were with career education and where we needed to be so that every high school student is prepared for a productive life after graduation.
Historically, 20%-30% of the U.S. population graduates with a four-year college degree, which means the remaining 70%-80% don't. And yet, systematically over the past three decades, vocational classes in California high schools have been replaced by college-prep curriculum for all. I checked with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and sent queries to state and local officials, and the number is basically the same at every level: Plus or minus one point, only 8% of all high school teachers are career-ed teachers.
We're preparing 20%-30% of high school students for their next step after graduation — college. We're only preparing a small percentage of the remaining high school students for their next step after graduation — a vocation or career. How fair is that?
When I attended vocational auto shop in high school, students spent half the day in their vocational class and the other half in academic courses required for graduation. Visit CART high school in Clovis, which is state-of-the-art in terms of career education today, and you'll see the same arrangement, with students spending mornings or afternoons in their career-ed classes at CART, and the other half of the day at their home school taking required academic coursework.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math. If 70% of high school students should be taking career education classes half the day, then 35% of all high school teachers should be teaching career-ed classes. The number is lower for districts sending more students to college and higher for districts sending fewer students to college but, on average, 35% of high school teachers should be career-ed teachers.
Moving from 8% career-ed teachers to 35% career-ed teachers means that the current number of career-ed teachers in high schools needs to be quadrupled.
Thirty-five percent for 70% is my new mantra, and I hope it's yours as well whenever you're speaking to your high school principal, superintendent, school board member or state legislator. Thirty-five percent of high school teachers need to be teaching career-ed classes to 70% of high school students to make high school productive for all of California's students.
Chris Rosander of Fresno is a former rocket scientist and career-ed student and can be reached at email@example.com.