Thursday, June 26, 2008

High School Confidential

In a recent post I noted that this area has a number of high-skilled, well-paid jobs that only require a high school diploma. Lumping the machinists and plumbers in with Chairman of the Board at Microsoft is fun and hopefully surprising enough to create an idea that's made to stick.

Over the past couple of months I've notice a number of articles, commentaries and radio pieces around the skilled trades. Many of them point out that there is a looming employment shortfall due to the high number of retirements and the low number of people entering the trades. School come in for some blame for over-emphasizing college for everyone.

Without further adieu, here are your links:
  1. Snohomish grad Brian Harbeck is skipping college and heading off to a precision machining apprenticeship program. The Herald article describes how his father maybe following in his footsteps.
  2. Arlington manufacturing businesses partnered with the school district to develop a career center for machinist and skilled trades.
  3. Rosemary Brester from Hobart Machined Products wrote a guest commentary on the need for stronger math skills for all students, not just those going on to college.
  4. Still another Herald article on the concern over passing the WASL discouraging students from attending vocational programs such as at Sno-Isle tech skills center.
  5. KUOW ran a two-part piece (part 1, part 2) on skilled trades, worker shortages and the role of high schools.
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Crisis, What Crisis

[cross-posted at the No Sno U]

I was catching up on my blog reading (and writing) and came across an interesting post on the Bamboo Project Blog from Michele Martin. Michele writes a great blog on career development, training and professional development, but in her Left Behind post she talks about the crisis in secondary education. Her concern is not merely the huge high school drop out rate, but the seeming acceptance of this lower standard. While I completely agree with the sentiment (not necessarily where she places blame), whenever I hear someone speak of a crisis I am reminded of Rhonda's Revelations.

Technology author, consultant and professor Jerry Weinberg is known for a number of great books, but my favorite is the Secrets of Consulting. His rules for giving and getting advise are weaved into stories making it an enjoyable, light-hearted read. It is in the chapter on making change safely that we are introduced to Rhonda's three revelations on resistance to change:
  1. It may look like a crisis, but it's only the end of an illusion.
  2. When change is inevitable, we struggle most to keep what we value most.
  3. When you create an illusion, to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely - and harder to take.
Weinberg, Gerald. Secrets of Consulting. New York: Dorset House, 1985. pages 149-151
Consider the stereotypical male mid-life "crisis". The hair stops growing on your head and, for some unknown reason, starts to emerge from your ears. And so Samson, do you accept it and move on? Heck no, your hair defines you (it's most important), so it's comb-over time (the illusion). When it is all said and done, however, you're still going bald. Deal with it.

I don't mean to trivialize a 20% to 30% high school drop-out rate by comparing it to male pattern baldness, but I do believe that we are trapped by the illusions we have created about education (primary, secondary, post-secondary). We aren't going to fix the drop-out rate, the rising cost of college or any other educational issue until we acknowledge our illusions and move on. Otherwise, we are just making the whole situation worse. Let me start with a couple of examples:

  • Bad teachers and/or union. Yeah, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the reason number one reason students give for dropping out isn't poor pedagogy (no, it's not a foot doctor). While there are poor teachers who should be shown the door, the number simply can't be large enough to explain away all our problems. It would be like saying that the AMC Pacer was a really great car that was assembled by some bad UAW workers. This is not to say that teachers, administrators, deans and professors don't harbor their own illusions that hinder change.
  • Education is under-funded. The only way we are spending too little on education is if you can make the case that we are doing the right thing, but we just can't do enough because of the lack of money. You're always spending too much if you are doing the wrong thing. That's my beef with the University of Washington branch campus - not that we shouldn't invest in education, but that this is not the best way to invest.
  • College degree is a ticket to the good life. Clearly the days of any degree guaranteeing you a job for life are over (they probably never really existed, but that an illusion for you). As a financial investment, studies have shown that there are good degrees and there are bad degrees. In addition, people don't tend to factor the cost of borrowing into their cost/benefit analysis (analysis tends to ruin illusions). The question is can we kill the "everyone needs a bachelor's degree in the first four years after high school" illusion without killing the "everyone is going to need on-going professional education" reality?
Change is made even more difficult as we tend to value the label for the thing we value most as much as the thing itself (Rhonda's second revelation). For instance, a bachelors degree has become synonymous with the the American Dream so many people see the lack of a four-year university in Snohomish county as their child's first step toward living in a trailer park. Never mind that your average art history major can't compete salary-wise with any of a number of high-skilled, well-paid jobs held by those with only a high school diploma - jobs such as Plumber, Machinist and Chairman of the Board of Microsoft.

So to really address the "crisis" in education we must give up our illusions and create a vision for education that helps us live the American Dream circa 2050, not 1950. In his book The Pentagon's New Map, Thomas Barnett describes the reordering of his family life when his 2-year old daughter Emily was diagnosed with cancer. He says:

To me, Emily's cancer was an amazing gift -- as twisted and cruel as that sounds. It taught us many valuable lessons and reordered our lives for the better. It showed us what it means to want a future so badly that you will do whatever is necessary to achieve it, even as that effort kills many past dreams of a life well led. Most important, it gave us a confidence to make difficult decisions regarding which connections in our lives must be maintained at all costs, and which could be severed with acceptable loss.
Barnett, Thomas P.M.. The Pentagon New Map. New York: Berkley Books, 2004. page 249.
Dr. Barnett describes how difficult it is to reorder a life out of balance, whether his family post-cancer or the Pentagon post-9/11. Perhaps we can also use it as an example of how we can reorder the educational system post-millennium.

Unfortunately don't have a vision of an educational future that we want badly. We aren't willing to give up our illusions/delusions of the life well led. Worse, our civic leaders are willing to indulge us our delusion. We still value the good life in the past more than a good, but different, life in the future.

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