What If More AP Students Learned a Trade?

Alex Ellison
Mar 22, 2016 · 6 min read
Jeff Sheldon

Most people think of welding or auto shop when they think about vocational education. They may conjure up images of that low-achieving, likely male student, who has no aspirations of going to college, but who will instead start working, if he isn’t already, immediately after high school graduation. This image is what makes my AP students grimace when I suggest they take a technical or vocational course. As much as we deny it (or don’t), there is a stigma. Despite the increased attention and funding going into these programs right now, AP students and their parents seem to think those courses are for those kids over there.

But did you know that in Switzerland, about 70% of young people choose vocational education over traditional pre-college education? The most popular vocational track is Commercial Employee, which includes most business occupations as well as banking and some public sector occupations. One woman, who works for the Swiss Department of Research and Education, told me her father was actually disappointed when she told him she was university-bound — he had been very successful in banking after his Commercial Employee vocational education and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to go the same direction. Other pathways include Mechanical Engineer, Logistician, IT Technician, Social Care Worker and some of the more old-fashioned pathways, like Carpenter, Gardener and Farmer.

This year, I was hired to consult at a local high school with a strong Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. This school has about 1600 students enrolled in at least one CTE course from business to agriculture to photography. Why am I working with them? Because the school got low marks in their annual review. It turns out, their CTE students were not going on to work, school or military after graduation, nor were the programs doing a good job recruiting “non-traditional” students into certain CTE classes (ie. women in welding).

I’m there to help these students see the “sexier” side of agriculture, to help aspiring business leaders see the value in the business class and to help current vocational students understand and plan for the possibilities after high school.

I’ve written and spoken about my frustration with tracking these students and teaching them finite skills that have no broader application. I’m frustrated that many of these students are confined to the vocation they started in high school because they were not exposed to a variety of disciplines and options; these students (usually the at-risk, low achieving ones) are tracked in an effort to guarantee some level of stability, but they are often uninspired and unmotivated. I wonder what their future career mobility will look like with these kinds of limitations. Soon, I realized, my arguments were a bit one-sided. What about the high-achieving, AP students? Are they really better off because they are supposedly prepared for college? I certainly see many of those kids who are equally uninspired.

Many talk about the importance of market-oriented and jobs-oriented education and claim that education that does not lead to direct results is meaningless. These people would say that a general education does nothing for a student. I couldn’t disagree more.

In today’s world of job-hopping, students need to be exposed to a variety of disciplines in order to be the kind of generalists the pluralistic world needs.

However, there is also something very refreshing about an AP student stepping back and learning something more tangible and realistic — a sort of comma in their lives. This kind of exposure could be invaluable to a young person, just as a liberal arts education is critically important for a student in the trades.

While doing my research in Europe last summer, I came across a fascinating little Waldorf school in Kassel, Germany. While most secondary schools in Germany are either vocational or college preparatory in nature, this school does something quite unique by allowing students the opportunity to do both on one campus. Students can enroll in college preparatory courses, meaning they would graduate with both a vocational credential (Ausbildung) and a high school diploma that indicates readiness for college (Abitur). In the 10th grade, all of the students get to try out different vocations by shadowing for 2–3 weeks in different companies. This “sneak peek” allows students to 1.) see if a desired career is really what they thought it was, 2.) consider whether or not college would be a worthwhile pursuit on the way to their dream career/life and 3.) give students an idea of the kind of company they would enjoy interning with.

One woman I spoke with from the school said her son, who attended, was very unmotivated in his college preparatory classes, but he knew he wanted to eventually go to college. So, he took a year off to work full time, as part of the school’s vocational program. She said this infused him with renewed energy and he ended up going on to college (many in the program will choose to go into post-secondary trade school).

I can name several of my students who would jump at an opportunity like this. One school in our area offers a Jan Term, much like what many colleges offer, in order to allow students the opportunity explore a skill or topic they know nothing about for 2 weeks in January, upon return from the Holiday break. Students can take a course in auto mechanics, baking, card games or comedy. This kind of drastic break from the kind of learning students have begun to see as routine, lights them up and keeps them on their toes.

I recall one student I worked with who, along with being a dedicated member of the speech and debate team and a strong student academically, took welding. He ended up writing his college admissions essay about finding his “flow” during his welding class. He described the experience as a form of meditation that allowed him to clear his head and get into a zone — a state of being that his other classes didn’t allow him to enter into. He was later admitted to Reed College in Oregon and on his acceptance letter was a personal note from the Dean that read, “I hope you’ll find your ‘flow’ here at Reed”. This welder is going to one of the most traditional liberal arts schools in the country, where a good number of the students will go on to earn PhD’s.

Chetan Menaria

This kind of cross-disciplinary exposure is important not just for the kids who know they want to be welders, but for the kids who know they do not. Indeed, the students I work with who demonstrate the highest levels of stress, anxiety, self-doubt and uncertainty are those students enrolled in a hefty amount of AP courses. Perhaps the real challenge is not to load another AP course on these kids, but to push them in a different direction, even if just for a short time, we should encourage them to learn a trade — any skill, really — and it shouldn’t matter what it is, just whatever piques their interests. They’ll return to their liberal arts education with a new sense of purpose and renewed enthusiasm.

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