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The Maker Movement: Tinkering With the Idea That College Is for Everyone
Posted on May 15, 2014
By Mike Rose
The last few decades have witnessed the rise of a “college for all” ethos in the United States, a belief in the economic and social virtues of encouraging increasing numbers of young people toward postsecondary education. On average, a college degree yields higher income over one’s working life, and this is especially true for people coming from poorer families. Recently, however, there has been push-back from some economists and policy analysts who argue, correctly, that half of the students who begin college never complete it, and can rack up significant debt in the process. Also there are people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who are driving a cab or working at Starbucks. This is unfortunate, the argument goes, for there are good jobs available that require training and possibly an occupational certificate, but not necessarily a two-year—and certainly not a four-year—degree. These include so-called midlevel technical jobs in health care or manufacturing as well as skilled trades and certain service jobs. They pay well and can’t be outsourced. Billy has to come to your house to clear your drain.
Another reaction to this focus on a college degree comes from educators who emphasize the wide variability in students’ interests and aptitudes. Some students find little fulfillment in the traditional academic curriculum, no matter how well taught, but might thrive in a vocationally directed course of study. And there are social commentators who question the value of white-collar work that has gotten increasingly abstract and disembodied and call for a reinvigorated contact with the physical world—the kind of connection provided by the Makers Movement and by the crafts and skilled trades.
But how good an education can vocational education—now called career and technical education or CTE—provide? The advocates for CTE see it as a pathway to solid employment. Yet, while there certainly have been successful programs and dedicated shop teachers in the past, the sad fact is that over the history of VocEd, working-class kids have been disproportionately tracked into the vocational curriculum, and it has generally not provided a very good education or led to good jobs. Billy got his training through work, not school.
Beginning in the early 1990s, there has been a significant effort to reform vocational education, to beef up its academic content and to provide better pathways to both postsecondary education and to employment. High schools, for example, developed “career academies” whereby students could be introduced to an occupation (from the arts to health care) while taking academic courses that drew on occupational topics and materials. School politics and reforms are a complex affair, however; while career academies and other experiments were unfolding, other elements of career and technical education—the traditional shop classes particularly—were being cut. CTE has taken a huge hit over the past several decades, its suitability for our current economy and, no small matter, its expense questioned—it costs a lot to maintain state-of-the-art labs and workshops. Where CTE programs did survive, they often were reoriented toward health care, high-tech or, more recently, given a “green” focus.
But the reconsideration of college-for-all, the recession and government investment in workforce development have combined to produce a resurgence of CTE in some areas, particularly for jobs considered to be part of the new economy.
One popular model frequently in the news is a partnership whereby an industry teams up with a local community college to train students for high-demand jobs in that industry—specialized computer-assisted manufacturing, for example. These programs are understandably popular, for they are short term and provide a pathway to employment, a godsend in communities wracked by the recession. A concern is whether the training is narrow or broad in scope, providing knowledge and skill for people to move into other kinds of work if the specific job they trained for becomes obsolete.
This concern about a more comprehensive education is being widely discussed in CTE circles today: What does it mean to be educated in a rapidly changing work environment? Are we providing adequate knowledge and skill for students to continue learning, to have a future orientation to the world of work? The best CTE (or older VocEd) programs I’ve seen help students become more literate and numerate and teach processes and techniques in ways that develop broader habits of mind. An automotive technology program I visited recently had students learning about diesel, hybrid and compressed natural gas vehicles along with the ’98 Dodge—and the program emphasized problem solving, principles and concepts, understanding machines as systems. “The textbook gives you the mechanisms,” a student explains, “their function and their purpose. But our teacher, he gets us to see that when x fails, then y fails. Man, that’s a whole different story.” Another student, studying to be a bus mechanic, characterizes his program’s approach toward repair: “You’re like a doctor. You use all your senses, and you also ask the driver, what’d you hear? Feel? Smell? And you put that together.”
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