Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Not Honors Courses for All?

 Recently, Washington Post education columnist, Jay Matthews wrote a piece titled “Why not honors courses for all”?

The article generated many comments, (113 total) including a few of my own. 
(I used my “MisterRog” internet persona for my comments.)

My initial comment to Mr. Matthews’ idea included the following:

Why not career and technical education (CTE) courses for all?
Why not STEM courses (like Project Lead The Way) courses for all? 

In the CTE Pre-Engineering and CAD courses I teach, I see many "honor" students that struggle with applying knowledge from their "core" classes to projects that require thinking and creativity.

Perhaps it is time we reevaluate the "core" courses, how they are often taught in a vacuum, and what is really needed in our 21st century schools.
To which Jay Matthews himself responded:
These are good comments, and MisterRog raises an excellent question. Why not vocational and technical courses for all?

I have been reporting on this for a long time and it seems clear to the experts I have spoken to that the public education system is not equipped and will likely never be equipped to provide the kind of up to date, specialized training the employers need and want.

The businesses STRONGLY prefer that they do the technical training themselves, so they can keep up with rapid changes in procedures and equipment. They think the schools are equipped, however, if they take it seriously, to teach the academic skills that I mentioned in the piece---reading, writing, math, presentation and time management skills.
As a result, I posted a lengthy reply much of which featured a few excerpts from my testimony to the state board of education but also included:
Thanks for weighing in on my comment Mr. Matthews.

However, Career & Technical Education courses are much more than just providing specific skills and specialized training. As I alluded to in my earlier comment, CTE courses can give meaning and relevance to the "core" courses. 

Finally, the "experts" that participate in my program's advisory committee and other "experts" that I have met at industry conferences tell me that their best employees are the ones who had some type of technical training in high school.
In addition to my comments, a number of other readers posted additional comments in response to mine and taking Mr. Matthews to task for his.

shadwell1 wrote:
Jay, you are choosing to speak to the wrong "experts" and fail to report on any school that has an excellent vo-tech program. I sent you several links a while back; have you done any follow-up? Several vo-tech directors also informed you of the wonders of their programs. College credit, licensures, certifications, internships, job placements - all within the high school years. Open your eyes and ask the right people the right questions. I again challenge you to put out an APB of sorts to directors of excellent vo-tech programs and report your findings back to your readership and beyond.
mport84 wrote:
… Jay is speaking to the "experts" on vocational education his patrons send to him, and they are working on their project of destroying free public education services that compete with their online for-profit products. As a people, though, we can't afford to not-afford the things Jay's experts dismiss as too expensive. We have real kids with real lives.
 DHume1 wrote:
Jay seems to think that if we just challenged all kids, then they would rise to that challenge. And I do think some would rise if a few regular students were mixed in with those Honors kids.
However, once you have more than a few regular kids mixed in with those Honors kids, then it is no longer an Honors class; it turns into a regular college prep class with some Honors kids in it. In addition, there are whole groups of kids who learn at a much slower pace than traditional Honors students. What do we do with those kids? Let them fail in Honors classes? It would give them a head start in life--they would learn how to fail.
Mr. Matthews did not respond any further to that section of comments.

As for me, I am sticking by my gut reaction of it is time we reevaluate the "core" courses, how they are often taught in a vacuum, and examine what is really needed in our 21st century schools..


Kathleen Kosobud said...

MisterRogers: There is something fundamentally wrong with the rhetoric used in Jay Matthews' column and the responses, something about which I am all too acutely aware as a special education teacher. Implicit is the idea that Honors courses are for "smart" people and, by default, all other courses and "tracks" are for the "less smart".

Long ago, in my teens, I participated in a walkout at my high school to protest tracking of students. In those days, the tracking was racially, and socio-economically based. At that time, I wrote a letter to our local newspaper suggesting that courses should be chosen by students, not their school counselors. I took a lot of heat from teachers (!) for that. They were concerned that students might fail courses for which they were not prepared. It seemed, at the time, and still seems to be oxymoronic--they couldn't take the courses because they weren't prepared to take them, and the reason that they weren't prepared to take them was because they hadn't been allowed to take other courses that would have prepared them!!

Now, as far as "why not Honors Courses for all?"--isn't that what high and rigorous expectations are all about? And, if we really had high and rigorous expectations for all students, then wouldn't CTE courses have equal status and rigor? Wouldn't we expect all students to be able to apply what they learned to real world problems? Wouldn't Honors Courses be designed (as CTE courses are) around the idea of preparing students to meet the challenges of a 21st Century world?

Like you, I've had some great experiences with CTE courses. When one of my students was kicked out of physical science class for some infraction, I enrolled him in CTE courses as an alternative. The not so surprising result was that he could answer and explain a great deal more about physical science than his peers doing physical science homework in my special education support class.

As my mother says, "Clubs are for keeping other people out". I often believe that tracking is essentially the same thing--an elitist system for making sure that some people can assert their "superiority" over others.