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My Solution for LAUSD’s Failed Public Education Model: Bring Back Vocational Training!

EDUCATION POLITICS-Whether it's Donald Trump or those misguided souls continuing to set the course for public education "reform" at places like the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), what they have in common is the complete inability to deal with objective, quantifiable reality in explaining how they intend to achieve their goals -- or whether these should be their goals in the first place. 

My favorite unchallenged feel good lie about public education -- with literally no basis in fact although it remains an unattainable goal at LAUSD and elsewhere -- is that, "All students will be going to college." This flies in the face of reality: the total capacity of all U.S. colleges and universities amounts to only 30% of all high school graduates. College and universities could not accommodate LAUSD's specious goal, even if its graduating students had a mastery of all K-12 prior grade level standards -- which they do not. 

The fact that 75% of those arriving at junior colleges in California cannot even pass the prerequisite junior college entrance exam -- and are therefore forced into taking remedial rather than college level courses -- somehow fails to prompt anyone to question how they “got” these passing grades in high school, how they passed the high school exit exam, and how they received a diploma attesting to supposed K-12 mastery. 

We have arrived at a point of political correctness in which even a mention of easily quantifiable Latino and African American (premeditated) underachievement can get you labeled a racist. We are supposed to go along with the delusional belief that what remains an over 90% de facto segregated public education system (sixty-two years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that such a system is inherently unequal) can somehow change at LAUSD. The only thing that’s been unequivocally and predictably achieved is learned underachievement and inferiority among Latino and African American students. 

There's a saying that people who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. There was a time, starting at the end of the 19th century and going up through the 1960s, when public education was seen as the great social equalizer against inequality and poverty. A big part of public education’s achievement was the enforcing of academic excellence. This was done without today's completely self-delusional social promotion that destroys academic excellence. Our current policy has led to the failure of public education. And without white participation in the system, there seems to be no accountability. 

A big part of the once well-rounded public education system was a vibrant industrial arts and vocational program that provided professional training for the 70% of students who were not going to college or for those who had no way to support secondary education without a skilled profession that enabled them to pay for it. 

Automotive, wood, metal, electrical, print, and many other types of “shop” fulfilled this function. These courses created a real life context in which some students who might be struggling with English or math comprehension in a traditional classroom could find out just how smart they really were when they could master skills in shop and other vocational classes that offered practical application. 

But the magnificent potential of shop classes that taught valuable trades and skills was sabotaged in the 1970s and beyond. These industrial arts classes became an over-enrolled dumping ground for predominantly minority students who were disrupting other classes, stopping other students from learning. Rather than see that there was an understandable racial imbalance in these classes, the simplistic LAUSD administration choose to close all the shop classes, pushing the lie that all students were “going to college.” 

What these administrators understood – similar to the manner used by Donald Trump to sell his vacuous program -- is that human nature is such that Johnny's minority parents would rather be told that 9th-grade Johnny is going to be a doctor or a lawyer -- even if he doesn’t know his times tables -- than to be told the uncomfortable truth. 

So now we are faced with a reality where 60% of the mostly uneducated 2.4 million people behind bars in this country are African American or Latino, which, unless you are a racist, can only be attributed to a complete and utter failure to provide them with the educational skills needed to be gainfully and legally employed contributors to our society. 

At a cost of $78,000 a year to deal with school dropouts in the juvenile justice system and then comparable costs once they graduate into our now privatized for-profit prison system, shouldn’t we try to bring back what once was a vibrant industrial arts and vocational education program in our middle and high schools? 

When the Bernie Sanders campaign talks about a new ‘New Deal’ to rebuild America's infrastructure, does it occur to anyone that the welding, electrical, plumbing, woodworking, masonry, and other trades no longer have the skilled workforce that will be needed? To become a state certified welder -- a profession in which there is a critical shortage -- it takes about six months of training to be able to pass the state exam and begin work at a $40,000 a year trade. 

All around Los Angeles there are richly constructed buildings and monuments to our heritage that are now in advanced decay. How is it that older countries like France have learned to maintain their heritage, realizing that doing so is fundamental to their society's continued advancement and well-being. 

Something as mundane as LADWP’s $1000 subsidy for more efficient pool motor replacement program or a serious conversion to residential solar panels that would supply most of our carbon-free electrical needs, would go a long way toward finding gainful employment for young people who are unnecessarily swept up in the criminal injustice system. 

What stands in the way of this no-brainer winning program that could help develop the skilled workforce we need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure are vested corporate interests and the school administrators they hand pick to maintain a failing system of public education. At the base of such a system that is built on corporate greed is the truly racist not-so-secret belief that Latino and African American students can't learn. It's a simple choice: people or profits.

 

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.