Skilled Trades Are Not Chopped Liver

Among others, this blog is being written for all the high school students out there who like to work with their hands. It’s for my Tomas M., a small, skinny boy who always seemed too small for his sweaters. Tomas nailed the ugliness of our testing culture and college-for-all agenda with one simple line:

“Woodworking is the only class where I don’t feel stupid.”

I was teaching him Spanish at the time, but I did not take offense. He did not test well and he was being tested all over, all the time.

Our Tomases need to be respected for their talents. If they have reached their sophomore year of high school still operating at a mid-elementary level in mathematics – and our own test scores thoroughly demonstrate this phenomenon remains part of America’s educational landscape – these kids deserve a break. They deserve a set of vocational options that take advantage of their strengths.

American public education has not been supporting vocational education. We have not been supporting our electricians, stoneworkers, masons, glazers, painters, cabinetmakers, machinists, and welders. We have not valued our skilled artisans, craftspeople, and technicians, those men and women who maintain our MRI technology, and keep our oil platforms and bridges safe. An air-conditioning repairman provides a vital, even sometimes life-saving, service in the high heat of summer.

When educational reformers hammer and hammer home the idea that all students must be prepared for college, and insist that all students take a college-preparatory set of courses that don’t leave time for true vocational and technical education,  we devalue the contributions of essential service providers. We subtly and implicitly put down the interests and abilities of students who would rather fix cars than write papers. We add to the confusion and misery of young adults who know they don’t want to go to college, but cannot think of a “respectable” alternative that will not make them feel or seem like underachievers and, eventually, second-class citizens.

P.S. Yes, I know it’s mostly called career and technical education today, but that’s part of the problem. Too many districts changed the name. And then they let the auto-repair and woodworking teachers go.




Thinkers, Feelers, Thinker-Feelers, and None of the Above — Let’s Not Trust Resilience

“That’s why we have to train kids to be resilient,” a teacher said, referring to my last post.

I feel compelled to respond to this quick answer to the problem of testing run amok. Teaching resilience and growth mindsets to our kids has a place, but we cannot keep running up from the lake with buckets of water to put out the fires we are starting in the first place. Yes, students who learn coping techniques for stress are better off than students who are left without that support. But the problem with looking to resilience training and growth mindset as antidotes to a stressful learning climate rests in the infinite variety of kids themselves.

Not all kids can shut down emotionally, but a surprising number can. In Myers-Briggs terms, some kids are thinkers, some are feelers and a percentage hover in the middle. Some go down obediently. Some fight back against the injustice of America’s inappropriate tests and standards. Some judge themselves wanting while others perceive they are playing a loaded game and decide not to play.

Current wisdom wants us to believe that resilience can be cultivated through use of positive-feedback loops, and in my experience that concept stands up to scrutiny – to a degree. The girl who gives herself positive self-messages has a better chance of standing up to the test onslaught than more pessimistic counterparts. “I will study harder and I will do better on the next quiz” certainly beats “I hate this stupid class and I can’t do math.”

Eduhonesty: We have to stop trying to use behavioral strategies to “fix” kids as a means of undoing damage we may be doing to those kids. How much stress is too much stress? Does the stress from testing for as much as 20% of a year ever provide enough useful information to justify the emotional roller-coaster from that testing?

I am not criticizing other educators. Until I retired, I worked constantly to boost self-esteem, create growth mindsets, and teach kids to give themselves positive self-messages. But I also watched certain kids sinking, as their hope fled and their self-images crumbled.

We didn’t start the fire…
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

We are trying to fight it.

We are trying to fix our kids.

We should be reshaping their world — and shutting down this quest for excessive amounts of marginally useless data — instead.

No Place to Hide

Even the most sensitive teachers cannot keep some students from feeling like failures today. Students see stronger students taking fun electives, like pottery and robotics, while their own extra, remedial math and English classes emphasize how far behind they have fallen. We tell students over and over again what we want – good test scores – and they are fully capable of recognizing their failure to earn these scores. Plus we give them their test results, week after week, year after year.

In my final year of teaching, I was obliged to lose class periods to go over MAP™ results with each individual, middle school student so that students could figure out what might have gone wrong and make plans to improve. I knew what had gone wrong. My students were bilingual students and they were unable to read many test questions. Some of my students were also clear that lack of English-language learning was holding their scores down.

But the scary part of the MAP™ review process came from other students who discounted that language barrier as they said, “I’m not good at school,” or “I can’t do math, Ms. Turner,” or, worst of all, “I’m just dumb, Ms. Turner.”

Eduhonesty: Hello out there? This post should be passed on to many educational reformers. What happens to those kids who fail, fail, fail? Especially when we push them into repeated introspection after the fact? At least some of them decide that whatever it takes to succeed, they obviously lack this mysterious thing. Those kids who conclude they are too dumb to succeed may be impossible to pull back into the game, too.

Hope is not an inexhaustible resource. For some kids, hope only flickers off and on, if hope puts in any appearance at all. When the assaults keep coming month after month, hope can be extinguished. I have watched eyes becoming duller as efforts became more erratic. All the support and pep talks in the world cannot rescue less-resilient kids hugging the bottom in the testing game.

To emphasize a point I have made in previous posts: These are not “tests kids are failing” as much as “students we are failing” — and some of these failure rates have reached levels that can only be termed absurd. For example, New York State’s 2016 PARCC results could easily result in legions of kids abandoning hope.  In 2016, ELA scores for grades 3-8 rose, but those scores remain a debacle.  The “percentage of  students in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level (Levels 3 and 4) increased by 6.6 percentage points to 37.9, up from 31.3 in 2015.” That’s still around one in three. In math, the percentage of students who scored at the proficient level went up one whole point to 39.1 percent, up from 38.1 percent in 2015.*

When less than four out of ten students are passing a test, the problem is not with the students. But our kids are only kids. Do they understand that inappropriate tests should not affect their view of themselves?

I think the answer can be neatly captured in the words, “I’m just dumb, Mrs. Turner.”




Raining on Dreams — Sharing the Odds with Our Kids

On the list of statements that make me want to tear out at least some of my hair: “You know some people make lots of money playing video games, Mrs. Turner.” That statement can be added to, “I am going to play for the NFL.” Or NBA, or NHL, or Houston Astros, or some foreign soccer team. (U.S. soccer teams still don’t pay well enough.) Alternatives include, “I am going to be a sportscaster in Chicago,” or “I am going to be a famous rapper,” I have heard these and similar statements too many times. Many middle school and even high school kids have little real concept of the future coming at them. Schools don’t always help, as teachers and counselors try to avoid raining on unrealistic dreams.

I understand that desire to support the hopes and dreams of our students. In elementary school, I’d just smile and let the early NFL dream go, maybe with a few comments about getting ready for college so the NFL will be able to see your talent. By late elementary school, I might talk about getting a good education in case you hurt your knee or something.

But by middle school and high school , educational professionals ought to stop smiling and giving unconditional or lightly-qualified support to unrealistic dreams. The number of players in the NFL as a percentage of the approximate number of college football players might be a place to start. In general, what are the numbers behind the dream? How many video players are there? How many make money playing video games? How many could support a house, car and family on that money?

Unrealistic dreams lead directly to unrealistic actions. That’s our problem. School may matter only minimally to that boy who plans to be in the NBA. He intends to keep his eligibility, but especially in academically-underperforming schools, high school eligibility in the form of “C” grades and above may not indicate any level of learning close to college-readiness. Video-game-boy (or girl, but I have heard this comment from multiple boys and not a single girl) may not see any use in formal education at all.

Eduhonesty: It’s legitimate to rain on dreams. Sometimes, we teachers and educational professionals must adult. It’s adult to rain on dreams, when those dreams appear to be true longshots — and don’t offer a reasonable fallback option if the dream fails.

I’d never slow down a would-be astronaut or brain surgeon. Instead, I’d point to Mae Jemison who turned her B.S. in chemical engineering and later medical studies into a platform for journeying into space. If Mae had stopped at chemical engineering, she would have had a sturdy rung to use to climb the ladder into middle-class comfort, but she went on to become a physician and from there entered the early history of space travel. She had picked a direction with the potential to branch off into many lives of comfort and fulfillment.

I am not saying we should never support that boy who wants to enter professional sports. An exceptional high school basketball player should be encouraged to go for his dreams. But we owe students the knowledge to make informed choices. We owe them a truthful assessment of the work involved. In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell shared his belief that around 10,000 hours of practice were required to become expert at any activity as demanding as professional sports. That number might flex somewhat, but tossing a ball around a few afternoons a week or even attending high school practice will not get our would-be players out onto professional fields. Kids need to hear this truth from us. They ought to read Gladwell, too.

We owe students a best effort at explaining the world outside of high school — not the world we want for them, but the world they will enter. We can start with 1,696 NFL players divided by 1,085,272 high school football players =  0.0016 chance of going from high school football to the NFL.* I’d make sure students understood how tiny a piece of the pie 0.0016 represents, too.

Feel-good helps our young elementary dreamers and I am all for encouraging dreams — just not pipe-dreams in adolescents. While “You can be whatever you want to be” sounds great and is a feel-good strategy in the short-run, that short-run ends too soon. Our students graduate and move on. They have no choice. When the only plan they have is “NFL star,” only in the very rarest cases, do they have any plan at all. For 99.99% of our football players, the “NFL star” plan is only slightly more realistic than “first veterinarian on Mars.” We adults know that. Our kids need to know that too. I’d be willing to end my talk with that aspiring NFL player by explaining Malcolm’s 10,000 hours, expressing the belief that a player might achieve his dream through fierce dedication and effort.

But the actual odds should be out there for kids to understand, front and center.

*Sources: and, Football Remains No. 1 H.S. Sport in USA By Terence P. Jeffrey | August 26, 2016 | 5:07 PM EDT