21st Century shop class: Promoting equity and employment

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A Georgia high school has revamped its technical education courses (otherwise known as “shop class”) to be more helpful and more equitable. Less auto shop, more 3D printing. Less tracking, more entrepreneurship. Some schools in Minnesota are taking similar steps, and it would be good to see that trend continue.

The school in Georgia is majority-Latino Dalton High, and it recently got The Atlantic’s profile treatment. It would have been easy for the school to just drop its technical education program, what with funding declines at the state and local level. Instead, it doubled down.

In the process, the school’s leaders and staff stayed cognizant of the history of vocational and technical classes. Those courses have too often been used in discriminatory “tracking” approaches that wind up funneling students of color away from rigor and opportunity. At the same time, the discipline has the potential to offer students from all backgrounds a path to a decent life. An associate’s degree in a technical field can often earn a worker more than a bachelor’s in the liberal arts, for example.

At least based on The Atlantic’s coverage, the effort (undertaken as part of a wholesale reworking of the school) has been successful. Technical education classes were overhauled to meet current industry specifications, received an infusion of marketing and entrepreneurship skills, and were included in an interdisciplinary STEM curriculum. Initial academic trends are good, with test score gaps narrowing.

During the same time frame, some schools in Minnesota have been adopting similar approaches. 3D printers are showing up in more shop classes (in part because Eden Prairie-based Stratasys knows a sales opportunity when it sees one). Schools are reevaluating the role of technical education, and local employers have been known to take an interest as well.

Of course, this doesn’t come for free. One of the reasons Dalton High School was able to improve its technical education program was the availability of state grants specifically for that discipline. Absent those grants and the school’s current leadership, it’s easy to see the opposite decision get made: Cut the program. Without a direct and obvious connection to tested subjects, technical education can easily end up on the chopping block. (Never mind that it offers a practical, concrete way for students to apply skills from other areas.)

We need to encourage more schools to develop their “non-core” offerings with an eye on rigor and equity. It’s clearly achievable in district schools, but they need the resources and the leadership to make it happen.