Photo: Graur Codrin (click photo to link)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Journey into Dyslexia", Standardized Education, and the Need for "Shop Class"

I'm watching this scene on HBO right now -- Steven J. Walker who manufactures wood pellets (to fuel a special type of woodstove) is telling the story of his painful experience as a kid with dyslexia, except for high school shop class and a great shop teacher. He breaks into sobbing tears as he tells how the school district discontinued shop classes and sold off all the equipment, which ultimately leads to his starting the pellet business. Well, tech ed has come a long way, but the emotional attachment that this man conveys is the one constant.
The documentary is "Journey into Dyslexia", now showing on HBO. It's a collage of authoritative, narrative and personal perspectives on learning disabilities involving reading. One of the talking heads is Guinevere Eden, a neuro-scientist whose studies of brain imaging confirm differences in how people with dyslexia process the written word.  Another is David Connor, a disability studies scholar, who discusses inclusive education as a civil right, and suggests that although others may conceive of dyslexia as "disability" he prefers to consider it a natural part of human variance. Still another is Jonathan Mooney, who engages the rebel in me as he rails at the dismissive attitudes of the many unsympathetic adults with whom he dealt while in school. The overall theme of the documentary is that this kind of human variance (dyslexia) leads to such positive phenomena as entrepreneurial risk-taking, creativity, toughness and perseverance and other great things. But, I notice that the people with dyslexia featured in this documentary also talk about how painful it was to grow up with dyslexia. I know from my own experiences (as a teacher and a mother) that many kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities are not nearly so resilient. I think I should probably re-watch this film and seriously consider its narrative, and counter-narratives.
When my son entered high school (he has language-based learning disabilities), he and his one best friend, a boy with autism, ended up at two different schools. He was crushed. The deal I made with him was that if he could successfully make it through a year at the big high school (a huge adjustment in itself), I'd entertain the idea of his "dual-enrollment" the following year at the big high school he had to go to and the small alternative high school where his friend attended. Dual enrollment meant that he would use his lunch hour to take a bus from one school to the other.  It meant that he had to take care of responsibilities at each school while he was there.  And, it meant that he would have to manage his obligations at each school with limited support from teachers. As an incentive for toughing the year out, we went through the course catalog for the big high school and picked some CTE classes that were in areas of his interests. So he happily took Computer Assisted Design (CAD), TV production, Know Your Auto, and Intro to Electronics.  For his freshman year, he only took three of the four core academics to make room for the CTE courses.  That year, he passed all his classes, and discovered that he had become a leader and self-directed learner in CAD. (The last time I recalled having teachers make favorable remarks about his school accomplishments was when his third grade teacher told me that he was the "go-to" artist for drawing sharks and jellyfish during their unit on oceans. Kids with all manners of learning disabilities often experience a huge praise deficit. Rick Lavoie's video-talks give a great deal of insight about this.)

The following year, even though his 9th grade science teacher recommended he take Intro to Biology (scornfully called "Science for Dummies" by my special education colleagues), we suggested that he be allowed to take "Foundations of Science" at the alternative school, instead. This interdisciplinary, experiential science course had kids "doing science" and reporting out on their findings, using a variety of technologies, and much more tantalizing than "Science for Dummies". He also took courses in Film Studies at the alternative school and, the following year, transferred out of the district and into a technical middle college at our local community college. He achieved a high school diploma, an Associate's degree, and tech certification in digital media production at the middle college, and finished a B.A. in the field at a neighboring university. He now works part-time as a camera-person for a community television station, and is building a solid resume of his experience.

Career and Technical Education saves lives. There is no doubt in my mind that this is true.

Unfortunately, in this age of standardization, core curriculum, and a push to make all children "college ready", CTE has taken real hits.  Here in Michigan, the enrollment reports for CTE courses have been on a downward trend since 2003 (the data only goes through 2007, currently). People in the field report that each year, there are fewer enrollments, and fewer programs in the high schools.  And they attribute the decline to a devaluation of skilled labor--the kinds of skills that are taught in CTE programs.  The other day, on the companion blog to the public radio program "on Being" was a post "The Work We Value, The Intelligence We Ignore: Is the Work that Made America Great Valued Any Longer? It features the comments of Mike Rowe, the creator and host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.  In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Rowe said: "I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce." It's not that we don't need the skilled trades, it's that we have so devalued them in the rush to make all children "college-ready", that kids who would benefit from learning their academic content through hands-on, authentic work experiences are no longer able to carve out time in their schedules to take these courses.

On the MAISA website, there are samples of what districts have done to make math courses more accessible, and there are samples of courses and curriculum crosswalks that show how academic content can be embedded in CTE with resulting student success. I've focused on the math, since this field has been dominated by a very rigid and didactic structure--the sequence of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 seems to be unshakable--not so much because they are "naturally" sequential and dependent on each other, but because of some sort of religious adherence to this being the "one right way" to teach mathematics.

Derrick Fries, Ph.D., a professor at Eastern Michigan University, has collected data that shows a strong association between poor student performance in 8th grade math and those likely to fail to complete Algebra 2.  Since a Michigan diploma is contingent on completion of a semester of Algebra 2, this means that we can predict which students are at high risk of dropping out, or failing to attain a diploma.  If we can alter these outcomes by offering more tangible, work-related courses with the core academic content embedded, we can improve graduation rates.  If Mike Rowe is correct, we also are filling a gap in the labor pool by creating a new generation of skilled laborers.

We know that young people who fail to complete high school are more than likely to face lives of poverty.  We also know that the dropout rates for students with disabilities are disproportionately higher than for the general population. And, we also know that many students with a variety of disabilities flourish in classes where they are able to learn by doing.  CTE classes are prime examples of learning by doing.

I repeat, Career and Technical Education saves lives.


MisterRogers said...

WOW! Excellent piece Kathleen!!!

I know as a student myself, it was drafting classes that finally clicked on the light bulb to help me understand algebra are geometry.

It seems that the "C" in the MMC, (Michigan Merit Curriculum), has come to stand for "Courses", as in Michigan Merit COURSES.

Plus with the push toward so much standardization in the core "courses" it becomes almost impossible for CTE to integrate "the core" curriculum into CTE classes in order for students to receive core credit.

I hope people realize the importance of CTE before it is too late. But the sad fact is with all the "reforms" pushing for everyone to go to college, CTE is almost a four letter word.

Part of me is tempted to create a button that says "College is for people that can't handle CTE".

Kathleen said...

Dale: I'm sure Mike Rowe would agree. I joke that I believe electricity is magic, but I can re-wire a lamp; and I often rue my fear of circular saws, but I can do minor carpentry with hand tools, and a drill.

Too bad our Michigan Merit Curriculum doesn't require "Emergency Household Repair" so that our kids learn how to turn off the water supply, use plungers, reset or replace a fuse in a circuit panel/fuse box, put out kitchen fires, sew buttons and patches, etc. It would be great to see our kids express confidence that they could do "first responder" repairs, at least until a true "pro from Dover" could completely restore whatever broken household item to its former working state.

Of course, I come from a generation that still orders replacement parts to repair broken household goods, and can't understand the idea of throwing slightly broken items away.