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Response to "If da Vinci designed our schools"

Jul 14, 2015

The following article was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on June 28, 2015. James Denova, the author, shines a bright light on a serious problem that is ingrained in the current educational system. Vocational education students are perceived to be academically inferior and segregated in vocational technical schools. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and everyone can contribute. The student who struggles with a quadratic equation (honestly, who didn’t?) might be great at any number of the other multiple intelligences. Let’s figure out a way to include and challenge all students in our K-12 goal to help each generation be productive members of society. I agree with Mr. Denova - to integrate, not segregate. 

[Tom DeMarco, Director of Business Development and Customer Service at OnHand Schools]

If da Vinci designed our schools

Posted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 6/28/2015
By James Denova

If we conjured up Leonardo da Vinci and asked him to critique our public school system, he would be appalled by the way our high schools segregate students according to the “academic” and the “vocational.” Da Vinci was a master of aesthetics, yet he invented and made things. More importantly, he saw these inclinations as parts of a whole; he was the master of syncretism.

Somehow, we have managed to go in the opposite direction when it comes to high school. Our out-of-date approach isolates the college-bound from vocational students in a way that stigmatizes and undervalues vocational students and threatens their future success in higher education and the workplace. It also denies college-bound students useful grounding in real-world applications of things they learn in school.

Forty years ago, Pennsylvania established vocational schools, now known as career and technical centers. These schools were envisioned to be trade schools for students going into the workplace after high school, which made sense at a time when there were abundant, well-paying factory jobs that did not require post-secondary training.

But times have changed and technology has transformed the workplace. The high school diploma is no longer the entry-level credential for a meaningful career. Most new jobs will require at least an associate degree in technical fields such as design manufacturing, robotics and electronics, and students will need the critical thinking, writing and communications skills offered by a well-rounded technical and liberal arts education. High school technical education should therefore be the “college–prep” course of study that provides learning opportunities of equal measure to those students deemed “academic.”

Unfortunately, many vocational schools are locked in the past. They are not preparing students for post-secondary education, and the problem is structural.

Vocational schools draw students from groups of participating school districts. Students who have been perceived as “not college material” spend half a day at their home high schools and then are bused to a special school to learn a trade. These schools are governed and funded by the same cluster of participating school districts. Herein lies a fundamental conflict of interest.

How can participating school districts be asked to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, faculty who can teach advanced courses and facilities that are outside of their districts? All school districts are financially strained, and their leaders are not inclined to send money and promising students out of their schools.

Consequently, we have a segregated school model rooted in the 20th century: The promising stay in their high schools, receive a well-rounded education and go to college; less promising students go to trade schools where academics are diluted and the technology is frequently out of date. To quote one area superintendent, “Why would we make our vocational schools more rigorous? If we did, we wouldn’t have any place to send the kids nobody wants in their (sic) school!”

The grammatical error is that of the superintendent, not the writer, and vocational schools were never intended to be receptacles for “undesirable” students. Sadly, class prejudice has become an overt and quite acceptable bigotry.

The result is a dichotomized educational system where students are profiled by class, put on a bus and sent to a special school for part of the school day. Segregated school systems didn’t work in the South prior to Brown v. Board of Education and they don’t work now.

Ironically, we don’t see the same disparate rigor or prejudice in higher education. At most colleges and universities, technical studies, such as engineering, are not seen as inferior to or of lesser respectability than philosophy or French literature.

I believe that the segregation of schools and student groups will never allow us to overcome the stigma and inequity of high school technical education. We have to look at models of integration that incorporate college preparation in technical courses of study as well as the humanities.

Emerging models are doing this. Nationally, STEAM initiatives (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and the Maker Movement are bringing new prestige to design manufacturing and new interest in making things. Locally, Children’s Museum Executive Director Jane Werner has envisioned and built a world-class Make Shop, where children use a number of digital and 3D tools to make things from all manner of materials and objects. Manufacturing is cool again, and Make Shop replicas are finding their way into public schools.

At Chartiers Valley High School, a multi-disciplinary teacher team led by Superintendent Brian White took a national college preparatory engineering curriculum, Project Lead the Way, and added an advanced manufacturing lab that allows students to obtain additional certifications in material fabrication. Advanced-placement students work in teams with technical students to design and prototype machines. It is not only STEAM in action, it is a true model of integrating students who otherwise would be relegated to separate (but not quite equal) schools, and it integrates art, science and manufacturing.

In Butler, high school physics teacher Tad Campagna redesigned a learning space to be used by all students and teacher teams working in tandem. With a small STEAM grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, he converted a large open space into a multi-purpose lab with shared manufacturing equipment and a hydroponic garden.

In this lab, small groups of students study science, industrial design, carpentry, metal work and biology at the same time. Teachers from different disciplines are teaching in teams — breaking down the barriers of class among students and disciplines among teachers. It was gratifying to see the vocational students design a kayak that beat the AP physics team. STEAM can overcome class bigotry, bring equity to education and help all students think in new ways.

Segregation never leads to equity. It is time to apply the da Vinci effect and develop models of rigorous education that integrate the humanities, arts, science and technical skills for all students in the same learning environment.

James Denova is vice president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation (jdenova@benedum.org).

Category: Commentary

About The Author

Ashley Bartko