Some professional educators are like ship's captains who, the moment whitecaps appear, run full sail toward the nearest harbor. Once there, they proclaim the safety of the seas.
They deal with controversy by surrounding and choking it into submission with insider jargon or "studies," then form a committee and move on to another agenda item.
Jim Wilson refuses to let his personal "controversy" be relegated. His cause is hallooing attention to the lack of vocational education in schools, and he's not willing to settle for a committee report or study.
His goal is to use education - job-skills instruction - to keep young people off the streets and out of jails.
James C. Wilson, Ed.D., 70, is an ex-administrator in the San Diego Unified School District. Until his retirement in 2003, he was coordinator of the Regional Occupational Program, or ROP. He lives in Scripps Ranch with his wife, Carol, a retired teacher.
He is author of "Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration?" available on Amazon. He also has a blog, coherenteducation.com.
Building on his ROP experience, he became convinced that students, especially minorities, are being deprived of a practical future in the workplace by being channeled into academic programs where they don't fit.
He says, "In the past, my office created a dozen career academies for vocational education. High schools used to have programs in automotive, metal, wood, business, marketing and home economics. Now, few high schools have even one of those programs."
Of San Diego Unified's current performance on vocational ed, he says: "It's a disaster! We're feeding kids to gangs."
He says, "Because politicians and ethnic advocates push the idea of college as the educational ideal, schools respond by stacking the curricula with academic courses. Several years ago, San Diego Unified chose to require all students to take classes designed for admission to the University of California. This unrealistic requirement puts impossible demands on low-achieving students and crowds out career technical education."
Wilson says in the four years since that required academic curriculum has been in place, district records show that the number of San Diego high school students taking even one vocational class has declined by 1,500.
He adds that among those taking vocational studies, the academic demands usually leave room for only one such class.
"No printing company is going to hire a kid just because he took one printing class. For occupational education to be meaningful, students need a sequence of at least three classes."
Wilson says a million kids drop out of high school each year in this country, and that 70 percent of 2.5 million prison inmates were dropouts. No coincidence, says he.
"The correlation is clear: If we could reduce the dropout rate, we could reduce crime."
Wilson says not everyone can be, or wants to become, a brain surgeon. Not everyone is fitted to be an accountant. And some who could become skilled welders are denied the opportunity by lack of training.
Thirty years ago, Wilson says, the emphasis started to shift to college prep - at the neglect of the hands-on vocational learning that helps ready students for blue-collar work.
He wants to see the proliferation of "career academies" that teach practical skills and are located on high school campuses. Academically marginal youths can be trained to make $80,000 per year fixing cars. That's the best antidote for poverty and crime, he says.
"High schools today are aimed at college preparation across the student body, so if you're not doing well in that curriculum, you quickly become lost.
"Not only are we giving those students inappropriate courses of study, we're abusing them. They leave school with no skills, so they misbehave and become embittered. They also don't want to go into adult education or a community college because they've learned to hate school."
He says the national average IQ of 100 could be a benchmark for possibly diverting students into practical-skills education. Below 100, vocational training is indicated. Above, it's possibly an academic-focused path.
I point out that equating low IQ with certain students, including minorities, will make a lot of people nervous. "Could you be accused of academic ghettoizing?"
He is undaunted by the question because he says it is far less important than the fact of so many kids being failed.
"What I do have the solution for is for the majority of kids, the 70 percent who are not genuine college material. They need to be prepared to go to work. If we don't provide it, they fall out and are likely thrown into the streets with nothing to show for it.
"The real issue, mainly for the black community, is they're not sharing in the economic pie. Many Hispanic people, too, they work hard at these low-level jobs, but their (undeveloped) skill levels don't allow them to get better jobs."
Wilson says only 23 percent of jobs require a college degree, but for those who compete for the remainder, there's a dismaying lack of necessary skills.
Badly taught in school, if at all, are "soft skills." Wilson ticks some off: Get to work on time, come back from break and lunch on time, don't abuse sick leave, have clean clothes and good hygiene, be polite, don't be addicted to a cellphone, work well with a diverse range people - black, brown, white, gays.
When students don't see a place for themselves in the classroom, they lose interest and incentive. He remembers a walk through a San Diego inner-city high school 10 years ago.
"Half the kids weren't there. They didn't come to school."
Conversely, he remembers: "We taught phlebotomy at Lincoln High School as part of an ROP program back in the day. Years later, I went through Kaiser (Permanente) and the gal drawing my blood was a graduate of that program at Lincoln.
"One other time, I had a principal come up to me to say she was a graduate of our child development program, which trained kids to work in preschools. This woman went on from that to become an educator.
"You should have seen parents come out to see the nurse assistants graduate.
"We had a food service program at Morse High School, and all the kids got jobs.
"Here in San Diego, what if we brought back biotech drug manufacturing and we prepared young people to work in those factories? They'd earn 25 bucks an hour."
Today's situation is worsened, he says, by the departure of community colleges from their original purpose - vocational training. Now when students enroll, they are hit with placement tests that throw them into English and math remedial courses that they've learned to hate. No surprise to Wilson that a good number of those students flunk or drop out.
It's pointed out that academic students depend on community colleges for the first two years of college because of the expense of four-year universities.
His answer is to reduce the cost of attending university. Well, lots of luck with that.
Vocational ed might be the answer for underachieving students, but I can imaging guidance counselors shivering at the idea of telling that to parents who have dreamed of their child achieving a college degree.
"Well," Wilson says, "what you have to do is sit down with the parents at the eighth-grade level, because at that point you already know the child's test scores and grades. If he or she is not doing well, then yes, she should be in a career academy."
He says that if parents are insistent on an academic course for an under-achieving child, let him or her enroll in AVID, a program mainly for "underrepresented" kids. Put them in chemistry or algebra and see how it goes.
I say to Wilson that omnipresent grade inflation can mask underachievement. Feel-good A's given out like candy can let a kid sail over the speed bumps thinking he or she is a scholar.
He says the imposition of nationwide performance standards, most recently espoused by President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, should help counteract grade inflation.
(Why am I washed over by a flood of skepticism?)
Wilson repeats his mantra that the objective of high school should be to serve the needs of all youths, not just those bound for college. He believes that every street-corner knot of angry young men and women should be an embarrassment to the schools that turned them out with no job future except futility.
If Wilson's criticism of the educational establishment shakes that beehive, well, I don't see him running for cover.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]