While I appreciate the space that your November issue (“Vallas voc-ed plans spark debate”) devoted to the important issue of vocational education, I am writing to address Catalyst’s unjustified criticism of the trustees’ Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and the Reform Board’s vocational education initiatives.
Catalyst’s article focuses on two points. First, according to the article, the administration did not pay sufficient attention to “process” before embarking on a makeover of existing vocational programs. This supposed shortcoming is also the theme of your “From the Editor” column. Second, the article claims that we have not been listening to the “experts.” Both criticisms are misguided.
As far as process is concerned, the proposal for restructuring vocational education is part of the larger high school redesign plan, which was released Dec. 6. Both board employees and members of numerous outside organizations sat on the high school redesign project’s steering committee. Moreover, the vocational education task force included representatives from the high schools, school reform groups, foundations, community organizations, central office and private industry. This plan will not be formally submitted to the trustees until after a series of public hearings have been held, a practice that has been followed with many of the board’s other major policy initiatives.
Undoubtedly, there are some who would prefer to continue to endlessly debate the minutiae of every proposal rather than take action. But we are unwilling to “fiddle while Rome burns.” Most fair-minded people would agree that the trustees are obtaining sufficient public input on this major initiative. Indeed, as I am sure you are aware, the Tribune, Sun Times and Daily Southtown all praised the draft high school plan in recent editorials, and specifically commended the board’s efforts to obtain broad-based input from interested parties.
Regarding the experts, one of the many anonymous critics quoted in the Catalyst piece accuse the new vocational education plan of flying in the face of the “latest thinking.” While the trustees have always been open to expert opinion, and will continue to be, we believe that any new proposal must ultimately pass the test of common sense: the standard most people use every day. Under our “back-to-basics” approach all students, including voc-ed students, must master fundamental skills, do homework and earn promotion to the next grade; if this strikes some experts as unfashionable, so be it.
In fact, the plan’s principal recommendation is to establish high school structures that integrate academic and vocational curriculum based on industry standards that give all students the opportunity and support necessary to achieve academic and vocational success. This recommendation is entirely consistent with the federal school-to-work legislation, which is summarized in the article, and your column agrees that voc-ed students must have a solid foundation in academics. More important, this proposal is consistent with the academic focus of our Education Plan. Without a sound, general education, none of our students—especially those who may not be going on to college—will be able to adapt to the changes that the future will inevitably bring.
My fellow trustees and I are attempting to implement structural reforms that will last. In the area of vocational education, this means involving outside providers of vocational training from both the public and private sectors, so that our students have access to technology employed by businesses in the real world—technology that such providers can more readily afford than the school district, with all of the demands on its scarce fiscal resources. We will not benefit our students by investing our limited funds in technology that soon will be obsolete and that we can ill-afford to replace, or by pursuing a “pie-in-the-sky” plan that we may be forced to abandon. We believe that our approach will prepare our students to compete for good-paying, challenging and rewarding jobs in the next century.
Gery J. Chico, president
School Reform Board of Trustees