Schools Lament Sharp Decline in Shop Teachers, Students in ‘80s

Times Staff Writer

When the electric shop teacher at James Madison Junior High School in North Hollywood retired five years ago, Principal Marvin Starer could not find a qualified replacement. So he discontinued the program.

After a fruitless search in 1981 to replace the retiring drafting teacher, who taught five classes each semester, Starer saved the program only after the metal shop teacher offered to teach one drafting class a semester.

“I’ve had to oversee the devastation of one of our school’s most popular programs. It hasn’t been pleasant,” Starer said gloomily.


Shop classes--the wood, drafting, print, metal and other industrial arts courses that served as a rite of passage for several generations of men--are fast disappearing from the curricula of junior and senior high schools.

Class Offerings Whittled

Although at one time all 27 junior highs in the San Fernando Valley offered electric shop classes, now only five do. And, whereas all Valley junior highs once offered metal, print and wood shops, now only 13 have metal shops, 16 have wood shops and 17 have print shops.

All the 17 Valley high schools are equipped to offer six industrial education programs: auto, drafting, electronics, graphic arts, metal and wood. But few still offer a complete curriculum.

El Camino Real in Woodland Hills and Polytechnic in Sun Valley each offer only four shop classes. Kennedy High in Granada Hills has the smallest industrial arts program in the Valley with only three offerings: drafting, graphic arts and wood.

According to a state Board of Education report, California has lost one-third of its secondary-school shop courses since 1978.

Nationwide Decline

The decline in shop classes can also be seen nationwide, as can the shortage of shop teachers. Public schools in Dade County, Fla., which has the nation’s fourth-largest school district, are so desperate for teachers that this year recruiters traveled to New York looking for applicants. Tiny Carmel Central School District in southwest New York is offering bonuses to industrial arts teachers who join the district before September.


A “critical shortage” of industrial arts teachers exists in Georgia, Alabama, the Southwest and parts of the West Coast, according to John G. Nee, secretary of the National Assn. of Industrial and Technical Teachers Educators. In the North and Northeast, Nee added, secondary schools are shutting down their shop programs at an alarming rate.

There is a variety of reasons for the decline of shop courses. The average age of the nation’s 48,000 shop teachers is 55, with many nearing retirement, according to the Journal of Industrial Education. And only a few graduates of the nation’s education schools are trained to teach shop classes, according to the trade journal.

The national education reform movement of the 1980s added a host of academic courses to graduation requirements, leaving little room for students to take electives. Because shop classes are usually electives, even students who want the classes have discovered they do not have the time.

Seen as Relics

Finally, shop courses have gained the reputation of being the dumping ground for students who are not academically oriented. And, in a technologically complicated world, some educators and parents consider wood and metal shops relics of a bygone era.

“If my son has a choice between a computer programming class and wood shop, I would naturally steer him to the computer class,” said David Levine, an Encino attorney. “He has to be prepared for the future, not the past.”

Industrial education classes were introduced to U.S. secondary schools in the 1880s amid a flurry of controversy. Two rival camps wanted the curriculum added to secondary schools, but for different reasons.


One group wanted “manual training,” courses in which the basics of trades would be taught as a way to round out the education of college-bound students.

The other camp advocated “vocational education” as a way to ensure that every student left high school with a marketable skill.

Neither faction won. Instead, most secondary schools adopted a compromise. In junior high, boys were required to take introductory shop classes so they would have some basic trade skills. The more advanced high school classes were for those who wanted to graduate with employable skills.

Nearly a century later, in the early 1970s, shop classes became controversial once again as adolescent feminists demanded equal access to the male bastions. Fearing lawsuits, school districts quickly acquiesced. It is now common to see girls in shop classes.

California educators point to the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, the tax-cutting initiative, as the beginning of the decline in industrial arts classes. When school funding dwindled, the first cuts many school boards made were the electives. Shop classes were among the first to go.

‘Hurt Four Major Areas’

“Proposition 13 hurt all of the four major areas in vocational education--agriculture, home economics, business education and industrial education,” said Larry Garetto, a specialist in industrial arts education for the California Department of Education. “But, while agriculture, home economics and business education have started to make comebacks, industrial education classes are still dwindling.”


The reason is the increase in academic classes students must take to graduate. For example, in 1983 California increased its graduation requirements. Now, every student must complete three years of English, three years of social science, two years each of math and science, one year of either a foreign language or a fine art and two years of physical education. For Los Angeles schools, that is basically an additional year of science and math.

Support Harder Courses

Although educators bemoan the fact that fewer electives are available to students, they quickly add that they are not against the tougher academic requirements.

“I don’t differ with the argument that students need to take more academic courses,” said Nee, of the National Assn. of Industrial and Technical Teachers Educators.

But, Nee added, the new academic requirements “are eliminating a student’s chances for exploration of different fields and making good career decisions.”

Added Terence Garner, assistant superintendent of personnel for Dade County Public Schools: “There is still a need for the skills taught in industrial arts courses, especially for our academically oriented students. Any person who owns a home should be able to repair a molding, fix an electrical plug or refinish a piece of furniture.”

A growing part of the education community, however, believes that the industrial arts programs have outlived their usefulness and that it is better that students--even those not bound for college--have the strongest possible academic background.


Backing From Business

Many expect the business community to endorse vocational programs at the high school level, said Marsha Levine, education consultant with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative, Washington-based think tank.

“But a study I did for the Committee for Economic Development showed that most businesses are squarely in support of a basic core curriculum that assures an employer that the young person being hired has a solid education,” Levine said.

Because of reductions, industrial arts has become one of the least attractive areas for people considering teaching. Last year, according to the Journal of Industrial Education, only 1,700 people graduated from the nation’s education schools with degrees in industrial arts. Few of those graduates entered teaching.

“Any of the car companies will hire a college grad who has gone through the industrial arts education program to teach their mechanics how to repair cars,” explained Gene Lew, an industrial education specialist with the Los Angeles school district.

“The money is better and the instructors don’t have to take the extra education classes they would have to if they were going to join the school district. People jump at the opportunity.”

At Christopher Columbus Junior High in Canoga Park, where the industrial arts faculty has dwindled from five full-time teachers to two part-time teachers, Principal Jay Peterman said that, although it is sometimes discouraging, he has not given up his search to find new shop teachers.


“I’ve written to Cal State Los Angeles, I’ve written to UC Santa Barbara, I’ve written everywhere looking for industrial arts teachers. They’re just hard to find,” Peterman said.

Experiment Unsuccessful

Some schools have tried to fill the gap by bringing in skilled professionals from private industry. But this experiment, by most accounts, has not worked.

“The success rate of the industry person coming in is not as high as the person coming in from education school,” Lew said. “The industry person doesn’t know how to administer discipline, doesn’t know how to work with younger students. Why, he doesn’t even know how to maintain a roll book.”

To cope with the lack of teachers and classes, the industrial arts profession is trying to change its emphasis. Curriculum designers are trying to make the courses more analytical by bringing in more math and science concepts. To show the change in emphasis, some districts are changing the discipline’s name to “technological education.”

More shop teachers are creating courses on robotics. Student projects include building a rudimentary robot and writing the computer program that governs the robot’s movements. Academic work includes reading and writing essays on the history of robots and how industry has utilized robotics.

Using computers to design some of the simple wood and metal projects familiar to a generation of shop students is another way the industrial arts profession is trying to change its curriculum.


“Students still may be making a wooden ashtray, but they will be using totally different techniques in making the ashtray,” Nee said.

In California, there is a movement to increase the academic content of shop courses so that the classes can be substituted for some graduation requirements.

“We want to make shop classes an arduous, rigorous process to encourage schools to make sure classes that teach practical skills continue to be offered,” said Garetto of the state Department of Education.