Welcome to The Death of Shop Class. In this series, Sarah Smith of Sawhorse Revolution—a Seattle-based nonprofit fostering confident, community-oriented youth through the power of carpentry and craft—goes into the history and evolution of shop classes in the United States public education system. In this second installment of our three-part series, Sarah shares her views on the current state of shop classes and why they’re beneficial.
It’s hard to say for certain how many US public schools offer shop classes today (which speaks to how poorly documented shop classes are now and in history). Today, we’re discussing what we know about the current availability of shop classes, as well as some of the benefits of taking shop classes.
The current state of shop class, education, and the trades
As this article is written, Seattle has four active shop classes, which are available at Franklin High School, Ballard High School, Chief Sealth International High School, and West Seattle High School. Outside of these schools, shop classes and similar vocational education programs are offered in the Seattle area through the Seattle Skills Center, the Interagency Academy (specifically, the Opportunity Skyway program), and the Wood Technology Center. (And, of course, Sawhorse Revolution.
As of 2012, the University of Washington’s School of Education no longer provides shop and career education. This means school principals and administrators are not trained to prepare students for anything other than college. In the 1970s, school principals were kept informed about trades education and the benefits this career path offered students—but not anymore. Today, schools are focused primarily on standardized test scores and the subjects that students need to know to pass them.
While shop classes were once a place where specific students were funneled or “tracked” into, today’s shop classes are purely elective—students decide for themselves whether or not to take them. And although students of color once made up a majority of the students in shop classes, they were historically—and still are—underrepresented in the trades industry.
The demographics of the trades workforce are pretty shocking: 99 percent of field workers are male and 79% percent are white. Throughout its history, the trades industry has been an exclusive and homogeneous institution. In the past, when students of color graduated high school with experience in shop class, they were often rejected from apprenticeships by racist, white trade unions.
Sexist attitudes in the industry have led to a lack of women in the trades. The stereotype of tradesmen catcalling female colleagues in the field is sadly rooted in truth—many female trades workers report experiencing harassment on job sites. It’s an unfortunate reality, but one that will hopefully change in the years to come.
The benefits of shop class
The death of shop class is detrimental for many reasons. It contributes to the stigma that work in the trades is less valuable, it prevents students from exploring the trades as a career option while they’re in school, and it reduces opportunities for students to work with their hands in addition to their academic coursework.
Working with your hands is important. It engages your entire body, allowing you to synthesize thinking and planning skills with the coordinated physical movements. Because they engage students’ minds and bodies, hands-on shop classes provide a completely different experience than purely academic classes. And unlike most academic classes, they don’t operate on a traditional system of punishment and reward.
To get a good grade in shop class, you simply have to show up and try. Failure in carpentry looks completely different than failure on a math or science test. If you fail on your carpentry project (assuming you haven’t hurt yourself), it’s the perfect moment to start learning. This kind of learning completely redefines a student’s relationship with mistakes and “failure”—it teaches them that it’s OK to mess up and keep trying. In shop class, students learn creativity, problem-solving, and resilience. They overcome tangible challenges and create things with their own hands. Success isn’t measured by test scores or grades, but rather on a job well done. And the rewards are tangible objects that students can take home and feel proud of for years to come.
Shop class is healthy for both the mind and body.