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 first installment of our three-part series, Sarah gives a history of shop classes and explains why there are fewer of them today.

In the United States, shop class used to be as prevalent in public schools as math or science, and Seattle in particular had shop classes in nearly every middle school and high school during the first part of the 20th century. But over the past few decades, shop classes have started disappearing—in fact, only 4 of the 17 shop classes that once existed in Seattle are left. Younger generations are largely unaware of what shop class is, why it exists, and how it has evolved over the years. Today, we’re talking about the history of shop class and why it’s no longer around.

The term “shop class” can refer to wood shop, auto shop, or metal shop, to name a few. Essentially, it’s hands-on learning with some sort of carpentry teacher, a bunch of tools, and about 25 to 35 students all working on individual projects.

The history of shop class

In the early 1900s, there was a hands-on education school in Seattle called the Edison Vocational School. It was well funded and grew out of the Seattle public school district’s Broadway High School Annex, a shop program for high school youth that ran from 1930 until 1966 when it was incorporated into Seattle Central Community College. During its heyday, Edison had more than 2,000 students per year and was lauded as one of the best vocational programs in the nation—offering classes in everything from woodshop to ornamental gardening to metalworking.

In the 1970s, shop class was taught in most public high schools and more than a dozen middle schools. In fact, Seattle was leading the nation in vocational education throughout the decade. Across the United States, shop classes were viewed as a necessary part of the school curriculum. It was a time when the economy was fairly robust, and the post-war generation considered working with your hands in the manufacturing sector a noble profession.

So what happened to shop classes?

Unfortunately, the decline of shop classes isn’t well recorded in history—which tells you a lot about how shop class was viewed in the public school system and by the American public. (You can find sports data going all the way back to the 1920s, but you wouldn’t be able to search the Seattle school archives to find out which high schools in the area had a shop class.) Even at its peak, shop class, it seems, was never fully respected—and the stigmas surrounding shop classes (and the students who took them) didn’t help.

Classism and racism associated with shop class

Negative attitudes toward shop class and trade work originated during the industrial revolution (and possibly earlier). During this time, schooling was connected to wealth, and uneducated workers often found employment in the trades. As a result, wealthy upper-class individuals saw trade work as undesirable and low-class. This idea has persisted through the years, and many still view such employment as dirty or less prestigious than a career in academics or business.

In the 1990s, the Bush and Clinton administrations backed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, an education reform initiative that promoted trades education. However, the rhetoric these two administrations used painted students solely as future workers (not individuals), and this push for the trades conflicted with prevailing public sentiment—that the primary goal of public education should be preparation for college. In particular, there was a huge backlash from communities of color, who had spent years fighting for equal access to quality public and secondary education and job opportunities in the white-collar workforce. 

Woodshop classes in particular were seen as “tracking” students. Any student who was considered difficult to teach or appeared less inclined toward math, English, or other academic classes was simply placed in shop class—they were deemed unfit for college, and, therefore, “tracked” away from higher education and toward the trades. But this practice was largely a socially accepted form of racism. Often, white teachers would label students of color as “problem students,” who were then removed from their class and placed into a shop course. So when the School-to-Work initiative was launched in the ’90s, it backfired—students began avoiding trades education, and schools encouraged non-trades tracks in an effort to prepare more students for college.

Funding and academic standards

One reason for the decline of shop classes in Seattle is the democratic organization of Seattle high schools and teachers’ unions. The teachers themselves vote on which classes will be offered. These decisions are made in public meetings in which instructors deliver speeches explaining why certain classes should be offered—so the format favors classes that have multiple teachers represented as voting members. This puts shop classes at a great disadvantage, as there are fewer of them compared to other academic departments. Shop classes also require more funding to pay for materials. Whenever a school faces budget cuts, shop classes are frequently on the chopping block. Furthermore, shop classes are more dangerous than academic courses, making them an easy target for scrutiny by school administrators.

In recent years, changing academic standards have also contributed to the decline of shop class. High schools are evaluated according to how well their students score on standardized tests—and there has never been a standardized test for shop classes. Schools simply don’t have any incentive to continue offering shop classes when they’re judged (and funded) solely on their students’ academic performance in core classes like math and English. And as students are increasingly encouraged to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), trades education will likely continue to decline.

Stay tuned for part two of the Death of Shop Class series, and check out the Dunn Solutions blog for expert and trusted advice for your next project.