Girls learned how to thread needles and whip up pastries.
Boys figured out the workings of a drill press or drafting compasses.
It was once that cut-and-dried. When students reached at least junior high in most public schools, boys would sign up for industrial arts classes – “shop” classes in shorthand – and girls would enroll in home economics courses. Fundamentally, boys would learn to love the smell of sawdust in the morning, and girls would appreciate the sweet, comforting scents of the kitchen. Any student willing to buck overpowering peer pressure and cross the divide would risk ridicule.
Some schools across the country have crossed these courses off their schedules, choosing to focus their energies on preparing their students for pressure-packed statewide tests, or requiring courses that would catapult them to college. But even if old-school shop or home economics classes are hard to find, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the lessons those classes taught have fallen out of the curriculum entirely.
“The age-old shop or home ec classes tend not to exist in the same way,” according to Jennifer Murphy, assistant superintendent at Peters Township School District. In her district, and in others in the area, ideas that were once imparted in home economics or shop classes are now being taught in classes that focus on financial literacy, nutrition, wellness, robotics or engineering. And rather than laboring alone on making an ashtray or sewing an apron, Murphy explained these hands-on courses are much more team-oriented, with students banding together to solve problems.
The disappearance of old-school home economics and shop classes can be traced back to at least the 1990s. It was in that decade that many home economics classes were rechristened under such names as Family and Consumer Sciences, and shop classes were either eliminated in some places or modified. On June 30, 1996, The New York Times featured a story headlined, “The School Bell Tolls for Shop Class,” recounting how shop classes were being shuttered at Hoboken High School in New Jersey, the courses being transferred into vocational or technical schools.
“Unfortunately for those in the middle, who might want to make a living with their hands, not to mention those who might want to hire them to do a job, trade classes like print shop and wood shop and home economics no longer fit easily into the educational bureaucracy’s pattern of what constitutes a comprehensive liberal education for the 21st century,” the Times’ Joe Sharkey wrote.
That shop and home economics classes are no longer in the curriculum at some schools has been a source of lamentation for some. Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and David S. Ludwig, a Boston-based endocrinologist, wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 that home economics classes could help curb America’s obesity epidemic by offering greater education about food, and how it can be prepared.
In a recent phone conversation, Lichtenstein explained “you have to teach kids wise choices.”
“It’s sort of like hunting and gathering in the 21st century,” she continued. “It can be incorporated into a lot of courses in a lot of ways.”
Similarly, advocates for shop classes contend that preparing students for college and university courses is fine, but students still would benefit from being able to carry out simple household repairs when they are not punching a keyboard, looking at a screen or taking a meeting. As the cost of tuition and fees at colleges and universities continues to escalate, shop-class advocates have also started to forcefully assert that industrial arts coursework can help move young people into blue-collar professions where there is a demand for workers, and that also pay well.
Jarrod Nagurka, advocacy and public affairs manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Career and Technical Education, explained there used to be “two pathways” in secondary education – the college-preparatory path, and the path that had students taking up manufacturing or technical jobs upon graduation. Now, “the two have really blended,” he said.
“What is being offered is different than what was offered 40 years ago,” he added. “The nature of what these programs offer have changed. Just as the economy has fundamentally changed, so has the way we educate our students.”
Another new emphasis in shop courses: “We want them to be creative,” according to Annette Vietmeier, director of academic accountability and innovation in Central Greene School District.
Exercises like devising a restaurant menu and cooking up the dishes for it is one of the ways that creativity can be sparked. That happens in Washington School District. The subject matter of shop and home economics classes can also turn up in classes as seemingly far afield as history or social studies.
“Now they’re all collaborating,” said Chet Henderson, principal of Washington’s junior and senior high schools. “It’s very cross-curricular.”
And while some schools have done away with or downplayed their home economics or shop classes in part because of the overwhelming importance of college admissions scores or tests like the Keystone Exams, the skills imparted in shop or home economics classes are still vital, said Robert Mihelcic, Washington’s director of curriculum and instruction.
“Testing has been so important, and it’s on everyone’s radar,” he said. “But I don’t think you can completely ignore all these other things. (Testing) just can’t be the end of everything. We want to graduate well-rounded students from Washington High.”