Overheard at a Continental Breakfast

It never ceases to amaze me what you can learn from listening to people.

I have this thing where I listen to all the conversations going on around me, whether I’m at a restaurant, in class, or at a continental breakfast. I like to believe that it is a “teacher thing;” something that we all do because we have to listen to the 10 or 20 conversations going on in our classrooms at the same time during group work. This is, of course, a lie I let myself believe, because I have been doing this my whole life, but I digress.

A couple mornings ago, I found myself at a continental breakfast in a hotel in Saratoga, NY. I overheard the conversation of a group of five women, the youngest in her twenties, the oldest in her 60s. The conversation went something like this:

“She never learned to sew.”
“Well, they don’t teach home-ec any more.”
“No, they don’t. They don’t teach any life skills: sewing, cooking.”
“Why is that? These are things that can be careers for people when they get out.”

Any teacher can tell you that they’re right, and certainly these aren’t comments I haven’t heard before. And yes, tech programs do exist in many places. However, in most of these cases, students must make the choice to do a trade program instead of a standard diploma. That isn’t ideal in many situations.

But hearing these comments, when I was out of state and in a hotel, made me pause. Why don’t we have these classes, really? Again, many teachers can tell you the answer: testing and accountability.

Home-Ec, and programs like it, are generally skill based classes that require subjective scoring of students on performance tasks. These are the kinds of classes which can’t be given a multiple choice test, or essay that is then graded by a faceless Craigslist find getting paid minimum wage.

Music and Art classes have faced this fight for years, but in those cases, there is documented proof that participation in those classes helps students in other classes (for example, there is a large correlation between music and math scores). Additionally, we can write a series of questions that show their ability to read music. Beyond that, the study of history of art or music help improve those skills in real ways, and testing on music history or theory can be done easily.

These rules don’t apply in sewing. Sure, being able to name a specific sewing technique can be beneficial, but the real goal is to be able to complete the stitch. Knowing the history of sausage, or when the first scrambled egg was made hardly makes you a better cook.

What I took from overhearing this conversation is that Home-Ec is a less remembered and mourned victim of standardized testing. Like many other classes, over testing, and over reliance on testing makes offering this classes impossible.