Thursday, January 23, 2014

In defense of Home Ec

I've made no progress on Capecho since 2007 because of an unfortunate meeting with the (then) new superintendent of our local school district. It was supposed to be a charm offensive but he made me so mad, I completely twisted up my Capecho and it's been sitting in a box ever since.

First off, why do EdD's go by Dr X when PhDs go by their first names?

He talked about the usual stuff like how he grew up nearby and he wanted to prepare our students for the twenty-first century economy.  He was aiming to send 100% of our high school students on to college.  As a scientist, my ears prick up at the mention of 100% anything.  What about the special ed kids?  Should we throw them under the bus (out of the district) lest they mess up our "metrics"?

To head off criticism, he clarified that his broad definition includes trade schools and vocational training at SCROC (Southern California Regional Occupational Center).  He suggested training at SCROC to be a medical assistant (average wage, $14/hr) as a viable career because of growing demand in the healthcare field.  He also proposed industrial shop as a good career due to the plethora of businesses of all sizes in the South Bay that make goods such as helicopters and satellites.  He praised the arts because of the contribution that it makes to our local economy*.  He finished up his spiel with a jokey, "In today's economy, Home Ec just isn't going to cut it."

Well, I just about choked right then, but I swallowed my anger and quietly knitted on.

There are so many things wrong with that statement.  Let me count the ways.

Why did he single out Home Ec as outdated?  It's hard .not. to see sexism in that statement.  Why train people to care for ever more patients sickened by lifestyle diseases if we could prevent the diseases in the first place?  What is wrong with teaching students how to cook healthily and economically at home instead?

Home Ec is the kind of cooperative, project-based, hands-on science training that educational pundits claim they are trying to bring into the classroom.  So why dump it?

I first learned microbiology from my Home Ec teacher when she explained how to safely store and cook food and why we needed to thoroughly wash our hands before and after food prep.

She had recently returned from a one-year exchange program in which she traded homes and jobs with another teacher in Wales.  She taught us a couple of Welch recipes and then sent us home to collect family recipes of our own. From those recipes, we compiled lists of common ingredients in different cuisines around the world.  (I grew up in a diverse suburb near San Francisco/Silicon Valley.)

The monotony of British and northern European recipes was an eye opener.  It made me so grateful for my heritage because my mom's recipes were so much more varied and tastier than those brought in by most of my classmates.

Then we investigated the geographic distribution of ingredients and the natural and human history of those ingredients.  In the process, we learned about weather and trade routes.  That was the first time I noticed how far north Ireland and Wales lie and how short their growing season is.  Most importantly, I learned about the Gulf Stream, that great conveyer belt of heat that makes life possible for such a large population at such a northerly latitude.

I learned way more science in Home Ec in the 1970s than my daughter learned in the parody that passes for science education today.  (California now requires all students to take science all three years of middle school.)  Today's watered-down science curriculum is so depressing, it deserves a separate post.

In homage to my 8th grade Home Ec teacher, who kindled and nurtured my interest in the natural world, I will post a couple of sea surface temperature analyses by NOAA/NCEP and the Navy/FNMOC.  Can you spot the Gulf Stream?

Or its Asian analog?  Or the inverse effect across the oceans?
I could bore you with the details of how the two different models and data assimilation systems differ or the difference between an operational analysis and a climatological reanalysis.  But, it involves lots and lots of physics and higher math--the kind they don't teach in Ed.D programs.

(It's late.  I've been running a fever for three days.  My crankiness is showing.)

Notice the subtle differences beyond the coarser 1/2 degree lat/lon resolution (~50 km square) of the NOAA model and the finer 1/12 degree (~10 km) resolution of the Navy one.  They both ingest the same remotely-sensed satellite data, but their in-situ datasets--provided by buoys and ships--differ slightly.

Which analysis do you expect to contain more in-situ data? Why? Can you track fleet movement and buoy drift by studying temporal changes in global analyses?

San Francisco weather is predictably dull.  Will tomorrow be cold and foggy, or foggy and cold?  But I first became interested in weather for the food.

Please leave your Home Ec stories here in the comments.  Include region, era and curriculum information.  I want to hear your stories!

* He never mentioned the value art for the its own sake.  I overheard some of the teachers discussing how the music program was saved only because musical training correlates with higher standardized test scores in math.  If true, that is beyond pathetic.  Why isn't making music/art for personal enjoyment, and sharing the fellowship of other artists/musicians, sufficiently valuable to preserve in schools?

I really should clarify that this happened at our first meeting in 2007.  He has earned my respect through the way he led our district through the lean budget years.  He cut administrative staff before classroom teachers.  He even took furlough days (and the accompanying pay cut) himself.  I still think it was wrong to single out Home Ec as unworthy of study and irrelevant today.


  1. Anonymous04:14

    Amazing tone-deafness for someone in a public leadership position; obviously not across the board insensitivity given the furlough example, but the sexism demonstrated would inspire me to look for other areas where decisions were made based on such assumptions. Great charts, sorry about the knitting....


  2. I commend you for not stabbing him with your knitting needles. My middle school home ec teacher talked about fabric, and how wool and cotton demand drove trade, how there were "wool churches" in Britain built with profits from the wool merchants. My other home ec teacher had us look at a gingerbread recipe and trace the origin of every ingredient. I think of her every time I use cinnamon from Vietnam and pepper from Indonesia, cumin ftom India and flour from the Midwest (and of course, where and how that flour got to be where it is) . Home Ec is wonderful

    1. Ooh, that's a great point regarding global trade. Cotton is central to the global slave trade. It also has unusually long staple for a plant fiber, making it easier (or even possible) to spin, unlike bast fibers. It's also a thirsty crop as I've noted here:

      Climate change and depleted aquifers will severely disrupt the cotton trade.

    2. Note that I was using relatively blunt-tipped Clover bamboo circulars. They don't have much potential as a weapon and get the TSA seal of approval.

    3. I've often though circulars have weapon potential as a garrote.

      As to the actual subject the post, I love your point that Home Ec is cooperative, project-based, hands-on science.

      Last year when I chose science curriculum for the middle school of our homeschool co-op I initially chose the California version of the text because it was cheaper and easier to get. I also purchased a copy of the "regular" text. I was amazed at the difference between the two.

    4. @Gail
      Which publisher did you go with? Most offer California, Texas and New York editions and a default one for smaller states.

      I'm curious. What differences did you see?

      I've only seen CA texts recently, and I think they are too broad and shallow. What do you think?

      A classmate of my daughter, who moved from CA to TX, said that her teacher couldn't teach about the Big Bang in her new school because it contradicts the biblical age of the universe. Her family had been prepared for an omission of evolution, but not for astronomy and seismology. (Plate tectonics also contradicts the biblical age of the earth.)

      Have you seen the TX versions of the textbooks? I read that most of the southern states use them.

    5. We used CPO Earth Science and CPO Focus on Earth Science. "Focus" is the California version. The CA text was, indeed, more broad and shallow. It included chapters on beaches, earthquakes, biomes, and ecosystems, but discarded chapters on the water cycle, weather and climate, soil and freshwater resources, the ocean, and astronomy.. Some of the information from the chapters deleted WAS inserted into other chapters -- Focus had short sections on ocean currents and weather patterns within a chapter on the Earth's surface -- but overall in information seemed ... fluffier, as though the students couldn't be trusted to learn and comprehend much more than they had already learned in grade school.

      I did appreciate the Focus version's chapter on Earthquakes, which was much longer than the standard edition's section. We're in St. Louis, so it was topical.

      I've heard about the influence TX has on textbooks nationwide. It's a bit chilling.

      One of the biggest problems homeschoolers face is finding science textbooks that are usable outside the classroom AND not young earth oriented.

    6. I have this 2007 edition of Earth: Portrait of a Planet. The 2011 edition is $$$, but the 2007 one is available used for <$5.

      I highly recommend using it as a supplement. It's written for a HS AP Earth Science or first year college survey course. The plate techtonics unit was eye-opening to me. The units on weather and climate were accurate and clear

      I'd also look for a copy of the classic 1987 Weather Pop-up Book.

      CA standards were too long. No one wanted to be against rigor and teaching some concept. Well-meaning people kept tacking more and more things on to the list that it became impossible to go through the entire list in depth. That's one reason we adopted the Common Core. Hopefully, the CA textbooks will become deeper in response to the CC.

      If you want some entertainment, check out the CA standards.

    7. Anonymous07:42

      The Weather Pop-Up Book is fantastic! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. I love your blog, with its geekiness and sewing/knitting combo. (Also a shout out to your daughter's and husband's blogs!)

    I had a pretty bad experience in home ec; it's eye opening to see what it can be. I am glad to see that home ec is now for boys, too. These are basic life skills they're teaching, like simple cooking and mending.

    I took home ec in the 70’s in the upper midwest. I was already sewing my own clothes, so I asked if I could take shop instead. Got a flat out NO...that's for boys. Seems so antiquated now. (We also got a lot of pushback for starting a girls' track team..."We might stop menstruating and become infertile".

    1. I'm sorry you had such a terrible experience in HS.

      My home ec teacher used to tell me to wait for her to demonstrate tricky steps in clothing construction and then I would impatiently plow ahead anyway. When she came by, she would ask how I learned how to do those things. I pointed to the instruction sheets or said my mom taught me.

      She would say things like, "Would you like to see another way to do that that might be easier?" I grasped that there is no universal right way--but there are easier or more reliable methods.

    2. I'm not surprised they said "We might stop menstruating and become infertile".

      I'm a child of Title IX, too. I trained so hard during Volleyball and Badminton seasons, I often stopped menstruating. It's not necessarily a bad thing for teen girls to be temporarily infertile. ;-)

      What shocks me is the level to which boys' sports coaches in high schools are rewarding steroid abuse. That's criminally negligent.

  4. Jean S11:02

    my husband and I were just having a version of this conversation--a neighbor kid is taking health and nutrition (10th grade) and recently cooked a wonderful dinner for his family! I'm thrilled--as I told his parents, he won't be That Guy who goes off to college and only knows how to a) order pizza or b) make macaroni and cheese from the box.

    My home ec teachers were racist fools (Miami in the late 1960s). But I learned to sew, and I learned some finer points of cooking.

  5. Could home ec sneak back in under a different name through "makerspaces?" These labs are popping up at schools. In my local space, workshops on sewing are as popular as the ones on electronics. Some of the appeal may be watching the machine do its thing, you can really see the connection to 3D printers and cnc machinery, and the line between home ec and shop is blurring. Even though my friend says he has "failed to shirt" for all of the past sewing workshops, he keeps going back.

    1. That's an excellent point. I appreciate the Maker movement, but have some issues with it. I will go into more detail later.

      Iris and I failed last month to replicate the soft circuit bracelet project in The Art of Tinkering.

      Why do all that tedious sewing and sourcing obscure (and expensive) materials when we could have built 20 projects with her snap circuits set in the same amount of time?

  6. My home ec experience was pretty bad - think "sewing police" - I had already learned to sew from my mom and nana, and the teacher thought the way I was taught was wrong. I too was denied shop, which I bitterly regretted, being a 70's era feminist/tomboy. Had to teach myself how to use power tools outside of the sewing machine, which I did rather successfully. Knowing how to read the manual is a GOOD thing.

    I wish they would bring home ec back, especially if they included life skills like how to calculate what a mortgage really costs, how to save 10% of your take home income, what credit card debt really costs, along with how to cook nutritionally at home.

    I've often thought that I should write a cookbook based on SNAP. It's really hard to feed a family on $5/day or less, and eat nutritionally - and if you need to take public transport to a real grocery store, it's even harder.

    First time commenter, long time reader. Love your blog.

    Real name: Heather Pouschine

    1. I knew someone who fed herself and her son very healthily on SNAP, but she had an exceptional support network.

      Her dad spent retirement growing an organic vegetable garden and canning his crop. She and her son had dinner with her parents every Sunday and came home with leftovers and produce.

      Her brother hunted in all three deer seasons (bow and arrow, buckshot, rifle). He took his game to a butcher that packages the meat in steaks and ground venison. Her brother kept the steaks and gave her all the ground meat.

      SNAP isn't enough to pay for meat. She mostly purchased rice, beans, pasta, dairy and the produce her dad couldn't provide. The only meat they ate at home was venison in chili con carne or home made spaghetti sauce.

      That's an exceptionally healthy diet, rich in omega 3 fatty acids.

      When people ask why the poor don't move somewhere with more job opportunities, ask them to quantify the value of support networks.

  7. My daughter's Cadette troop is taking up some of the slack. They meet in a scout house (in El Segundo) with a small kitchenette--almost identical the one in my first efficiency apartment in the 1980s, in fact. Each month, two of the girls have to cook for the rest of the group (about ten servings total). They budget, meal-plan and shop with the leader; they have to cook onsite, with the other girls there (some may help). These are mostly girls who have full-sized well-stocked kitchens at home. Learning how to cook for a crowd on two burners and a tiny oven, with random pots and pans, and clean up in a tiny sink, has been an eye-opener to them. The leader says it's training for their first apartments someday. ;)

    1. > The leader says it's training for their first apartments someday.

      What a fantastic leader!

  8. In 8th grade I took one term of home ec (sewing, not cooking) and one term of plastic/metal shop (wood shop was taught the term I was in home ec, and cooking was taught the term I was in plastic/metal shop). This was in a K-8 Portland (Oregon) public school in 1974-75. Then in high school in another public school district nearby (a suburb of Portland) I learned to shoot (rifles) in the range under the stage as a PE elective. That school also had a ski team and a golf team-it was a much more affluent school district. To illustrate the contrast, the math and science books I used for 8th grade in the urban school were the exact same ones I’d used 3 years before for 5th grade in the suburban school (we moved from the suburbs to inner urban for one year, then back out to the suburbs).

  9. So well said! Home ec was gone even by the time I was in high school 20 odd years ago. Luckily my mom taught me to cook and sew at home, but I'm sure I missed out on many valuable educational insights.

  10. How about demanding the school district to hire better math and science teachers with higher degrees, instead of asking for more Home Ec? I took a semester of wood shop, and it was the most ridiculous waste of time; I can learn to work on wood when I retire. Please teach my kids more math, leave the home ec to me.

    1. Have you had much success making demands with your school district?

      California requires that all teachers have a degree in the subject area that they teach or take extra coursework and pass a proficiency exam. This is helping to correct the deficiencies in the past.

      If you go back and read my old education posts, I am generally very satisfied with the math and science teachers that have taught my child. Many are former engineers and turned to teaching as a second career. Some were former math majors. One even has a masters in math as well as a teaching credential.

      After investigating retraining to become a teacher, I was discouraged by the low pay and inflexible schedule. In fact, I am astonished that our schools such a high level of professionals at the pay scales. Our district gets 200 applicants for each elementary teacher opening.

      > Please teach my kids more math, leave the home ec to me.

      I don't think my kid needs more math time at school. With the emphasis on STAR tests in reading and math, that's pretty much all kids do now in school.

      Furthermore, our district is already a state leader in the fraction of kids that are above grade level in math (on track to hit calculus in 10th or 11th grade). The way I see it, more math would be overkill. YMMV.

      I like to think that my fascination with and love of math came because I wasn't forced to do it ad nauseum.

      I would prefer that my kid has an interdisciplinary and integrated class like Home Ec or Making or whatever you want to call it.

  11. Actually, I endured 4 years of home ec, during which I made a lot of buttonholes by hand, threaded innumerable needles for my classmates (myopia was good there) and made.. a third of a baby shirt. I pointed out repeatedly that I didn't want children, but was told I'd change my mind. This was a little woven affair with ties, by my last year I had a little sister who never wore any such thing, it being obvious that a stretchy knit onesy was much superior. Sigh. If my stepmom hadn't taught me to sew outside of school, I'd never have touched a needle again.
    That said, cooking has done a lot for my chemistry, and for conversion and measurements of all kinds, and trig has been very helpful in quilting. I still wish I'd been allowed to take shop though, that'd have been equally useful.

  12. Anonymous14:50

    Your Home Ec class sounds fantastic. I missed it entirely because my Mom wouldn't let me take Home Ec. She'd already taught me sewing and cooking at home and wanted me to take classes like Physics, Accounting, Typing and Trig. Which I did, but I always thought Home Ec would have been fun. I doubt our teacher was as amazing as yours, though.
    My own kids had a trimester each of art, FACS (home ec) and tech. ed (shop) in grades 6-8. In FACS they sewed by hand in 6th grade, with machines in 7th and not at all in 8th. Each kid made a simple project: pj pants, drawstring bag, and duffel bag from a kit. It was pretty bare-bones, but they also covered cooking and other life-skills topics. Home Ec type classes are still offered in high school here. Sewing/design, child development, cooking, etc. But my kids preferred math and science.

  13. Wow, it's been interesting reading the comments. I'm coming to this late by way of the blog "Sewing on the Edge". I'm a Home Economics teacher in Edmonton, Alberta Canada and in 15 years that is the majority of what I've taught. Now, to be fair the curriculum isn't called that anymore, we work under "Foods Studies" and "Fashion Studies" but I AM a professional Home Economist (with the ring and the evaluation to prove it) and describe to my students what we teach as Home Economics. BUT I teach in a system without Common Core or the funding issues described in the other comments. I'm well paid as a teacher and since I teach at the high school level, it's expected that I have degree work in the subject area I teach in. In Edmonton, students can choose which high school they go to, so I and the other option teachers work hard to provide programs that are appealing to students as well as providing essential life skills they need for when they move out of the family home. But Home Economists (and the corresponding classes they teach) do exist...

    1. I'm so glad that you are teaching Home Ec to a new generation.


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