Unions, business join hands over vocational education

For every 10 California high school freshmen, three will drop out of high school, four will enter college and two will graduate with a four-year degree.  It’s a sad fact that our education system provides no clear career path for the other eight, who often struggle for a lifetime, drop out of school, or drift from job to job for years before finding a vocation that will provide a decent living.

This emphasis on college prep leaves too many high school students without the proper skills for good-paying jobs in the fastest growing and most vital sectors of California’s economy.  A 2006 report from the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy concluded that “it is not true that most (21st Century) jobs will require a four-year degree.  The new emphasis on career technical education will be helpful in converting California’s workforce challenges into opportunities.”

While there will be an increase in jobs requiring technical skills, growth in jobs needing college degrees will be flat. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects less than a one percent increase in the proportion of jobs in the national economy requiring a baccalaureate degree or higher in the next six years.

The California Employment Development Department expects 6.5 million new job openings in the state by 2014.  The large number of jobs that will be created by economic growth (2.5 million) and through baby boomer retirements (4 million replacement jobs) will provide vast opportunities for both young entry-level job seekers and highly skilled, technology-savvy workers.

Unfortunately, our schools are out of sync with our economy.  In 1987, three out of four California high school students were enrolled in vocational courses.  But today, that number has dropped to one in three students.

Fortunately, there’s a growing movement to promote and re-institute career technical education (CTE)—formerly called vocational training —in our public schools.  A coalition of business, labor, agriculture, public safety, health care, child advocates and educators is urging Governor Schwarzenegger, California legislators, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to expand CTE educational choices for students.

One of the goals of the coalition, called Get REAL (Relevance in Education and Learning), is to change the stereotypes associated with skilled vocational coursework within academia, the media and the political arena.

The CTE courses of today aren’t the old “voc ed” courses of years past, which had limited offerings and lacked the technological and academically rigorous elements of today’s ever-evolving programs.  Today’s challenging CTE courses prepare students for rewarding careers in health care, construction, automotive engineering and mechanics, manufacturing, public safety and a host of other fields that require skilled workers, but not necessarily a college degree.  Meanwhile, studies show that college-bound students who enter a professional field also benefit from CTE courses.

Governor Schwarzenegger has said that he wants 2008 to be the “year of education.” While there is broad rhetorical support for the restoration of CTE to a prominent place in California’s K-12 curricula, an impending state budget shortfall will make changes more difficult in 2008.  

Nevertheless, we believe there are compelling arguments for strengthening the role of CTE courses in our public schools.  One sad result of our state’s departure from vocational training has been an increase in the high school dropout rate.  Students are increasingly turning their back on school because high school fails to provide them with opportunities to connect their instruction with actual career goals and life aspirations.

According to a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study, 81 percent of dropouts who were questioned called for more “real-world” learning opportunities.  Somewhat surprisingly, 88 percent had passing grades when they dropped out, and 70 percent said they could have graduated if they had tried.  For them, school wasn’t relevant.

The movement to re-institute CTE in California’s public schools is not an attempt to limit the subjects that students explore, nor is it an attempt to weaken academic standards for students who are college-bound.  It is simply an effort to broaden the educational experience of all students, many of whom now struggle to find a career in an increasingly complex job market that demands technical skills.

We suggest that there could be no better way of making 2008 the “year of education” than to institute career technical education courses that would enrich the opportunities and improve the lives of virtually all of California’s K-12 students.  We have learned that in California’s education arena, we only value those courses that are required, measured and funded.  The Get REAL Coalition will be working hard to make CTE a valued experience for all California students.

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