Monday, February 27, 2012

More on Technical Education

Here's a full text version of my most recent piece published in the Denver Post. It's on my standard theme of career and technical education.

Skilled Labor and The Future of Education

Work-study. Work or study.

These words offer contrasting visions of how to elevate struggling schools. In recent weeks Newt Gingrich proposed putting poor kids to work cleaning their schools, and President Obama argued for compulsory education to eighteen. While each idea has merit, both were criticized for good reason.

Newt wasn’t wrong in arguing young people need marketable skills, and interning kids in maintenance jobs is reasonable. His problem was emphasizing vocational education only for poor and minority kids who need a “work ethic.” And janitorial work is not really “skilled labor,” so the prospects for a middle class career are limited. Does Newt really think the country lacks millions of janitors? As a historian, Newt should know better.

Obama’s idea of extending education wasn’t wrong either, though mandating attendance is an oversimplification and counterproductive. It neither solves the drop-out problem nor answers important questions. Why are kids dropping out, and for what purpose should they stay? Schools must promote a culture and mission that makes students want to stay, rather than force them against their will. As a community organizer, the President should know better.

In Colorado, that’s where an honest discussion of demographics and opportunities needs to become the focus. Skilled labor has long been the hallmark of the middle class. And, work-study is a time-honored but underused component of education. The problem of course with the American economy isn’t simply a lack of jobs – it’s also a lack of skilled workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, one reason employment numbers are stagnant is a drought of welders, electricians, miners, technicians, and engineers. And Colorado is the perfect place to reconstruct an education system based on skilled labor.

With Denver’s technology, military, energy, and mining industries, local opportunities abound for interning and business-education partnerships. Every industrialized nation in the world – except the United States – allows an opportunity for transition to careers by age sixteen. That’s a significant reason they outpace us in international assessments, especially at the senior high school level. However, with a commitment to higher education and skilled labor, Colorado could be the model for education reform in the United States.

Colorado could become the epicenter for producing highly skilled labor – an international source of miners, drillers, welders, engineers, and technicians. And, students may be interested in knowing they can earn six figures as a driller or miner. Years ago, I knew a young man who was an industrial grade painter. By age twenty, his professional certification put him in demand nationwide, and at twenty-two he was making twice my bachelor’s degree salary.

Granted, promoting technical education over bachelor degrees isn’t without controversy. Education blogger Clarice McCants criticizes arguments that too many kids go to college. McCants believes it implies poor kids should become plumbers – as Newt Gingrich quipped – while middle and upper class kids should be engineers, doctors, and businessmen. Such a view is, truly, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Assuming “skilled labor” applies only to poor urban students is wrong. In fact, such thinking killed vocational education in the 80s. Poor minority kids were funneled into shop class while white kids took literature and physics. Yet, instead of fixing that disparity, we simply cut technical education and re-engineered society promoting college-for-all. However, even among the middle class population, plenty of kids shouldn’t be going for bachelor’s degrees because the economy neither needs nor supports them.

Granted, more middle-class suburban – and yes white – kids have advantages based on neighborhood, family situations, and early childhood education. That’s the key we’re not acknowledging – the incredible burden of catching up if a child enters kindergarten not knowing his letters or lagging other kids in vocabulary. Statistically, it’s difficult to catch up – and it can take generations. Once a family has one college educated parent, then it moves to two, then to a stay at home parent or one with flexibility and the funds to support effective pre-school, not just daycare/babysitting.

Clearly, it comes down to equal opportunities. And it comes from decreasing the stigma of associate degrees and skilled labor. Mike Rowe of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs” is a strong proponent of technical education. However, he reminds us that these jobs need to be the kind people want. As long as we have Gingrich linking skilled labor only to “poor kids” who need a work ethic, and the President mindlessly mandating attendance, education reform will go nowhere.

Now that Colorado has been freed from the mandates of NCLB, state education leaders should begin crafting a sound education policy that promotes skilled labor and matches the needs of students and the marketplace.

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