Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Importance of Technology Education

CTE neglect puts state in a job crisis

By Jack Stewart and Bob Balgenorth - Published Saturday, November 24, 2007

California schools aren't keeping pace with the state's rapidly evolving economy, where skilled workers are now in greater demand than four-year degree holders.

As the governor and legislators prepare for their year of education reform in 2008, they should pay careful attention to this dramatic shift and get serious about expanding career technical education (CTE). While career technical education won't cure everything ailing our schools, it needs to be an important part of the solution. But changing the entrenched institutional bias against CTE will be difficult.

Current policy discourages CTE by focusing resources and curriculum as though every high school student will enroll in the University. In reality only two of every 10 students will earn a degree from a four-year college.

The approach leaves diminutive the other 80 percent of students whose skills and interests are in other areas. We should be helping them discover and develop their special talents. Instead, we leave them feeling lost.

The new economy rewards workers who have the skills and knowledge gained through CTE. These aren't the vocational education classes of yesteryear that sometimes tracked students into dead-end jobs. These are rigorous, demanding courses that apply science, math, literacy, and other academic learning to real-world careers. Careers such as biotechnology, aerospace, health care, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and other essential fields where annual salaries of $80,000 to $100,000 are common, without a four-year degree.

But our schools aren't preparing students for these 21st century jobs. Instead of expanding, CTE instruction is being cut. Since 1987, more than 14,000 career and technical education courses and 2,000 CTE instructors have been cut. Meanwhile, we're importing skilled workers from other states and nations because of a shortage here at home.

The decline of CTE also helps explain why California's high school dropout rate is nearing 40 percent. A study by the Gates Foundation found that 47 percent of high school dropouts weren't interested in their coursework, while 81 percent said more real-world learning would have kept them in school.

This is precisely what career technical education offers: hands-on education that makes school more relevant and enriching whether students plan to attend college or not. While some students might use CTE as a springboard directly into their chosen profession, others can use it to enhance their postsecondary education. A study by the Lansing Area Manufacturing Partnership showed that CTE students enrolled in college did better than those without CTE. With 30 percent of four-year college students failing to earn a degree, policymakers should take notice.

In fact, the supply of four-year college graduates exceeds demand for the graduates' degrees or the needs of the jobs they end up filling by at least 45 percent in California. As a result, a growing number of four-year degree holders are enrolling in community college CTE programs to learn a marketable skill. While 49,000 community college students transferred to four-year universities in 2006, 143,000 four-year degree holders enrolled in community colleges.

Given this new reality, policymakers from the governor on down need to move beyond the rhetoric and take serious action to expand career technical education. While the $500 million for CTE included in last year's school bond initiative was a start, it represented only 5 percent of the initiative's $10 billion total. In addition to funding CTE, they need to require every high school student to complete at least some CTE courses before graduating. Moreover, they need to make it clear that every student can be a winner in the economy, with or without a four-year degree, provided they stay in school and learn the skills for the jobs that interest them.

We need to celebrate educational and workplace diversity the way we celebrate cultural diversity, and acknowledge that all educated workers are valuable, whether they hold a bachelor's degree in engineering or a training certificate in precision welding.

Without skilled welders and precision machinists, an engineer's drawings are just a blueprint, not a rocket to the moon.

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