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What vocational education is like now

One of the (many) themes around public education this session has been the theme that not everyone wants or needs to go to college, and that Texas’ public education system needs to prepare students for careers in certain industries, for which there is a lot of unfulfilled demand for skilled workers. We used to call this “vocational education”, and that term has certain positive and negative connotations, but what does it mean today? This Statesman story is a good primer on it.

“Everyone realizes something has to change. We have to create more flexibility, more choice, without taking away opportunities for kids to go to college,” Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said.

While “college- and career-readiness” is the stated objective of the Texas public education system, career has long taken a back seat to college in schools.

Career training was sidelined in Texas following the 1984 education reforms pushed by Dallas businessman Ross Perot. But the industry leaders say the real blow came in 2007 when the Legislature instituted the 4×4 graduation plan, which requires four years each of math, science, English and social studies.

Industry leaders say that rigid structure hasn’t allowed students the flexibility to take courses that would help them pursue skilled trade jobs, which are in high demand and often translate into meaningful, well-paying careers.

“Today’s advanced manufacturing requires that a skilled tradesperson knows multiple skills in this space,” said Mario Lozoya, director of government relations for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in San Antonio, where Tundra and Tacoma pickups are assembled. “That kind of skilled person is not found in San Antonio. … We have to go outside of Texas to find them.”

[…]

Alan Miller, executive director of the Capital Area Workforce Board, said 21st century career training is quite different from the “vo-tech” — vocational and technical track — of the past, which was seen as something less than the regular high school program. Minority students, in particular, were nudged toward a vo-tech track that sent them into dead-end jobs.

“In today’s world, career and technology is very rigorous. The standards for that are every bit as strong as college preparatory (classes), but what happens in many cases is it’s taught in a more applied manner. It’s not theoretical,” Miller said. “The rigor is high, but in many cases the applied math or applied science equally substitute for algebra or chemistry. The way it’s taught is different, but the rigor is there. People don’t understand that.”

Despite the political momentum behind career training this legislative session, some business and education leaders have reservations about the efforts to loosen the graduation requirements. Last week, the state commissioners who separately oversee the higher education and public education systems raised concerns about a retreat from rigorous graduation standards.

Students also need to understand that career training courses alone will not make them ready for these well-paid jobs, which typically require certification or two-year associate’s degrees, said Drew Scheberle, vice president for education at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

That post-graduation training requires the same core courses as college, Scheberle said, and the 4×4 graduation plan was designed as a “a well-rounded course of study that would prepare you to shift in different areas as the economy shifts.”

Athena’s President Bill Johnson said his workers still need many of the same skills that they learn in the current high school curriculum, particularly algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

“If you don’t have aptitude in those three,” he said, “you won’t make it at a place like this.”

I’ve been hearing from defenders of the 4×4 curriculum, who say this is something Texas is doing right and who are concerned that it may be watered down as part of the anti-STAAR backlash. I don’t have enough expertise to offer any policy prescriptions here, I just think this is something important to be aware of, especially with all of the higher-profile things dominating the discussion. What are your thoughts on and experiences with this?

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