I Support Vocation

Last night, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address before congress. Here is a transcript. And while a great many topics were covered, I want to talk about the section on education. Here it is:

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Think about it. Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. (Applause.) We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all 50 states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. And these standards were developed, by the way, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country. And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids. (Applause.)

You see, we know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities. Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado — located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their families to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said, “Thank you, Ms. Waters, for showing that we are smart and we can make it.” (Applause.) That’s what good schools can do, and we want good schools all across the country.

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. (Applause.) We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. (Applause.) And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math. (Applause.)

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you. (Applause.)

Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American. (Applause.) That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. (Applause.) And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit — worth $10,000 for four years of college. It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)

Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy, we’re also revitalizing America’s community colleges. Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams, too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”

If we take these steps — if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take — we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. (Applause.)

I put that last sentence in bold because it caught my attention. It caught my attention in large part because I feel that it is chasing a metric that is entirely wrong-headed. I think this section has a lot of good ideas in them, but I am worried it is going to continue pushing a paradigm that is unsustainable.

Check out the video to the right. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs testifies before congress about the need for more vocational training. I went to school for a time in the Pennsylvania school system, and in Junior High, the 7th grade to be exact, I was required to take Home Economics, Art, Wood Shop, Metal Shop and more. Just a half a semester of each, the intent to be to expose kids to skills they may not encounter in their day-to-day lives. And this continued through the 8th and 9th grades, and when you moved over to the High School for 10th grade, you were allow to choose between two tracks: Vocational or College Preparation.

The College Prep track is what pretty much every kid these days encounters in school. You take standard English, History, Science, Math, etc. in an effort to make you ready to pursue an academic path into college. Essentially, the goal is to make the student well-rounded so that college can then mold them into their future selves. Meanwhile, the Vocational track still had kids take English, History, Science, Math and more, but they were more basic survey classes, and shorter, making room for their vocational classes. By senior year, the Vocational track kids were rebuilding cars, doing HVAC work, building furniture, crafting tools from metal, painting, glass blowing, baking, doing the work of a seamstress, and more. Many of them were hooked up with apprenticeships after graduation and while the College Prep kids went off to four more years of school, the Vocational kids were starting careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “we need vocational tracks because some kids aren’t smart enough for college” which is the argument opponents always take. I’m saying “we need vocational tracks because some kids have talents that make them totally awesome but aren’t found in college”. You see, I want kids to be happy and awesome when they grow up, and if a kid absolutely loves fixing things with his hands, why do you want to force them into college to pursue a generic business degree?

The only saving grace in regards to this is Obama’s mention of strengthening our community colleges and technical schools. Done right, it can be like a Vocational track in High School but after High School, with 2 year degrees in specific areas that don’t require taking lots of “junk” classes unrelated to the degree. Of course, in general it will fail to provide kids with a proper sample of skills in order to discover they might actually like working on cars or sewing dresses, so many of them will plod on to traditional college and get mediocre grades toward a degree someone else convinced them would be good for them, never having had the opportunity to find their own personal awesomeness.

I don’t have a kid, but I hope to some day, and if their school doesn’t provide it, I’ll make sure I introduce them to a wide variety of skills in order to help them find the path on which they can be the best version who they are. If that path includes college, so be it, but if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

One comment

  1. I have been talking about vocational schools for a long time. Every kid should not go to college as we see it today. As you said, not because they aren’t smart enough, but because their path may not require knowing ancient african peotry. There is no shame in a vocational path. People are good at different things, and this should be celebrated.

    When I was preparing to graduate, my grandmother was the other person in my family who ever said that it was ok if I didn’t go to college. If there was something else I wanted to pursue that college wouldn’t help me get to. I loved her so much for that. Everyone else pounded college into my head, and as it turns out, it probably was the right path for me, but I believe that every parent pounds college into their kids heads now. The college degree has become the high school diploma. It’s worth much less that in used to be. If there were different paths, then I think it would be clearer what each was worth in it’s own setting.

    College just isn’t right for everyone. But it’s become a requirement for everyone to have in order to get almost any job. My job requires a college degree, and I have to be honest…a monkey could do my job a majority of the time. A high school diploma and some training is all that should be required. A college degree should put me in a position where I can start at something above grunt work. Still entry level, but in a different way. I make an amount that doesn’t allow me to even pay on my student loans reliably.

    I’m 5 years out of college, and my degree has gotten me nothing. We aren’t helping more kids achieve, we are watering down degrees.

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