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Expanding career and technical education

October 1st, 2014

Expanding in the USA? No, but career and technical education is expanding in China! The Chinese government recently announced a dramatic “pivot” toward vocational education. The Chinese plan includes converting 600 colleges into vocational schools. The Chinese plan also includes boosting the number of vocational students from 29 million to 39 million, a 34% increase. Should we take notice?

On the downside, China’s educational system lacks the USA’s flexibility and multiple re-entry points for continued college degree attainment. In addition, young Chinese are faced with a high-stakes exam at the end of high school that determines if they have any future in higher education. China’s three-day exam is called the National Higher Education Entrance Examination or gaokao. This grueling exam is held in June of each year, and measures preparation for university work. The gaokao tests determine a young persons future regarding continued education—and overall opportunity in life. A high school student’s life revolves around preparing only for the content that is tested. All other learning is ignored. It is common for teachers to “X” out whole sections of textbook content not included in the exam. That is an example of teaching-to-the-test. Does any of this sound familiar in our current intensive student-testing climate? The Chinese plan for vocational education includes adding vocational skill assessment to the gaokao so as to facilitate access to post-high school training.

China’s one-time chance for access to post-secondary system is not what we want in the USA. Community colleges were developed to ensure open access to higher education opportunity. We want students to be able to develop their full potential. Consider this quote from Dr. Louisa Moats, a founding developer of the Common Core State Standards:

“The Common Core Standards represent lofty aspirational goals for students aiming for four year, highly selective colleges. Realistically, at least half, if not the majority, of students are not going to meet those standards as written, although the students deserve to be well prepared for career and work through meaningful and rigorous education. Our lofty standards are appropriate for the most academically able, but what are we going to do for the huge numbers of kids that are going to “fail” the test?”

Good question, what will we do? What the Chinese did, over the past 15 years, was carry out an agenda that we are now pursuing. The Chinese agenda was to greatly expand the number of university degrees awarded. This goal was achieved, and the Chinese dramatically increased the number of university graduates. The result was a sudden increase in the number of graduates in non-graduate occupations (sometimes referred to as “gringos”) fueling disappointment and disconnects with the job market. How many USA gringos do you know paying off student loans?

In the USA, the federal government has called for career and technical education to be more job-driven. This is sound guidance; good CTE programs have always been job-driven. A primary goal of a CTE program is a job at the end. This year, for the first time in a decade, the U.S. government boosted funding for high school and college career and technical education by $1.125 billion. This is an amount that is $188 million smaller than in 2004.

A current federal initiative proposes to expand apprenticeship in the USA. Apprenticeship is the learn-while-you-earn model of career and technical education, and requires a much higher level of engagement by employers. Competitive grants will be available late this year that seek to double the number of apprentices in the USA over the next 5 years. This is a step in the right direction, but are we prepared to pivot toward career and technical education as our Chinese competitors are doing?

by Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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