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Mechanics and Doctors, Let’s Educate Both: An Argument for SB 381

New America Media, Commentary, Sen. Roderick D. Wright Posted: May 19, 2009

Every Student Deserves to Go to College: An Argument Against SB 381

The attempt to put every student in California on the track to college has left too many standing at the station. The most recent figures show 32 percent of our students are failing to finish high school. Instead of preparing them for rewarding careers, we’ve pushed them out of school and into crime or dead end jobs. It’s a sad fact that most high schools in this state with predominantly African American student enrollments are sending more young black men to prison than college. But it’s not just students of color who are being hurt; it’s every student whose interest, aptitude or dreams don’t require a degree from a four-year institution.

This is the reason I have introduced SB 381, which actually clarifies existing law. The current Education Code Section 51228 says that each school district shall offer courses that prepare a student for admission to a public university or with entry level employment skills. The problem is that school districts are deciding to abandon the second part of their obligation.

They are stacking the curriculum with a-g college requirements, while career technical or vocational education, as it was called when I attended school, is being disproportionately reduced and all but eliminated.

SB 381 simply says that the district choosing to adopt a-g requirements may do so, however, it must fulfill the other part of its obligation to provide career education.

It’s time to rethink the mantra that every child should go to college, which increasingly underlies much of today’s education policy. In simple truth, not every child needs a four-year degree to succeed. Yet we continue building a school system that pretends otherwise, overloading high school curricula with mandatory college preparatory classes that are forcing out vocational and career technical education courses. And as the push for more college tracking intensifies, the number of students who lose interest or simply give up will continue to increase.

The San Jose Unified School District should serve as a warning. Since requiring all its students to complete the courses needed for admission to the University of California, the district has seen a decline in overall academic achievement and a reduction in the number of students earning a high school degree. Meanwhile, enrollment in non-arts career technical education classes has fallen nearly 50 percent. This is tragic since these are the very “applied learning” courses that could inspire more students to stay in school by making education relevant to their dreams and career ambitions.

Instead of pushing students down a single path, we should be celebrating the diversity of skills and interests our children bring to school. It’s time to recognize that a diverse and productive economy needs a diverse and productive workforce. That was California’s strength during the last half of the 20th century, when our economy was surging thanks to one of the best-trained workforces in the world. Back then our schools prepared students who were headed for college, but they also provided opportunities for those who weren’t. They’ve stopped doing that. We’re cheating today’s students of the right to choose how to best develop their special skills and interests.

If a student wants to become a cosmetologist, let’s help her become the best cosmetologist she can be. If she wants to be a nuclear physicist, then lets help her do that too. We need both, and our schools need to prepare students for both.

Why should kids who are good with their hands be denied the training that will make them exceptional machinists, biotechnicians, electricians, welders, dental assistants, nurses or master carpenters? A new green economy will require these and many other technical specialists to make it happen.

If we are going to rebuild this economy, we need skilled workers more than ever. As skilled workers are in increasingly short supply, schools fixate on preparing every student for four years of college, at the expense of other career options, which may be more personally enriching, financially rewarding, and more useful in today’s workplace. This is madness, especially since only two of every 10 high school freshmen will actually earn a four-year college degree. Today, we’re branding the other eight as losers, when they really hold the hope for economic recovery.

According to the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, “it is not true that most jobs will require a four-year degree” in the coming years. Over a third of students attending community colleges already have a bachelor’s degree, but needed job skills so they returned to community college.

We only have seats in California for about 30 percent of our graduating seniors to attend college. When you factor in those who drop out, it is really about 20 percent. So a district that focuses on a-g at the expense of its career technical education obligation effectively disenfranchises 80 percent of its students.

What California desperately needs are fewer high school dropouts and more skilled workers to fill the 4 million jobs being vacated by retiring baby boomers, and the 2.5 million other openings that are projected. These are vital jobs paying $70,000 to $100,000 a year that require advanced technical training, but not a four-year college degree. In addition to college graduates, it will take skilled workers who love their jobs and are good at what they do to turn our economy around. It’s time California’s education policy reflected this reality.

Roderick D. Wright is a member of the California State Senate, representing the 25th District. Senator Wright can be reached at Senator.Wright@senate.ca.gov

Related Articles:

School Principal Tackles Achievement Gap With Help From Confucius

Putting an Accent on Latino Students’ Needs

Educational Equity Feeds Economic Growth



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