Time for clear thinking on CTE

Joe Enge

Anyone who has ever taught overseas can’t help but recognize the self-serving, idiosyncratic nature of the American public education system, compared to those in other countries.

For too long, our educational establishment has stubbornly declined to entertain any fresh idea that might threaten the status quo. It’s a shame, given that many of those new ideas have the potential to bring true excellence to Nevada education and long-term benefits to our youth.

One such important re-thinking is being advocated by Dr. Robert Schmidt, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute of Las Vegas. He appeared before the state Senate Human Resources and Education Committee March 23 to give a presentation on career and technical education (CTE), and offered important substance and vision — commodities often lacking in legislative discourse on Nevada education.

Speaking in support of Dr. Schmidt’s approach to CTE was Norm Dianda, owner of Q&D Construction and a founding sponsor of the ACE charter school in Reno, a practical and highly successful CTE model that should be replicated statewide. I also appeared, representing the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank based in Las Vegas.

Dr. Schmidt reviewed for senators several highly successful vocational and technical education programs in other countries, then applied the concepts to our situation in Nevada. An analysis Dr. Schmidt wrote recently for NPRI, titled " Teaching the Forgotten Half ," is a must read for anyone genuinely interested in saving Nevada's high schools.

Over the decades, American public school educators have made several unfortunate compromises that have resulted in students being properly prepared neither for college nor for the workforce. The frustration felt by employers such as Mr. Dianda at the lack of qualified young job applicants demonstrates the major disconnect between the public education system and the need and desire of many students to be well schooled in CTE. Nevada’s exceedingly high college remediation rates, even for Millennium Scholars, further confirm how short our high schools are falling.

Until we address the failure of the state’s academic/CTE compromise, Nevada public schools will remain incapable of preparing students for the future, no matter how much we spend. When the frustration level of business leaders such as Mr. Dianda reaches the point where they must form their own schools — as it has — it’s well past time for lawmakers and public education leaders to pay attention.

Nevada’s 19th Century model of education is not appropriate for the 21st Century. The class-struggle model of defining workers as "blue" or "white" collar is no longer relevant, and the elitist bias that pushes all students down the college path does all of them a disservice.

Dr. Schmidt gave the Committee some startling statistics to chew on. Of the 66 percent of students who are encouraged to go to college, 31 percent leave college with zero credits. This is not only a waste of time for the students, but a major waste of taxpayer money (remember, it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill for these failures). The remediation rates are staggering – 46 percent for four-year colleges and 64 percent for two-year colleges. After 10 years, only 37 percent obtain a degree, and 43 percent of college graduates report underemployment two years later.

Said Schmidt, "The ‘three Rs’ for education should be rigor — all children need the chance to succeed at challenging classes; relevance — courses and projects must spark student interest and relate clearly to their lives in today’s world; and relationships — all students need adult mentors who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve."

The first step should be to stop treating CTE as the red-headed step-child of public education. Students engaged in CTE programs see an increase in academic achievement and have low drop-out rates because their learning is made relevant.

Nevada's students are willing and able to rise to the challenge, so why aren’t we offering them the opportunity? The old money excuse won’t work, because tax breaks for supporting businesses would make the program a roaring success.

Let's give Nevada's students the same opportunity for a rewarding and productive future that is available to students in other parts of the world.

Joe Enge, education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, taught in Tartu, Estonia, from 1993-1994 as a Fulbright teacher.