I had an interesting conversation today with John Konop, who is the CEO of a financial services company, a former candidate for Congress – he lost a GOP primary challenge to Tom Price in 2006 — and a frequent commenter on education issues.
A Cherokee resident, Konop was one of the early critics of the state’s new math curriculum. He sees the math reforms as a symptom of a larger problem: Forcing all students into an academic track that is not relevant to their dreams, may exceed their abilities and pushes them to drop out.
As a CEO who monitors job trends, he questions the mantra that high level math skills are essential to most future jobs. He advocates options outside college prep for students so they are not done in by early failure and give up on school.
He and I agree that the dropout rate in Georgia is a problem. However, we depart on the solution. He wants a non-college track, saying that a lot of students in Georgia – including those only learning English — could be better served by a track that leads them to technical training and certification rather than to college and a bachelor’s degree.
Konop agrees that people change their goals – what someone wants at 15 may not be the same thing they want at 25 – - but says that’s why we ought to make it easier for people who obtain certificates to resume their education.
“A lot of those kids would be better served in junior high by getting into a certification program. To expect a kid having a hard enough time grasping the language to go on a certain track to college is irrational for them and for the teacher. At the end of the day, no matter what we do, a certain amount of people will fall through the cracks,” he says. “If kids do fall through the cracks, what can you do to change it? I recommend giving these kids a chance to go to junior college. The guy who is the CIO at my company got his first IT degree from IT Tech and now has a MBA.”
Konop says many older workers went to college assuming they would learn everything they needed for their careers. Their college degree marked the end of their education.
“We don’t live in that world anymore,” he says. “Now, if you study something it gets you in the door, but you have to keep studying. I am a CEO, but I keep reading every day. I don’t look at education as ever stopping.”
Here is my counterargument in brief: The attitude that students need an academically less demanding “vo-tech” track fails to consider the dramatic changes in the 21st-century workplace that can make a manufacturing manual tougher to comprehend than a college text. Strong literacy and math skills are vital.
As Kati Haycock of the Education Trust told me: “Young people today who don’t have those skills are not becoming auto mechanics; they are the ones sweeping the shop floor.”
Konop argues that the single college prep diploma will drive more high school students to quit, but history doesn’t bear out his predictions. The national movement to higher standards that began in the 1970s did not inflate dropout rates. In fact, dropout rates fell between 1973 and 1990, especially among black students. The key is to ensure that additional academic rigor seems relevant to future employment. Students who understand how physics is applied to careers in aeronautics or hydraulics, for example, are more likely to invest the time needed to master that discipline.
In addition, Census data still show that even completion of only two years of college yields higher lifetime earnings than a technical school certificate. Yes, there are high-earning mechanics and welders out there, but we often overlook all the folks coming out of tech schools into low-paying fields with very little opportunity for advancement.
Konop wrote a blog posting about his position and about a bill that he thinks will help: Here it is:
Our high schools are facing skyrocketing drop out rates, declining test scores, and limited tax revenue (because of the recession). No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all education model, with its unfunded mandates from the sate and federal government, has been a massive failure by any measurement.
Georgia has unfortunately followed No Child Left Behind’s lead and established a one-track-fits-all philosophy, which forces all students into a college-bound curriculum. The result: students with an aptitude for vocational/tech curriculum are demoralized (and dropping out in greater numbers) and college-bound students are not challenged by an increasingly watered-down curriculum aimed at accommodating everyone (including students who would be better served by a vocational/tech curriculum).
The solution to these problems requires only common sense and familiarity with an already proven approach. For example, Macon, GA, has developed a multi-track (college-bound and vocational/tech) system based on each student’s aptitudes. By putting vocational students and college bound students on different tracks, the school has realized amazing results.
From Macon.com: “…the immediate benefits from the career academy include lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and a more skilled labor pool in the county, [school administrator Carpenter] said. The Newnan school’s web site states the county’s dropout rate has fallen by half since it opened, and the graduation rate for students in dual enrollment programs is 98 percent.”
Georgia State Representative Steve Davis has proposed a bipartisan bill (HR-215) to promote this multi-track concept. The bill will provide separate tracks for high school students (a college-bound track and a vocational/tech track) using joint enrolment programs with local colleges and technical schools to support honors and vocational programs.
HR-215 would 1) increase graduation rates, 2) provide our local economy with work-ready students who will increase tax revenues, and 3) decrease the money governments spend on welfare and crime. It will also lower the overall cost of education by better utilizing college and technical school resources, many of which have surplus capacity.