Seeing Hope for Flagging Economy, West Virginia Revamps Vocational Track

And this fall, students enrolled in simulated workplaces will need to participate in one of the program’s boldest elements: random drug testing.

Given the extent of the state’s opioid crisis, employers “wouldn’t take anything we were doing seriously until we passed that hurdle,” said Barry Crist, principal of the Fayette Institute of Technology in Oak Hill.

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Tommy Nguyen experimented with building a generator.

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Mark E. Trent for The New York Times

West Virginia’s heavy push on vocational education comes as leaders of both parties have talked about making it a priority, a shift from the No Child Left Behind era of education reform, in which college for everyone was often the goal. In 2015, fewer than half of 25- to 34-year-olds nationwide had earned an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to census figures.

“Vocational training is a great thing,” President Trump said a week before Election Day. “We’re going to start it up big league.” In June, he signed an executive order that redirected federal job training funds toward apprenticeships, in which students learn skills at actual work sites.

Democrats, too, are talking about vocational training. The agenda they introduced in July, “A Better Deal,” speaks of increasing support for “technical education that leads to a good job.”

But Mr. Trump’s budget calls for $166 million in cuts, a 15 percent reduction, in Perkins Act grants to the states, the government’s main funding stream for technical education in high school and college. The House passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Perkins program in June, but the bill has not moved forward in the Senate. Even if it passes, the legislation will represent a tweak to the program, not a substantial new commitment of the type Mr. Trump and Democrats have touted.

When it comes to technical education, the United States is an outlier compared with other developed nations. Only 6 percent of American high school students were enrolled in a vocational course of study, according to a 2013 Department of Education report. In the United Kingdom, 42 percent were on the vocational track; in Germany, it was 59 percent; in the Netherlands, 67 percent; and in Japan, 25 percent.

“We are so focused on academic routes as opposed to other routes that can be high quality,” said Mary Alice…

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