As I’ve written here and at my blog on www.snipsmag.com several times, it’s hard to get many lawmakers - at the state and federal levels - to understand the need for vocational education.
Too often, legislators have an outdated image of poor-performing high school students toiling in “shop” classes, taught by an instructor who may be missing one or more fingers, learning a trade that technology has made irrelevant.
And while that stereotype may still be somewhat accurate at a few schools around the country, smart officials know that the best trade-based training today - often taught at community colleges or schools run by unions or industry associations - offers rigorous, demanding classes that lead to high-wage, in-demand jobs in fields such as sheet metal and HVAC work.
What these positions don’t usually require is a four-year degree from a college or university. And that’s where many lawmakers lose perspective on the issue, which is why I have championed the work of Democratic Michigan state Rep. Joel Sheltrown.
In 2006, at the urging Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan passed some of the toughest high school graduation requirements in the country. Unlike when I was a Michigan high school student, graduates would have to take four years of math and science, including algebra II.
Good intentions, bad resultsIt quickly became apparent that despite the good intentions, the new requirements were too much for many students to master, and some educators feared that instead of boosting college graduation rates, the required coursework could lead to a spike in high school dropouts.
Last year, Sheltrown introduced a bill to allow students to take alternatives instead of the college-level math course. But while several construction groups supported the effort, he ran into stiff opposition from many of his fellow lawmakers, as well as the governor, herself, like Sheltrown, a Democrat. A number of newspaper editorials also criticized the plan, saying he was attempting to dumb-down the new curriculum before it had even been fully implemented.
The bill died without a vote.
But the legislator was undeterred. He worked on the bill and his fellow representatives, reintroducing it this year. He eventually even found sympathetic senators to sponsor similar legislation in the state’s upper chamber.
This time, he had better luck. It passed out of a committee and then in September, it passed overwhelmingly on the House floor. The state Senate’s version passed unanimously a month earlier.
Sheltrown’s bill allows students to meet the state’s math requirements by taking financial literacy courses or technical-education classes that include math instead of algebra II.
“My plan is about enhancing flexibility in our education system so our students are better prepared for high-paying jobs that are in high-demand fields of the 21st century,” Sheltrown said in a statement. “Not every student fits into the same mold when it comes to learning. Being able to accommodate our young people’s interests will help them land in-demand jobs when they graduate.”
It's expected the state legislature will pass some form of Sheltrown’s bill by the end of the year - perhaps by the time you read this.
That’s quite a turnaround for a plan that was widely criticized by Democrats and Republicians a little over a year ago.
“We will need workers with skills in every field to help turn our economy around,” Sheltrown said.