Ken Plum: Making high school more meaningful

As an avid user of social media I was surprised that a link to a Forbes article I posted recently on Facebook on “Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools” had been shared by nearly a hundred of my friends on their own pages. Obviously the subject hit a chord of interest on the part of many people. The author Nicholas Wyman asserts that the “college-for-everyone” attitude has pushed vocational and career education programs to the margins. He says that “if we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of high school learning.” He is not alone in his belief as evidenced by the wide range of readership of his article. I can relate to what he has to say because for several of the years of my 30-year career with Fairfax County Public Schools my job title was director of vocational and adult education.

There is widespread interest in a redesign of high school education. As many point out, high schools are largely operated under an industrial model that has not changed in a 100 years even though the world around public schools has undergone major changes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded Next Generation Learning Challenges that has funded dozens of new schools around the country that take new approaches to learning that include online and personalized learning. More recently, Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs, has put up $50 million to support competition on the redesign of public high schools. Her effort, XQ: The Super School Project, hopes to lead to community efforts to overhaul high schools to be more relevant, more engaging and more successful at turning out students who can compete in a fast-evolving economy.

Fortunately, Virginia is underway with its own effort to redesign high school. Secretary of Education for Virginia, Dr. Dietra Trent, wrote recently that the Board of Education is developing new graduation requirements that align programs with the skills every student should have upon graduation, removing the pressure of high-stakes testing, and ensuring that all students are exposed to 21st century skills. Under the new model that is being considered, the first two years of high school would focus more on core classes while the next two years would allow for experiential learning, internships, externships, on-the-job training, and other opportunities. As the Secretary explained it, “by adding experiential learning opportunities, expanding how credits can be earned and developing a variety of rigorous new pathways to graduation, high school redesign will finally unleash the full potential of our teachers, our students and our schools.”

A unifying topic I find among my constituents is the desire that we have the best schools possible for our children and grandchildren. I like the work that is going on in many places to rethink how we do schooling, especially at the high school level. With the wonderful schools we have in our community we need to examine the requirements of our schools to ensure that we provide students with opportunities to explore, create, innovate and become lifelong learners.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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