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John Florez: Technical training critical for new economy

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Bridgerland ATC High School student Cameron Gonzales checks the headlights of a car Wednesday during the AAA/Ford Student Auto Skills Contest at the Larry Miller Campus of Salt Lake Community College in Sandy.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." — John W. Gardner

Yet that's what Utah legislators have done; they have forsaken students who want technical training for the sake of saving a few bucks. Last year, based on a 2009 legislative audit, legislators cut off funding to school districts because they were allowing students to take technical training classes at Applied Technology Colleges (ATC) while counting them as full-time students. In the meantime, the ATCs were including them in their membership.

Now, Rep. Kraig Powell has introduced HB258 designed to restore the lost funding to local districts. He believes it's too simplistic to say money has to follow the student, "it doesn't capture the full reality of how we educate students in the state of Utah." He gets it; it's about meeting the education needs of all students.

It seems lawmakers are more concerned with finding problems instead of solving the challenge of creating learning opportunities for all students, including those who have no interest in going on to college. They continue to try to fix public education on the assumption that all students must earn a college degree in order to succeed. That not only demeans the importance of jobs calling for technical training, but also neglects students who have different interests, innate skills and dreams to practice those skills. Have you ever marveled at the creativity and innovation that mechanics, plumbers and construction workers use in fixing cars, pipes or remodeling homes? It can be humbling for those of us who lack that creativity.

Rather than cultivating the innate talents in students, we subject them to rote memorization and cookie cutter lesson plans that make no sense to today's students, even those interested in higher education. In 1994, School-To-Work programs were created with the belief that students learned best when they could tie school-based learning with on-the-job learning, "Why should I learn math?" Learning makes sense when applied to the world of work.

The unintended consequences of lawmakers wanting all students to go to college are that students become discouraged and later drop out of school, rather than sit through an assembly-line education. Lawmakers then create full employment jobs for experts who come up with costly remedial drop out programs.

Lawmakers, in their fervor to save a few dollars, have lost sight of the big picture — how to prepare all students to succeed in today's ever-changing world. Our economy will need workers who have technical skills as well as those with higher knowledge skills. What lawmakers and education policymakers need to understand is that all jobs will require the ability to create, innovate and be constant learners. Our schools need to be designed to prepare students for the new world of work.

Legislators keep touting choice; yet, by eliminating the collaborative efforts of school districts and ATCs, they have denied parents and students the choice of carving out a meaningful education for their student. Education is not about seat time or bean counting. It's about lawmakers understanding how to measure productivity in preparing students for today's economy. And it's not about stopping duplication, rather how agencies can collaborate in meeting the needs of students. The Utah Taxpayers Association, which primarily represents business, should support the development of a strong workforce, rather than oppose students having choices in furthering their careers.

Lawmakers should stop micromanaging and allow local school districts to figure out how best they can help all children cultivate their talents so our pipes and philosophies hold water.

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