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Race to the Top for Career and Technical Education

By Charles Sahm (Opinion Contributor)

This year’s presidential election highlighted the plight of working-class Americans who have seen manufacturing jobs disappear due to the twin forces of globalization and automation. As Betsy DeVos, the education secretary nominee, begins to formulate a policy agenda, one hopes that high on the list will be career and technical education, or CTE, programs that can provide a clear path to prosperity.


One of today’s economic paradoxes is that there are hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs that employers cannot fill because they require “middle-level” skills that are presently in short supply – jobs from computer programming to machinists to construction to medical assisting. These are good jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year bachelor’s degree but do require some postsecondary credentials, such as an associate’s degree, a license or a certification. Other countries do a much better job preparing young people for these types of careers. In Germany, for example, 65 percent of young people participate in apprenticeship programs.

As the Philanthropy Roundtable recently noted in its “Learning to Be Useful” guidebook, CTE presents a “yawning opportunity” for government and philanthropists. One simple step to expand and replicate successful CTE programs would be for the Senate to pass the “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act,” which modernizes and reforms the Perkins law that funds CTE programs and passed the House this September by a 405 to 5 vote.

But for CTE to reach its full potential, it will require bolder, more creative thinking. This week, a major policy summit, This Way Up, sponsored by Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute (where I work) and others, explored new ideas to improve economic mobility, including efforts to better integrate academics and workforce development.

One idea I’d submit for consideration is a Race-to-the-Top-like competitive grants program focused on CTE. If the federal government dangled significant money for states to experiment with CTE, it could set off a groundswell of reform. Grants could be awarded to states that take steps to better integrate academic work and technical training, engage business and industry, build a bridge from secondary to postsecondary education or training and provide real on-the-job work experience. (Although there is still much work to be done, New York City offers some promising CTE models, including its new “P-TECH” schools.)
Interestingly, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have to look far to see an interesting model for preparing young people with the knowledge and skills to compete for in-demand jobs: All she has to do is visit the charter school founded by her husband.
Located at the Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the West Michigan Aviation Academy is an innovative charter school founded by billionaire Dick DeVos as a way to combine his passions for education and aviation. (DeVos is a certified plane and helicopter pilot.)
West Michigan Aviation opened in September 2010 in a renovated office building. Two years later, the DeVoses paid to construct a gleaming new 45,000-square-foot extension attached to the old building. Over the past seven years, the DeVos family foundation has provided $4.6 million in donations to the school, mostly in start-up costs and support for its aviation program.

Today, West Michigan Aviation has 600 students (more than 70 percent are boys) who are provided with a traditional high school curriculum, augmented with an aviation and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) focus. All students take an introductory flight science class; beyond that, students can take more advanced aviation and STEM classes. Many students take and pass advanced-placement tests, including in difficult subjects like physics, calculus and computer science.
The school has two donated Cessna airplanes as well as flight simulators. Some students take flying classes (which cost extra) and obtain a pilot’s license before graduation. Although West Michigan Aviation is not formally a CTE school, many of its teachers are CTE-certified. The school has articulation agreements with the University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University, which allow students to graduate with a STEM endorsement and a leg up in entering both schools’ competitive engineering programs.

West Michigan Aviation students come from all around the Grand Rapids area and many students commute up to an hour to get to the school. Thirty-seven percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; about 30 percent are black or Hispanic, percentages far higher than in the two nearest comprehensive high schools that serve the largely white and affluent Grand Rapids community. West Michigan Aviation’s test scores rank it among the top high schools in the area, and its graduation rate is 88 percent. Last year, 55 percent of graduates went on to four-year colleges, 31 percent to community college or trade school and 8 percent joined the military.
“We’ve been able to create a culture of opportunity for students from all different walks of life,” notes school CEO Pat Cwayna, who was principal of highly regarded East Grand Rapids High School for more than 20 years. By providing students with exposure to the booming fields of engineering technology and aviation, West Michigan Aviation is “the perfect fit for the times,” notes Cwayna. Indeed, Boeing forecasts that between now and 2035, the aviation industry will need to supply more than 2 million new aviation personnel, including 617,000 commercial airline pilots and 679,000 maintenance technicians.

Katie Pribyl, senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, hails West Michigan Aviation as “a model for how to incorporate aviation into a broader STEM education.” In recognition of the demand for pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and other aviation-related employment, AOPA is working with Purdue University to develop a four-year CTE-certified curriculum that will include aviation, aerospace engineering, aviation technology and drones.
If the United States wants to increase economic and social mobility, creating more innovative models like the West Michigan Aviation Academy will be key. Here’s hoping that Betsy DeVos and her team center their attention on the “yawning opportunity” that career and technical education presents to improve the life prospects of America’s working class.

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