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July 15, 2013

State of the Statehouse: Obama, Pence find common ground in Germany

INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to public policy, President Barack Obama and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are kilometers apart in their thinking, but both have found something “wunderbar” in the way Germans have engineered vocational education.

Obama praised it in his last State of the Union speech, when he pledged to create a new federal funding stream to provide the nation’s high school students with technical education to help them prepare for the workforce.

Pence praised it in his welcoming remarks at a luncheon for the German ambassador to the U.S. last week, when he pledged to do more to provide Indiana’s high school students with technical education to help them prepare for the workforce.

What’s the idea that brings these two men together, when they stand so far apart on so much else?

It’s Germany’s “dual system” of vocational education that combines classroom learning with paid, on-the-job training for high school students.

We do a simplified version of it in some high schools here in Indiana, but nothing like what the Germans do. In Germany, about half of high school students graduate work-ready, with the equivalent of a two-year technical degree from one of our community colleges and two to three years of relevant work experience.

Unlike the American ideal of “college for all,” the Germans acknowledge that not every one wants or needs to get a four-year college degree. So by the 10th grade, German students have the option of heading off on a vocational track that will lead them to a wide range of occupations.

Typically, students in the dual system spend a couple of days a week at a vocational school, studying the theory and practice of their occupation as well as economics, social studies, and other general subjects. Then they spend the other three school days working as apprentices in their chosen field, getting paid about one-third of the salary of a trained skilled worker.

At last week’s luncheon, at an Ivy Tech Community College campus, German ambassador Peter Ammon credited the dual system for the low unemployment rate among Germans under 25. It’s about 6 percent, compared to the 50 percent unemployment rate for young Spaniards and Greeks.

As he told his audience, one of the problems of affluent nations is the “trend toward uber-academization,” resulting in too many college graduates with dead-end degrees, or worse: Too many college dropouts with no degree and no skills.

“It’s simply true that not everybody can become a neurosurgeon, or a lawyer, or a financial wizard,” Ammon said.

Ammon’s speech seemed well-received by his audience, a mix of policy makers, business leaders, and educators. But he was a pushing a concept that radically departs from our current American education system that elevates “college readiness” for all, above all.

Ours is a cookie-cutter approach that tells every student: If you stay in school and go to college, you’re future will be bright. But it doesn’t work for so many students who simply drop out — physically or mentally — because of their belief that nothing they are learning in the classroom will help them get a job.

It’s an approach we’ve been wedded to for so long, that it seems unchangeable.

And here’s another reason why the German approach seems so radical: In the U.S., it’s government — taxpayers really — that picks up the cost of public education while the business sector often complains about how public schools aren’t turning out good workers. In Germany, the government picks up only a quarter of the costs of the dual system of vocational education. Businesses pick up the other 75 percent of the cost. They see it as an investment in their future and that of their nation.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

 

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