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Secretary DeVos delivers remarks at 87th annual United States Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting

Thank you, Mayor Steve Benjamin, for that kind introduction.

It’s good to be back with some of you, and to meet so many more. I was active in local politics and policy for many years, so I know first-hand your leadership role is important to your communities and the people you serve.

I’ve always believed solutions are best developed by those closest to an issue – by states, by communities, and by families. And mayors have a unique role in those ecosystems.

In my current job, I naturally think a lot about all things education. Education is perhaps the most local issue there is. It starts with the family. And yet those closest to their own children and to local schools and teachers seem to be the least empowered. Yet parents know that they need different solutions for their different children. They know we need to rethink education.

We live in some of the most exciting and opportunity-filled times ever. Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen significant advances in technology, medicine, and travel – just to name a few. But through all these changes in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our communities, approaches to education have largely remained the same for too many American students.

Yet, right now, there are over seven million unfilled jobs in the United States. Last year when I was with some of you, there were six million. The demand for skilled workers has grown. And looking ahead, consider the reality that the majority of the jobs that today’s students will do just 10 short years from now haven’t been invented.

Despite a booming economy with record-low unemployment, employer after employer reports that they cannot find enough qualified people to hire. I’m sure you’ve heard the same. There is a disconnect between education and the economy, just as there is often a disconnect between a child and the school they’re assigned to.

Too many students are unprepared for successful careers today, and beyond. And too many are treated more like commodities instead of as the individuals they are, each with unique abilities and aspirations.

As mayors, you have an important opportunity to build relationships between employers and educators. Today giant silos exist between educators and employers, between students and success. But students are better prepared for what comes next when their teachers learn from and partner with their community’s builders and doers.

In that vein, I was pleased this administration and Congress came together to pass what we call “Perkins V.” This new law is good news for those who want to break down those silos.

It gives states, districts, and community colleges more freedom to decide how to use taxpayer dollars to prepare students for success.

And as mayors, this year you have a critical role in helping your state shape its Perkins plan. For the first time, the law urges you and other local leaders to regularly evaluate student needs and how programs are meeting those needs.

Most of you likely work with your community’s economic development team. And most of you probably know the business leaders in your community well. And you certainly know your communities better than anyone in this town. You know what kinds of people are needed for the new businesses that are opening or expanding in your city. And you probably know a few folks who, with additional education, could thrive in some of those jobs.

You all want your communities to grow and prosper. So you must play the important role of bringing together education and industry. That demands a “rethink.”

And I’ve talked a lot about that lately. Some ask why that’s necessary. Well, education is the least disrupted “industry” in America. And, let’s not kid ourselves, it is an industry. The one-size-fits-all approach is a mismatch for too many kids. Every student is different and therefore learns differently. And education is too siloed. “Pre-K,” “K-12,” “CTE,” “community college,” “higher ed,” etcetera. The rest of the world, we know, is not siloed.

So, by “rethink,” I mean this: everyone question everything to ensure nothing limits students from being prepared for what comes next.

Who is “everyone”? Everyone is everyone. Students themselves. Students of every age. Parents. Grandparents. Educators. Faith leaders. Administrators. Business leaders. Servicemen and women. Community leaders. Workers of every kind. Elected officials. Everyone.

And what is “everything”? Everything is everything. Where, when, how, what, and why we do things today – and everything about what we could or should do differently.

Here are a few questions to consider today, and I hope you pose them to your own communities when you get home.

Why limit educators? Why assign kids to schools based on their address? Why group kids by age? Why force all students to learn at the same speed? Why measure learning by hours and days? Why suggest a college degree is the only path to future success? Why believe education stops at graduation?

When it comes to rethinking career and technical education, I urge you to begin by asking why CTE is siloed as “career and technical education” and not just considered “education.” By that, I mean CTE is not a destination nor is it a consolation prize. Career and technical education is as valid and important as other pursuits of study in a student’s lifelong learning journey.

That notion is widely embraced elsewhere in the world. I recently visited a number of enterprises in Switzerland that educate and employ apprentices. And I continue to be inspired by the fact that more than two-thirds of high school students there pursue their learning through apprenticeships. As a person who herself thrives on hands-on or experiential learning, I would have loved those opportunities when I was in formal education.

One important lesson from Switzerland is that business and community leaders don’t ask for approval from government to partner with educators. They identify needs and proactively take steps to address the needs of their communities and their lifelong learners.

You don’t need a permission slip, either. And many communities are already figuring this out. Let me share a couple of examples.

Penta Career Center in Perrysburg, Ohio. The name for the Center comes from the five different counties and 16 districts it partners with to prepare students for regional business needs. Students can graduate with a high school diploma and several certificates in a wide-variety of work-based learning opportunities.

They aren’t limited by location or building – they are given the freedom to grow, explore, and learn in ways that work for them.

I think also of dual-enrollment efforts, like the one at Lorenzo Walker Tech, in Naples, Florida. Students there can earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree simultaneously through partnership with Florida Southwestern State College. A great head-start toward successful careers.

At Harper College outside Chicago, I was impressed by the non-traditional apprenticeships, like ones in banking, insurance, and supply-chain management. These kinds of apprenticeships are common in other parts of the world, but aren’t yet here. They need to be.

Then there’s Mercedes and BFGoodrich which partner with Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to offer students excellent opportunities to upskill in their current profession or start a new one. Employers and educators working hand-in-hand to develop stronger community – in every sense of the word.

These examples are encouraging. Students need more of them. Many more! Employers need them, as do educators. Most importantly, your communities need them.

Ultimately, we must expand our thinking about what education actually is, as well as resist the urge to expect all students to follow the same track. Many of you may have seen Congresswoman Virginia Foxx’s piece in The Wall Street Journal last month. “By placing descriptors like ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ in front of the word ‘education,’” Congresswoman Foxx wrote, “we generate misleading thoughts” about education.

Perhaps the most misleading descriptor, Congresswoman Foxx wrote – and I agree – is “training.” Animals are trained. People pursue education.

So, there should be many education pathways because there are many types of students with many different interests and many kinds of opportunities with varying requirements.

And we can’t kid ourselves to think we’re supporting multiple pathways if the road to a traditional 4-year-college degree is paved… and other legitimate education opportunities are rutted gravel roads.

Careers are like highways, after all, not one-way or dead-end streets. Highways have off-ramps and on-ramps. Students should be able to exit easily for a time to learn something new, then re-enter the highway at an on-ramp of their choosing, and then change lanes as needed.

I know it’s easy to get lost in papers, programs, and plans. But let’s not lose sight of why we are here.

I recently met a young woman from Minneapolis named Isabel. Isabel apprenticed at a company called Bühler while she earned her high school diploma, and got paid for it. She worked with engineers and experienced a variety of jobs within Bühler. Isabel’s apprenticeship launched her on an early trajectory to success. At age 21, Isabel owns her own home, owns her own car, has her own health care policy and 401K, and she recently earned a job offer to move and work in Switzerland.

We owe students who today don’t have opportunities like Isabel’s to rethink education, to aim as high as students do, and to be bold for their future – and ours.

Let’s keep all students at the center of every conversation and everything we do.

Thank you for everything you do to serve your communities.

Distribution channels: Education


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