WHEN THREE FEMALE African-American mathematicians—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—became unsung heroes at NASA during the 1960s space race, the US was engaged in a fierce competition to become the world leader in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. As told in the recently released movie Hidden Figures, the trio’s groundbreaking calculations for rocket trajectories required programming a complex, first-of-a-kind IBM computer that helped put astronaut John Glenn in orbit. Skip ahead 54 years, and the US is a world leader in scientific innovation and advanced technologies.
But in order for the US to remain at the forefront of innovation and not lag behind, we must address the disconnect between the skills required for 21st century jobs and young people’s ability to acquire those skills. Fixing this will require us to evolve our approach to public education and training. The latest results of the PISA exam, which assesses science, math, and reading performance among 15-year-olds around the globe, show American students noticeably behind in math scores (below the international average), with science and reading scores remaining flat. This is not a small problem.
In one way, Congress took a bold, bipartisan step toward reversing this downward trend and closing America’s skills gap last fall, when the House of Representatives voted 405-to-5 to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which had languished since 2006. The Perkins Act provides more than $1 billion in funding for career and technical education across the US. The bill aligns career and tech education programs with actual labor market demands. Updating this important legislation can and should be an early win for the 115th Congress and the incoming administration.
The House bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support because leaders from both sides of the aisle recognize the urgent need to better prepare students to succeed in college and career. Backed by hundreds of business, labor, education, and civil society leaders, this much-needed reform will enable the country to invest wisely and prepare America’s young people to fill the hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs that already exist, and that do not always require a four-year college degree. These new collar jobs for holders of two-year degrees do not need to be created or brought back. They’re ready to be filled today by people with the right skills, and early action by Congress is essential.
But many of our young people lack the relevant skills or support to move from school to college to career. Too many of our traditional vocational training programs do not prepare students for meaningful careers. It’s time to link career and technical education to where the high quality jobs are now and where they will be in the future.
Passage of the Perkins Act can ensure that our nation’s essential career and technical education programs will equip graduates for current and future high-wage, high-growth jobs. A revised Perkins Act will help better meet the demands of the 21st century workforce by giving employers the ability to align education directly to needed skills, and blend experiential learning with academic training. The bill also calls for concrete performance metrics to reward success. Such an investment in America’s young people will yield long-lasting returns.
An innovative new educational model called P-TECH lets students earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree in a STEM field. Launched by IBM (where I am a vice president) along with education partners in 2011, P-TECH is a rigorous program that aligns strong STEM curricula with essential workplace skills such as problem solving, writing, and critical thinking. Located mostly in underserved communities and requiring no admissions testing or additional spending, P-TECH schools are already delivering tangible results. The program has expanded to 60 schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities, and IBM is working with states to create 20 more P-TECH schools over the next year. P-TECH’s measurable results prove that it can and will help thousands of youth achieve success.
In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for example, nearly 35 percent of P-TECH students are completing their “six-year” program in five years or less, moving directly into good new collar jobs, four-year college degree programs, or both—without the need for costly, non-credit remedial courses. With these kinds of results, it’s not far-fetched to envision skilled and motivated P-TECH graduates playing essential roles in America’s next moon shot.
If we are to enable a brighter future for American youth through innovative technical education programs, Congress must act quickly and send the Perkins bill to the President’s desk for early signature. This fundamental and sorely needed alignment is a win-win for our country. It puts our students on a path to success, and positions our businesses to compete and win in the global economy. Given support and opportunity, our young people can and will succeed.