College & Workforce Readiness

Betsy DeVos Sounds Off on Workforce Readiness, Alternatives to College

By Alyson Klein — November 28, 2017 3 min read
School choice remains a central part of the policy message from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but in recent appearances she also has emphasized the need for learning pathways beyond the usual post-high school route.
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President Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos to be U.S. secretary of education one year ago, on Nov. 23, 2016. At the time, she was expected to focus primarily on school choice. One year later, Congress hasn’t really embraced that agenda. But DeVos has broadened her message, talking about issues like apprenticeships and alternatives to traditional four-year college.

At the same time, she hasn’t backed off school choice, despite setbacks. She’s made it clear she plans to stick around for Trump’s entire term, despite rumors to the contrary.

Here are a couple of recent instances in which the secretary—who remains one of the Trump administration’s highest-profile, if controversial, Cabinet members—has expanded her views involving workforce readiness and other issues.

Apprenticeship Push

The country needs to quit trying to push every student to attend a four-year college, and open up apprenticeships and other workplace learning experiences to more students, according to DeVos.

“We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success,” she said this month at the first meeting of the White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. “We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like. We need to start treating students as individuals ... not boxing them in.”

The panel, which was created through an executive order signed by Trump earlier this year, is chaired by Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. DeVos and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross serve as vice chairs. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a White House adviser, was also on hand.

The Trump administration can use its “bully pulpit” to advance career training and help set up some incentives through the pending reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, DeVos said.

But most of the progress on job training will likely come from the private sector. The task force, DeVos said, is about getting a chance to hear from the business community about how government can help businesses advance their career-training goals—even if the answer is to get government out of the way. She expects, too, that many solutions would be “regional in nature.”

Mastering Workplace Skills

DeVos told a roomful of CEOs in Washington this month that many students aren’t mastering the skills they need to be prepared for the careers of the future.

She argued that 65 percent of today’s kindergartners will end up in jobs that haven’t even been conceived yet. Businesspeople, she said, have told her that students need to be able to think critically, know how to collaborate, communicate clearly, and be creative.

“My observation is a lot of students today are not having their needs met to be prepared in those areas,” DeVos said at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council’s meeting. And later she cited the argument that the U.S. education system was largely borrowed from Prussia, a European state which, she noted, no longer exists. The system, she said, needs to be changed to offer more students and parents individualized options. “When we empower all parents, that will ultimately prepare students to be active participants in the workforce,” she said in remarks at the Four Seasons Hotel.

For the second time this year, DeVos held up school choice-friendly Florida as a model for the country. The Sunshine State, she said, offers “the broadest range of choices and the greatest number of kids taking advantage of those choices.”

Other school choice standouts, according to DeVos, include Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.

But she said no state has ever gone truly big with choice, offering it to every single student.

“All of these are still at relatively small scales,” she said. “We haven’t had a state that tried it with everyone.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as DeVos on Workforce Readiness, Alternatives to College

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