Local school districts led early development of career technical
Arts High School in St. Paul (1898-1976), a predecessor to today's St.
Paul College, and Vocational High School in Minneapolis (with roots
going back to 1910), a predecessor to today's Minneapolis Community
and Technical College, are among the earliest examples of leadership
by local school districts in career-technical education (earlier known
as vocational-technical education). A major federal act in 1917
(Smith-Hughes) provided vocational education funds to school districts
across the nation, stimulating school districts to offer various
vocational education classes.
1945 the Minnesota Legislature authorized area vocational-technical
schools that could be set up at the initiative of local school
districts. According to a history prepared by the Minnesota Department
of Education "...the schools, which granted no degrees, were meant to
fill the need of those who needed preparation for jobs in agriculture,
home economics, health, office, distributive, trade and industrial,
and technical occupations. The education is generally post high school
in nature". High school graduates and undergraduates could attend
tuition-free to 21 years of age. Some 33 such schools had been
established before they all were transferred to a separate board for
vocational-technical education in 1983. State commissioners of
education such as Erling Johnson and Howard Casmey were instrumental
in leadership, Graba said.
Famous national report A Nation
at Risk in 1983 led to more academic emphasis.
diminished interest in vocational education relative to academic
education took place in the wake of the national report A Nation at
Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, Graba said. He said
he could sense waning support for vocational education when attending
national meetings of state vocational organizations. He could see
groundswell in favor of academic versus vocational education by
educators and the larger public.
Students wanted to attend "college", not "vocational schools".
State legislators felt pressure, he said, from families where students
and parents didn't like the idea of some students going to "college"
and others only to "technical institutes" or "vocational
schools." The Legislature renamed all technical institutes as
"technical colleges" on July 1, 1989. In 1991 the Legislature passed a
law--effective July 1, 1995--removing
the technical colleges from local school districts and merging the
technical colleges, the state's community colleges, and state
universities into the current
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.
High school vocational classes fell victim to greater academic
Graba said that in the 1980s the
of Minnesota began requiring high school foreign language as a
condition for admissions. Not wanting their students to be ineligible
to apply to the University of Minnesota, school superintendents found
it essential to remove some vocational classes in favor of foreign
language, he said. The negative feeling toward vocational education
continued into the 1990s.
turnaround from a negative attitude toward career-technical education
(CTE) is likely to take many years.
While welcoming an apparent growing interest today in
Graba said he is pessimistic about change occurring quickly. Things
change very slowly in education, and it's difficult to envision any
quick changes in governing structures or funding streams, he said.
Might changes in job and career opportunities have occurred faster
than CTE could respond?
interviewer noted that over the last 20-plus years we've seen many new
types of jobs develop, particularly in technology, and many other
types of jobs diminish in importance. Perhaps, the interviewer
suggested, CTE hasn't been able to keep pace with the rapidity of
While agreeing with rapidity of change, Graba highlighted what he
considers to be a good response in training to meet changes in
printing technology, an area of significant strength in the Twin
Cities area economy. One example he offered on rapidity of change is
the field of auto mechanics where mechanics formerly were fixing
broken parts, while today the emphasis is on diagnosis and replacement
of parts, not fixing them.
Government and educators need to be responsive to end-users, the
Government and educators now are more comfortable in the
academic area, designing programs, Graba said.
needs to be driven by the changing need of the end-users, the
employers, not the educators. It can't be done from the top. Asked
about recent publicity about conflict in MnSCU, Graba said he wonders
whether disagreements might be partly related to top leadership trying
to elevate the importance of
but encountering opposition among more academic-oriented faculty.
"Everyone wants education to do better, but without changing how
education is delivered."
fundamental difficulty with improving education at all levels is
refusal to acknowledge that improvement won't occur without change in
structure, Graba said. To illustrate the type of change he believes is
needed, Graba referred to a major position taken by Education|Evolving,
a think-tank with which he is a founding partner.
Education|Evolving argues strongly for giving power to the educators
most intimately involved with the students, namely, the teachers, he
said. Today one might characterize the predominant education structure
as resembling a pyramid, with the federal government at the top,
followed by several levels, in declining importance: governors,
legislators, state school officers, school boards, superintendents,
principals, and lastly, at the bottom, teachers. Teachers are assigned
the most responsibility and the least amount of authority.
Education|Evolving would turn the pyramid upside-down, so the teachers
themselves would be in charge, with accountability and authority, and
with less expectation for uniformity among schools.
Urgent need to overcome a strong cultural bias against CTE.
An interviewer noted a significant need in
to assure an adequate supply of trained workers to satisfy
employers' demand. For the supply-demand chain to work, the
significant economic advantages for students who pursue
must be stressed. The interviewer wondered what leverage might be
utilized to combat cultural bias against
thereby enabling schools to better serve students.
Graba replied that more parents, employers, and students need to
accept the fact that a four- year college degree offers no guarantee
of a living wage job. A widespread cultural attitude since the 1980s
that everyone should go to college for a four-year degree is sadly
misplaced, Graba said.
inevitable complicating factor, he said, is that virtually all high
school student advisors, counselors and teachers themselves hold at
least bachelor's degrees. It is questionable whether many of them
would suggest options that are less than the education they received.
Graba said he sadly recalls that while serving as state director of
technical colleges he was forced to discontinue a diesel mechanics
course at a technical college for lack of enrollment. He then was
strongly criticized by an implement dealer who had openings for
trained mechanics. Graba had to reply that not enough students were
choosing such a career, despite immediate job opportunities. He
couldn't afford to operate programs without students.
Employers' role in training might be overlooked.
interviewer noted that many people might be unaware that companies
such as Stratasys, dealing in high-tech machines requiring trained
personnel, have found a successful niche in training customers'
employees to operate such equipment. Graba replied that many high-tech
companies are too small to provide such training and, therefore, rely
upon the contribution of the technical colleges and other education
Should more attention be given to emulating European counterparts?
interviewer noted that employers in European countries such as
Switzerland have done a much better job of taking leadership in
training employees. He cited Bühler, Inc., with a major presence in
(See Civic Caucus Bühler interview
Obstacles to accomplishing disruptive change.
interviewer who is close to a large education institution in Minnesota
said even though the institution's board and top administration want
change, nothing happens without buy-in from department heads and
deans. But, he said, change is thwarted because department heads and
deans often have their own agendas, such as maintaining the status
quo, or they do not see their role as implementing policy from above.
Another interviewer reminded the group of the session the Civic Caucus
held recently with leaders of Genesys Works, which illustrated the
success of unconventional approaches to help interest youth in
technical careers. (See Civic Caucus Genesys interview
Disruptive approaches needed: start something new, separate from the
Graba suggested that because trying to change education head-on is
futile, it is better to try building the new outside the traditional
Efforts to improve education so far have emphasized chiefly moving
responsibility up to the next highest level, Graba said. In the 1950s,
the big effort was school consolidation, moving education from the
local school to the local school district and combining districts. In
the 1960s, power moved from the local school district to the state
departments of education; in the1970s and 1980s to governors and
legislatures, and in the 1990s to the federal government. Now students
and teachers are at the bottom of the pile, so to speak, he said.
Without trying to reform the system directly, Graba suggested new
"disruptive" choices need to be offered, which is why the consulting
group with which he is affiliated, Education|Evolving, is promoting
schools where teachers are making the decisions and being held
accountable for those decisions.
illustrate a problem not addressed by the existing system but taken up
by others, Graba recalled his unsuccessful efforts while head of the
now-defunct Higher Education Coordinating Board to get colleges
interested in taking advantage of new technology, including online
learning. No one was interested, he said. But outside the existing
system new online schools such as Capella and Walden have attracted
thousands of students.
Another example he cited are the thousands of residents of Minneapolis
who have opted to send their children elsewhere, via open enrollment
or charter schools. He believes great things would happen if
individual schools and their teachers were given freedom to educate as
they deem best. Graba recalled that at least a dozen teacher-led
schools in Milwaukee were set up with the support of a sympathetic
superintendent. Later half of them were returned to central office
control when a new superintendent was hired.
Employers must lead if the
system is to be turned around.
is really going to succeed at the high school and post-high school
level in Minnesota, leadership by employers is essential, Graba said.
They are the end users of students trained in
They must point out the need and the outcomes if the need is fulfilled
and the consequences if it is not.