View Point

Friday, October 10, 1997

Let’s renew
vocational education

We must give up obsession with
test scores and start preparing Hawaii students
for the real world of work

By David S. Matsumoto

When it comes to improving public school education in Hawaii, we may be asking ourselves the wrong question. Our local newspapers keep trying to direct our attention to test scores. They splash headlines which, from time to time, bemoan the low scores of public school students.

Unfortunately, such headlines are mistaken. Hawaii's public schools (not unlike other public schools across our nation) are charged with providing a quality education to a complex and diverse mix of students.

The educational goals and objectives of our student body, not surprisingly, are also complex and diverse.

Simply put, however, standardized tests are not meaningful to anyone other than college and university admissions committees who must determine which high school seniors should be selected for enrollment to their campuses.

But is preparation and admission to college the only measure of success for our public schools? I don't believe so.

Standardized tests are not relevant to students' capabilities and achievements in the real world. Worrying about standardized test scores is particularly not relevant for the large number of students who have no intention of ever going on to college.

For them, how well they might perform on the SAT will not secure employment, and, once employed, will not advance them in their careers.

Test scores are important, of course, to our private schools whose singular purpose is college preparation. It is important also to that segment of our public school students who desire higher education.

For most of our students, however, the role of our public schools should be to prepare them to enter the work force and to give them the knowledge and practical employment skills that will make them successful on a long-term basis.

This is a pragmatic goal. Rather than comparing test scores, our schools should be asking, "What should we expect of our students after a certain level of education?"

The answer is that we expect them to be industrious and productive. We expect them to contribute to our economy.

We expect them to add new blood and renewed enthusiasm to our workforce. We expect them to supplement, not detract, from our collective business endeavors.

Framed in such a way, our public schools should not be preoccupied so much over test scores, but rather should understand the economic and business vision of our state and produce graduates who can further that vision.

For instance, if aquaculture is significant, it would behoove us to train students in that field. Likewise, aircraft maintenance to telecommunications to retailing to travel industry.

Toward this end, the state Department of Education has made a start. It has recently launched a School-to-Work Partnership Program. This program teams schools with the business community to teach students what it takes to be successful in the real world.

The School-to-Work Partnership Program, though, is not enough. A renewed and expanded focus on vocational training is in order.

This is not to say that schools should disregard more traditional educational goals altogether. No doubt minimum levels of knowledge are important for an informed citizenry and the functioning of our democratic system.

Also, minimum levels of knowledge are essential to provide our graduates with the flexibility to meet the ever-changing requirements of the job market.

But a vocational objective should not be considered exclusive of a general liberal education. In Japan, by way of example, the literacy rate is almost 100 percent for the entire population. Moreover, many are bilingual.

Yet, in Japan, education is compulsory for only nine years -- six for elementary school and three for junior high school. Although further education is frequently sought and much valued, it is purely optional.

Given the high demand and the relative shortage of further educational opportunities, it is also not assured.

Much has been written about the competitiveness of the Japanese high school and college admissions process. But what has been overlooked is Japan's strong system of technical, commercial and vocational schools.

The technical, commercial and vocational curriculum in Japan is varied. It covers agriculture to business to nursing to basic industries.

It is tailored to the students' abilities and aptitudes. It attempts to provide meaningful skills that are immediately useful to students and their prospective employers.

There are many things that can and need to be done to improve our public education system in Hawaii. The purpose of this essay is not to address all such needs. Instead, the only purpose is to suggest that the goals of our public schools must be integrated into the transition of students from our schools into our workforce.

We have been engrossed far too long in the transition of our students from high school to college. The obvious truth is that not every one goes to college. Our focus must broaden.

We must also ask ourselves about the transition of our students from high school to our business community. This is a bridge that I hope both our business leaders and our school administrators will construct.

David S. Matsumoto is president of the
Hawaii Youth Symphony Association and a senior administrative official
at Japan Airlines. The opinions expressed in View Point columns
are the authors' and are not necessarily shared by the Star-Bulletin.

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