At NEJC Conservatives meeting, Kansas Education Commissioner stresses need to promote vocational, technical schools as attractive option to 4-year college

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson told a group of northeast Johnson County conservatives that the state needed to boost the reputation of vocational and technical education programs.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson told a group of northeast Johnson County conservatives that the state needed to boost the reputation of vocational and technical education programs.

To reach the state Board of Education’s goal to “lead the world in the success of each student,” Kansas educators need to shift their attention away from achievement as measured solely by standardized tests and toward a model that prepares kids for a real-world careers that will provide them with good jobs, Education Commissioner Randy Watson told a meeting of the Northeast Johnson County Conservatives Tuesday.

Watson, who took over as Kansas education commissioner in July after most recently having served as the superintendent of the McPherson School District, said one of the most important shifts the state needs to make is to help usher students toward post-high school training that best suits their interests. In many cases, that means steering kids away from a four-year college and toward a vocational or technical program.

“The problem is that schooling — K-12 education, especially high school — for the last 100 years have been predicated on moving kids, all kids, to four years of college,” Watson said. “And we’re very reluctant to follow an Asian or European model where at some level you’re tested and then forked off the road.”

Among the most formidable barriers toward that change in mindset is families’ allegiance to the branding associated with Kansas’s big name universities.

“The reason most kids want to go to K-State is their football team,” Watson said. “The reason most kids want to go to KU is their basketball team…We have to help understand that going to a technical college is not a lesser career than going to a four year college. It’s just different. And it will not change overnight.”

Watson also told the group of about two dozen attendees that school districts do not currently do a good job of giving students credit for learning opportunities they get outside the school setting.

“Why is it that if a kid goes to Honduras on a church mission trip and spends three weeks in the summer building shelter or working on clean water, why isn’t that transferrable for credit?” he asked.

In 2013, the McPherson district was one of the first two in the state to receive the innovative district designation that exempted it from state education regulations if it offered a plan for boosting student achievement.