Tom Pauken got an introduction into what he calls "abstract intellectualism." Really smart guys in Washington sitting around polished conference tables decided to measure the security level of various jungle hamlets based on Viet Cong sightings, assaults within a certain radius, nighttime jungle movement.
But Pauken soon learned the matrix conjured by the geniuses in D.C. made no sense halfway around the world. For one thing, water buffalo were detected moving through the jungle at night, injecting an element of absurdity to the whole exercise.
Pauken recently shared this experience because he's increasingly frustrated with the education accountability systems devised in Washington, D.C., and Austin that have turned our public schools into testing treadmills. And when he sees schools labeled "exemplary" or "under-performing," he's transported in time to the meaningless scores he assigned Asian rice-farming communities during the Vietnam era.
"It's abstract intellectualism," said Pauken. "When you intellectualize and take out the human factor, the result is a bloody mess."
As a Texas Workforce Commissioner, Pauken has spent a lot of time studying whether our public school system prepares an educated workforce.
His conclusion? The focus on college-prep and testing has, well, "left behind" kids who would be better served earning an industrial certificate that would snag them a good job with a middle-class income.
Right now, "Help Wanted" signs across Texas beg for trained workers in welding, machinist, electrical or commercial trucking fields. But our college-centered school system - measured incessantly by tests - isn't producing an adequate pool of applicants.
"I don't think this teaching to the test benefits anyone," said Pauken. "It is taking away from learning."
Does every student need to be college ready? "We need multiple pathways to high school education," he said. One pathway would be getting ready for college; another would be "career-oriented, with an emphasis on an industrial credential."
Students who aren't inclined to pursue college simply give up and drop out of school, Pauken says.
"It's self-defeating. There are blue-collar jobs out there," said Pauken. And more to come soon: "The average age of a welder is 50. This is a huge opportunity for young people, and it pays well."
Pauken hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to make sweeping changes to our education system when it meets in January - beginning with the acknowledgement that some students are not well-served by a strictly college-prep curriculum.
He's worked hard at recruiting allies, like Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont. "All kids are not going to college," he said. "We need craftsmen - people who can build this country. We need welders, pipe-fitters, electricians and machinists." Public schools need to offer programs that introduce those careers, he said.
HISD agrees - as evidenced by the Houston Innovative Learning Zone instituted this year. The initiative allows students to participate in intensive career training, earning an industry certificate in a particular trade when they graduate from high school. They are also simultaneously earning credit towards and associate degree at Houston Community College.
Gaining dual credit
Some 175 high school juniors are enrolled in six new programs which allow the students to earn dual credit with Houston Community College in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-related fields, says Assistant Superintendent Alan Summers.
Are those students now not considered college-bound?
"It's our responsibility to prepare them for both," says Summers. Passing the state-mandated tests "is still a reality" for the students in technical and industrial career training classes, he notes.
The good news, says the new program's director, Mike Webster, is that introduction to career-training often ignites academic interest. Math is suddenly no longer an abstract idea - but connected to a concrete goal, like a specific job.
And all of HISD's programs have been carefully selected to prepare students for high demand jobs, based on Houston labor market data. They range from pharmacy tech training to global supply chain management.
College has always been the pathway for higher income jobs, but some surveys show that workers in the skilled trades do as well or better than some college grads.
About 27 percent of people with licenses or certificates for skilled trades will earn more than the average worker with a bachelor's degree. And they won't start their careers weighed down by debts they accumulated during college.
Perhaps it is time to redefine "No Child Left Behind." With the exception of the rare program like HISD's new initiative, the national law has meant our high schools aren't introducing students to careers that could help them to secure lives in the middle class. They're too busy being prepped for tests. Can Pauken and the Texas Legislature staunch the "bloody mess?"