MARQUETTE - Increasing state and federal requirements are doing little to help school districts or the job market in the Upper Peninsula, according to U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek.
Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, was in Marquette Thursday hosting a vocational education roundtable discussion with representatives from businesses and educational institutions from across Michigan's 1st Congressional District.
"What I heard today is that some of the mandates coming in from the feds make it impossible for local districts to have enough flexibility to (focus on vocational training)," Benishek said. "My goal, I think, is to listen some more and, I think, to promote policies that will make less rules on local districts, but allow them to have the resources to create curriculums of their own."
U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, center, speaks during a public roundtable discussion Thursday at Northern Michigan University. Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, joined a panel of experts from the fields of education and business to discuss vocational education training and the Michigan job market. Also pictured are Benishek’s legislative director, Michelle Lane, left, and Rick Legleitner, a representative of Jackson-based CMS Energy. ( Journal photo by Kyle Whitney)
Benishek said he has heard, during many previous stops in the district, that small- and medium-sized businesses in the region are having difficulty finding well-trained workers to fill open positions.
His goal in holding Thursday's roundtable was to attempt to determine why there seemed to be such a disconnect between the classroom and the working world.
"I was hoping to get people in the same room to educate me on what I can do to make it better for vocational ed and fitting people into jobs here in Michigan," Benishek said following the two-hour discussion.
Jay Kulbertis, the Superintendent of both the Gladstone Area and Rapid River public school districts, told the group that, to an extent, the disconnect is real. And it is rooted in the fact that schools are being rewarded, on both a state and federal level, for high student test scores.
"We've started to worship at the altar of the test score. And when you're talking about practical skills ... there's not that many jobs out there where you can just take a test every day and that's how you learn your living," Kulbertis said. "But in school districts, increasingly, we're told that all that matters is the test score, so we're getting very good at creating very good test takers who don't have very many other skills."
He said that years ago, tests reflected a student's ability to perform a certain real-world task.
"Now what we have is a test that doesn't equate to any future performance. It doesn't equate to anything," he said. "All it tells us is how you did on that test. We might as well just be recording heights and weights. There is no useful information that we're getting."
Dan Weber, the CEO of Marquette's Pioneer Surgical Technologies, was also in the audience for the roundtable discussion. He said the disconnect that Benishek is concerned with could be lessened if a decision could be made about who specifically - among local communities and the state and federal government - should take ownership of education.
Schools should also place more focus, Weber said, on their main task of educating children.
"There are so many choices, and I think we lose focus and we get caught up in all of the other things we're trying to do socially that we seem to miss the point of what it is we're trying to impart on our kids," he said.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.