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'We're going to raise the bar': U.S. Secretary of Education talks vocational training in Peoria visit

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at a roundtable at Woodruff Career and Technical Center.
Camryn Cutinello
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at a roundtable discussion at the Woodruff Career and Technical Center.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona paid a visit to Peoria Wednesday night, part of his five-state bus tour to meet with educators and gather feedback on how to better run the Department of Education.

Woodruff Career and Technical Center hosted a roundtable discussion with Cardona, State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders, Peoria educators and former Woodruff students. The group talked about the vocational training students receive at Woodruff.

Cardona said shifting away from the college-focused mindset is important for schools going forward, especially in light of the student debt crisis.

“Our schools have historically been disconnected from what's happening outside of school,” Cardona said. “That's why we have students leaving school not sure what to do. Going to college and getting a degree in something they know very little about, owing $150,000 in college debt, making $30,000 a year because they never went into their field.”

He said his goal is for students to graduate high school with options, using his own experience as an example.

Cardona graduated from a technical high school where he worked in the automotive studies program. He said he enjoyed that work, but ultimately decided to go to college and pursue teaching.

He said that choice is something he’d like all students to have.

“I think we'd be shortchanging our students and our communities if we didn't create a bridge from our education institutions to the opportunities that exist outside these four walls,” Cardona said.

Woodruff, he said, is an example of what he’d like to see nationwide. Students often graduate with the certifications needed to enter their field right away, putting them ahead of other applicants.

He said there remains a stigma surrounding vocational careers and breaking that is a challenge. But the opportunities those jobs provide are a path forward.

“I remind folks that a welder that knows how to code can make six figures with zero debt,” Cardona said. “They don't need a four-year degree, and they're going to be doing pretty well. That'll change the stigma pretty quick.”

Sanders said improving vocational training at schools does more than improve education, it’s also economic development. Sanders said many jobs need qualified workers, and the goal of vocational programs is to create those skilled employees.

He said schools in Illinois are shifting toward this new mindset, but the goal has always been to prepare students for the jobs that will be available to them.

“Really, I think schools are shifting to be more community hubs,” Sanders said. “Really [to be] everything to a community, both [the] social-emotional needs of our students, to also to prepare them for the workforce.”

Cardona said higher education isn’t going anywhere. It’s just about creating more options for students.

“To me, it's about opportunity, and I do think higher education is going to be necessary, right?” he said. “So for me, higher education with a purpose to help someone fulfill what they feel their God given talents are, or what their passion is, is our responsibility.”

The tour is part of Cardona’s plan to “raise the bar” for education in the United States. He said the pandemic highlighted disparities in achievement.

“We're hovering at about 40% literacy proficiency rate in our students in fourth grade,” Cardona said. “We shouldn't be sleeping at night thinking about that. We've normalized it in this country. We've normalized a low bar.”

He also was in St. Louis Wednesday to discuss students' mental health. He said students' struggle with mental health was evident even before the pandemic.

“Kids were struggling before the pandemic,” Cardona said. “Now, suicide is the second leading cause of death to 10- to 24- year-olds. One in three high school girls has considered suicide in the last three years. We have to do better.”

The input gathered at each stop will be used to create plans to raise the bar for education. Cardona said his goal is to improve student success through improving academic proficiency and mental health, but also by creating those options for graduating students.

“We have a tsunami of jobs, millions of jobs, coming and our systems are not preparing our students adequately enough for those careers that are coming,” he said. “Six figure jobs without six figures of debt. So we're going to raise the bar."

The department also is collecting feedback from students, educators and parents through the agency's website.

Cardona said educators have a responsibility to evolve the education systems, and he hopes to do just that.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.