KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- I have come here to make a speech to Florida's vocational educators, but what I have learned is far more interesting than anything I have said. Florida is determined to get its young people ready for the 21st century.
The demographers keep telling us the years ahead will require unprecedented reliance on women and minorities to supply a labor-short market, while present trends suggest that far too few of our young people will have the skills our industry requires.
But we seem uncertain as to what to do about those clashing projections. Should our emphasis be on making sure that more of our youngsters leave high school ready for college? Or should we make certain that the "forgotten half" -- those whose education ends with high school -- graduate with the skills necessary for immediate entry into the labor market?
Florida's answer: Both.
The state has adopted a "Blueprint for Career Preparation" with this ambitious goal: "Students graduating from Florida's public schools shall be prepared to begin a career and continue their education at a postsecondary technical school, community college or university."
And if the goal makes sense, so does Florida's plan for achieving it. The "blueprint" begins with career awareness instruction in which children, kindergarten through fifth grade, are taught the value of work, exposed to careers and technology, and helped to develop self-awareness, including their own likes and dislikes.
By sixth grade, the children, with the help of teachers and parents, are assessing their aptitudes, abilities and interests, and relating them to possible careers. Seventh- and eighth-graders are required to set career-oriented goals for their high school years. The plans may change, of course, but the goal-setting requirement forces students to think in terms of careers and also gets their parents involved in curriculum selection.
High school students have the option of taking their academic courses in either practical or theoretical settings, but all students get the academics necessary for college and work, with academic and vocational teachers working as teams. Thus the principles of technology, for instance, can qualify as a required math course.
"Just as a builder needs a blueprint before starting construction, an enterprise as large as education in Florida needs a unified vision of where it's heading," says Betty Castor, state commissioner of education. "This blueprint provides that vision. It is designed to address the increasing gap between emerging job requirements and the ability of Florida's work force to meet them. It is designed to prepare students for the world of work, a competitive global marketplace that is changing every day. It is designed to enable all high school graduates to get a job."
The Florida plan, two years in development, is already in place in four pilot school districts. Twenty other districts have asked to participate, and 12 of them will start in September.
What makes the Florida approach special is that it seeks to give high school graduates the skills they need for work without discouraging any college ambitions they might harbor, either immediately or later. And it believes it can do so without major structural changes in the system.
Instead, it relies on better coordination among vocational and academic instructors, more resources and what Castor describes as "a healthy dose of attitude adjustment among educators concerning the role of schools.
"We don't pretend the 'blueprint' is the final answer," Larry Stryker, assistant education commissioner, told me. "We will evaluate our progress using outside experts and the job-market success of our graduates as a guide. The next piece we plan to tackle is the school-to-work transition -- perhaps apprentice-type programs to improve the link between school and work.
"We are one of the first states to offer a Gold Seal Diploma for students who complete a vocational program with demonstrated employability skills and a 3.5 grade point average. These students will be eligible for a $2,000 scholarship and a Gold Seal diploma to show prospective employers that they are 'work-ready.' It's an effort to make our message tangible."
According to officials here, some 2.5 million new jobs will be created in the state during the next six years -- jobs that will require workers who can read, write, compute, communicate and understand the workplace. At least 80 percent of the new jobs will have to be filled by women and minorities. Florida intends to get them ready -- both for their own needs and for the health of the Florida economy.
"We must change the way we do business in education, because business is depending on it," says Castor. "In fact, our entire economic survival is depending on it."