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July 14, 2013

German education concept unites political opposites

President Obama, Gov. Pence tout vocational model

INDIANAPOLIS —

When it comes to public policy, President Barack Obama and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are kilometers apart in their thinking, but both have found something “wunderbar” in the way Germans have engineered vocational education.

Obama praised it in his last State of the Union speech, when he pledged to create a new federal funding stream to provide the nation’s high school students with technical education to help them prepare for the workforce.

Pence praised it in his welcoming remarks at a luncheon for the German ambassador to the U.S. last week, when he pledged to do more to provide Indiana’s high school students with technical education to help them prepare for the workforce.

What’s the idea that brings these two men together, when they stand so far apart on so much else?

It’s Germany's “dual system” of vocational education that combines classroom learning with paid, on-the-job training for high school students.

We do a simplified version of it in some high schools here in Indiana, but nothing like what the Germans do. In Germany, about half of high school students graduate work-ready, with the equivalent of a two-year technical degree from one of our community colleges and two to three years of relevant work experience.

Unlike the American ideal of “college for all,” the Germans acknowledge that not every one wants or needs to get a four-year college degree. So by the 10th grade, German students have the option of heading off on a vocational track that will lead them to a wide range of occupations.

Typically, students in the dual system spend a couple of days a week at a vocational school, studying the theory and practice of their occupation as well as economics, social studies, and other general subjects. Then they spend the other three school days working as apprentices in their chosen field, getting paid about one-third the salary of a trained skilled worker.

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