February 12, 2010 By Marina Leight
As Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, Casey Cagle has worked to strengthen his state's work force through innovative education programs. Cagle focuses on giving Georgia residents the technical skills required for economic success in the 21st century.
With programs like Georgia QuickStart, Georgia Work Ready, the Career Academy Network, and research and education at colleges and universities, Georgia is equipping its students with training and resources to thrive in up-and-coming careers -- even during these difficult financial times.
What are the greatest challenges facing public education -- especially from your perspective as an elected official?
What I believe as a businessman first is that we really are stuck in a 1960s era. We haven't really moved to the 21st century as it relates to public policy and education. I believe very strongly that for a child to learn and succeed in education, they have to see the relevance in what they're learning. We have not allowed a paradigm shift from a top-down style of management to really a bottom-up, where you enable teachers to ultimately design an educational curriculum around the needs of the individual student.
Eighty percent of the work force in Georgia is going to need some kind of technical training. If that is true -- and we know that it is -- then more kids need to be on a path of technical learning. That brings the career academy concept to fruition to where we take a traditional high school and a technical college and blend them together in a stand-alone facility. What's fascinating is that shows relevance. Students understand that if they're studying to be a pharmaceutical technician and that motivates them, then in the classroom, they're getting the core curriculum but also the technical background in how the two merge. I think it all comes down to changing the paradigm. I think it comes back to demonstrating relevance in the classroom.
How do you define career paths?
The best definition of a career path is a clear road to employment in a defined, growing and relevant industry. We see, even here in Georgia, individuals who go to four-year institutions of higher learning and may end up with a psychology degree but they aren't employable. Oftentimes, they return to a technical college and get the necessary skills that are relevant to industries here. We need to be more proactive at an earlier stage with kids to get them clearly focused on a road to employment. If you look at the career academies we have in Georgia -- there's one in Newnan that has a partnership with Yamaha whose technology is integrated into the curriculum. They also have an internship program for students studying film. One individual loved NASCAR and thought he'd become an automobile technician, but he really got [excited] by film and now looks at NASCAR through a lens. He's one of the youngest producers at Turner Broadcasting -- where he did an internship as a high-school student; there were numerous college students there, and he was offered the job at the end.
The relevance comes into play here -- the career academies specifically aligned with student's needs and are creating strategic partnerships with the emerging industries out there: The biotech, bioenergy, bioscience focus is huge in Georgia. The Walton Career Academy [in Monroe, Ga.] just developed a new bioenergy corridor within their region, and they're focusing more on kids in this new emerging industry. Down on the coast of Georgia, the Golden Isles Career Academy is closely connected with the ports in Savannah, the fastest growing ports in the nation. It has a strategic relationship particularly as it relates to operations and logistics, and they're training students to go immediately into the work force.
What strategies create education that aligns with business and industry?
The career academies, these are charter schools. They are ultimately free from the bureaucracy. Instead of having a principal, they have a CEO. We've worked very hard not to make this just the old-model trade school, but an entity that's driven through technology, through the changing environment in the workplace.
Ten years ago, an individual operating a bulldozer would be doing it all by hand and by grading stakes. But today, bulldozers are operated through GPS. It's highly sophisticated, and technology is integrated into everything that goes on. The reason the charter model works so well is because they have to write a contract with the state. They must determine what businesses they're going to align themselves with, what industries, what focus and what career paths they're going to have. The business community has to buy into this. It's a great collaboration with a region, with students, but ultimately the work force as well. I think that's a big part of the reason the model has worked so well. We've shown 98 percent graduation rates and 100 percent placement rates when they're finished. The benchmarks we've tried to set, these academies are meeting or exceeding.
How do you run the academies?
We run this program through [the Technical College System of Georgia]. The charter application and approval process goes through the Department of Education, and we have a charter advisory council that approves that process. The final approval comes by the State Board of Education. In the charter, there are certain guidelines we look for, and one of the mandatory guidelines is the strategic partnerships with the business community within their geographical service area.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about how you've encouraged innovation in public schools?
The best way to encourage innovation in public schools is to break down barriers. It's not to have a one-size-fits-all system. I think the 21st-century educational system is really going to be defined by breaking those barriers down, focusing specifically on what the child's needs are, and then prescribing an educational curriculum around that student's needs. That comes in a lot of shapes and forms. We need to allow teachers, administrators, parents and the business community to be a part of the process. That's why the charter concept is so vital -- it's a contractual agreement. Through that agreement, benchmarks are set, goals and priorities and missions are all outlined very clearly.
It's not that every child is going to learn in the same manner. Children are motivated and challenged very differently. We've got to allow the innovation within the classroom to guide students and put them on the path where they can fulfill their hopes and dreams as it relates to the American dream through a good, solid foundation in education.