White House Rural Roundtable Meeting in Tennessee

A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America. Which is why President Obama created the White House Rural Council to build upon the administration’s robust economic strategy for rural America, and to ensure that rural communities drive innovation and capitalize on emerging opportunities. On Wednesday, I joined Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, state schools chief Kevin Huffman, Tennessee Teacher of the Year Cheryl Deaton, school superintendents, principals and business leaders in Nashville for a White House Rural Council roundtable. The roundtable focused on education reform efforts being made in Tennessee and in rural areas across the country, and how these reforms can lead to a highly skilled workforce and a stronger economy.

(Official Department of Education Photo By Leslie Williams)

This week’s White House Rural Council roundtable meeting provided a valuable opportunity to discuss the issues and solutions related to preparing rural students for college and jobs that currently exist in their communities.

These conversations guide the work of the Council and help government foster investment, support communities, and spur rural job creation by partnering with leaders in rural America. Established by President Obama in June 2011, the Council is composed of the leaders of every federal agency, who work together to improve coordination of existing federal resources and facilitate public-private partnerships that can strengthen rural communities.

During the roundtable meeting, I was struck by the comments of Tony Cates, a human resource manager for Gestamp Corp., a local Volkswagen supplier. Cates estimated that half of the recent high school graduates who apply for jobs with Gestamp lack the literacy and math skills needed for employment with his company. He said many recent grads also need greater competencies in the “soft skills” related to one’s attitude, motivation, and sense of responsibility for workplace norms.

Several superintendents questioned the goal of preparing all students for college, which they perceived to be the “university track,” and expressed the need for greater emphasis on career and technical education. As Commissioner Huffman correctly observed, we have the same goal but we were speaking a different language. College should mean more than a four-year university degree.

Community colleges for example, are the closest access to college for many rural students, who are less likely than their peers nationally to pursue postsecondary education. Community colleges and secondary schools can partner to create modern technical training programs and career pathways that lead to an Associate Degree or an industry certification. Both of which can provide local businesses with skilled employees.

With $1 billion for career and technical education (CTE) in the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, this administration remains committed to supporting higher standards for CTE and ensuring that today’s CTE programs teach skills that are needed for today’s jobs instead of the outdated vocational models that no longer meet the needs of their local economies.  

I left Tennessee encouraged by the willingness of rural school leaders to work together to maximize resources, including the use of technology to increase access to high-level science courses. They are acting quickly to support teachers in preparing students to meet higher standards, and recognize the need to expose students to the world of work. 

I am proud to support them as a member of the White House Rural Council and look forward to working with my federal partners to increase opportunity in rural communities now and in the future.