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Posted at 5:22 AM ET, 02/25/2011

'Pathway to Prosperity' authors educate me

By Jay Mathews

A week ago I pummeled a major report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century." I headlined that column "Smart people + big report = dreamy nonsense." I said that in calling for new pathways to give students who don't want to attend college a good high school education, the report ignored the realities of limits on employers' capacity to offer internships and school districts' willingness to totally remake their vocational classes.

The report's authors, being visionaries, were accustomed to being accused of impracticality, and they took my criticism in stride. They even agreed to let me pick at their reasoning in a conversation on this blog. I exchanged e-mails with Pathways to Prosperity project leaders Robert B. Schwartz, academic dean, and Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer, both at the education school. The third author of the report was former Business Week journalist Bill Symonds. Here is our exchange:

Mathews: I was very hard on your report last week. When I have these blog conversations, I usually limit each response to 200 words. But let's ignore that for your first response so you can give readers a good idea of where you think I went wrong.

Schwartz: Where to begin? First, the report does not come from a “Blue Ribbon Commission.” It’s the work of an economist, a policy activist and a journalist trying to put a big problem on the table to provoke a serious national conversation.

What’s the problem? The fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized society that relies so heavily on its higher education system to help young people get from the end of compulsory schooling into the workforce with the knowledge and skills to be successful in today’s economy. Despite the fact that nearly all young people now say that they want to go to college and that increasing percentages of high school graduates are in fact enrolling in college, our college completion rate is stuck at about 40 percent. Many organizations are now focused on the challenge of how to increase our college completion rate and have set a very aggressive target of 55 percent by 2025.

But even if this very ambitious improvement goal were to be reached, what is our strategy for getting the other 45 percent of young people the skills and credentials they will need to get launched on a career path that can enable them to earn a family-supporting wage and lead a productive life? This is the big question our report raises, and that you barely acknowledge.

In our search for answers, we draw heavily on two recently published Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studies that bring important international evidence and experience to bear on the problem we cite, but you never even acknowledge this major section of our report. We point out that throughout Northern Europe from the age of 16 between 40 and 70 percent of young people enroll in programs that combine classroom and workplace learning, have significant employer involvement, and prepare students for careers in a wide range of occupations, not just the traditional trades. While some of these countries, most notably Germany and Switzerland, continue to track youngsters as early as middle school, most other countries we mention have moved away from tracking and leave it to students and their families to choose the pathway that makes most sense for them. We clearly indicate that this latter model is the one we would recommend for the U.S. Again, you make no mention of the international experience we invoke in the report.

You then go on to discuss our three very broad recommendations. (I should point out that we made a very explicit decision not to offer up a detailed set of recommendations, mainly because we wanted readers to focus on the problem and to use the report as a springboard for public discussion). You reserve most of your fire for our call for increased employer involvement and our call for a more explicit social compact between adult society and its young people. These recommendations follow directly on our chapter called “Lessons from Abroad,” but since you chose not to reference that chapter, your readers would have no way of knowing that roughly a quarter of all employers in Germany and Switzerland participate in these work-and-learning programs, and that there are several countries we invoke in the report that have quite explicit youth entitlement or guarantee programs. You say we have wandered into fantasyland, that such social compacts have never happened before.

Does it count that the European Union is about to adopt (maybe already has adopted) a youth guarantee ensuring a job, an apprenticeship or another education option for every young person up to the age of 25 within six months of leaving school or a job? On the employer issue, we cite several examples (see p. 32) of U.S. programs that have managed to engage employers at scale, and I hope you don’t mind my reminding you that earlier in my career I was the director of The Boston Compact, a social contract between the city’s employer community and its young people that spread to several other cities.

There is much to debate and argue about in this report, including the relevance of international experience to the U.S. context. But to have that debate you at least have to give your readers an accurate description of the argument of the report, and the facts and evidence the report marshals to support that argument. To deride the report as coming from a group of out-of-touch academics who live in a fantasy world is to dismiss the decades of real-world experience that Ron Ferguson and I bring to this project.

Mathews: Thanks so much for this. As you said many times in the report, Europe is not America. What evidence do you have in this country that local businesses would be willing, or even able, to accept the huge load of new interns from the local schools that your plan would generate? The good people from Big Picture Learning who participated in your report preparations demand very little from their local business communities, since they have just a few small schools.

Schwartz: I agree that this is a major challenge. Our report offers a few examples of secondary school programs that have been able to engage employers at scale, most notably the National Academy Foundation, which has 2500 employers providing paid internships to its 50,000 students in 500 academies in 41 states.

In the long run, however, it will probably be more feasible in the U.S. to build pathways that begin by linking employers and community colleges and then map backward to connect with high schools. Employers in search of skilled workers are accustomed to working with their community colleges in programs in high-demand fields, and despite the evidence from Europe, it is a tough sell in the U.S. to convince employers that high school students can actually add value to the bottom line of the company. Employer-led programs that span grades nine through 14, like IBM's new program with the N.Y. city schools and City University of New York to prepare IT workers, represent a promising U.S. adaptation of the European model.

Mathews: I see a tension between two points the report makes often: We need different pathways for 11th- and 12th-graders, but we also need to build their inadequate academic skills. Diverting them into vocational classes seems to take time from reading, writing and math. I know some experts SAY the vocational path can augment academic instruction, but I have never seen any studies confirming that. What do you have to assure us that the diversion to some vocational courses won't have the same effect it had for kids in our generation -- dumbing down high school?

Ferguson: For evidence that vocational training can produce better results than standard high school curricula, see the MDRC evaluation of Career Academies. Also consider Whittier Vocational Technical High School. I noticed a couple years ago that its reading and math score gains from eighth to 10th grade were among the best in Massachusetts. I asked why. Teachers reported that they align academic and vocational instruction, use double-period English and math instruction even during weeks when coursework focuses on vocational skills, and target particular students for extra support. (See the video.)

The principal said, “Students can leave here at 18 years of age, and they can go to college, or they can go to a job, or they can go on for more training in their technical area. They just have so many more opportunities.” This is just one example. It’s not magic. Regional leaders can collaborate to build systems that work with employers on programs and materials, prepare teachers, monitor implementation and enforce accountability for high standards. As a society, we have a choice to try, nor not. But my co-authors and I believe that the need to respond in a major way is truly urgent.

Mathews: But don't most of the career academies and other programs you cite benefit from being at least mildly selective, and small compared to the new paths you envision?

Ferguson: Yes, they are, as you say, "at least mildly" selective. But only mildly. The number of youth who could be served by a more ambitious system is certainly orders of magnitude greater than the number currently served. If we were to notify children as early as the fifth grade that their high school options could depend upon their academic performance, that might inspire students and the adults who care about them to prepare more carefully.

I got straight C's in eighth grade because I saw absolutely no reason to work hard in junior high! If basic reading and math skills were touted as requirements for participation in interesting career tracks in high school, that could be a major new incentive for middle-schoolers. We need to begin as early as fifth grade to expose children to images of "possible selves" and to give them a sense of what's required to move along the various alternative pathways. Employers can help in age-appropriate ways. The strategy has to start before high school. But even then, not all will be prepared by ninth grade. We will always need arrangements for late bloomers. Those arrangements, too, should blend academics with preparation for the world of work.

Mathews: So how do you keep the standards up in that way? We have both seen plenty of high school-based academies who said they would require certain grade point averages, but under community pressure let everybody in and didn't try to teach them much. And how would we pay for this transformation of high school with state and federal budgets in crisis?

Schwartz: As you suggest, quality control is a serious problem, but programs that have been at this for a while, like the National Academy Foundation and High Schools That Work, have developed strategies to address the quality challenge. One reason we think it is critical to engage employers from the outset is that they will be the ultimate enforcers of standards. If schools send students into the workplace for internships or other forms of work-based learning who cannot cut it, the programs will be forced to improve or go out of business.

You're right, of course, to point out that the pressure on state and district budgets makes this a difficult time to propose any new innovation. But a major lesson from Europe is that it is the enlightened self-interest of employers that drives the creation of strong vocational education systems.Given the increasingly untenable mismatch between the skills employers are demanding and the qualifications of those seeking work, the time may be right to build a U.S. version of the public/private cost-sharing "social partnerships" at the state and local level that have enabled these systems to flourish in Europe,

Mathews: You are filling in a lot of blanks for me. Thank you. Here is one more. If we persuade businesses to be, as you say, "the ultimate enforcers of the standards" on such a large scale, will that not mean significant friction with the local educational establishment, particularly teacher unions? I can see the angry slogans at school board meetings: "Schools for Kids, Not for Profits." I don't know enough about Europe to say if deep suspicion of business motives affects their politics, but I know it does ours.

Schwartz: These programs work in Europe when they are the product of a genuine collaboration among leaders from business, labor, government and education. The social partnerships I mentioned in my last entry didn’t develop overnight. In countries like Switzerland and Germany, they evolved over generations and are now deeply embedded in the culture.

Can we overcome the historic distrust between education and business that has too often gotten in the way of building stronger vocational pathways for young people in the U.S.? This is an open question, but our view is that the data we present create a compelling case for leaders across the sectors to come together to address the challenges we outline in the report.

As of last week we have received invitations from 11 states to speak at leadership gatherings of educators, business people and governmental officials. This suggests that, despite all of the implementation questions and challenges you raise, there is a recognition that neither students nor employers are as well-served as they should be by the path we are on, and that it may be time to look outside our borders for ideas about how we might get a much larger fraction of our young people well-launched on a career path by their early 20s.

Mathews: Thanks to you both. I hope you will keep this blog in touch with any significant progress being made toward your goal.

By Jay Mathews  | February 25, 2011; 5:22 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Pathways To Prosperity,, Robert B. Schwartz, Ronald Ferguson, can vocational education be fixed?  
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"While some of these countries, most notably Germany and Switzerland, continue to track youngsters as early as middle school, most other countries we mention have moved away from tracking and leave it to students and their families to choose the pathway that makes most sense for them. "

Here, families would choose pathways that make the most sense for them in racially disproportionate ways, alas. That's why we constrained curriculum in the first place, to stop families from making choices that weren't proportionally correct.

One thing we could do to reinforce businesses trust in high school is to tier diplomas, indicate the students' level of achievement:

Basic: eighth grade ability
HS: tenth grade ability
College ready: advanced math and literature competent

Of course, this would also have racially disproportionate allocations, but all of this will run into the same problem. Once we bite the bullet, we can start acknowledging the grouping in our credentialing.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 25, 2011 7:03 AM | Report abuse

I'm working right now to match students at my Title 1 public high school with businesses for our job-shadowing day. Teachers do this project, by the way, on our own initiative.

The problem is, of course, that there are so many more kids than opportunities. The jobs aren't there. That's the crux of "the increasingly untenable mismatch between the skills employers are demanding and the qualifications of those seeking work." There is NOTHING there for the students to reach for, NO skills and qualifications that lead to an actual job.

I bring them back to my chemistry classroom, and teach them the skills I know they would someday need for hypothetical jobs in new energy industries, medical services, and environmental management. Apparently the military is the only employer interested at this time, though; they score very well on the ASVAB, and recruiters stalk them.

So, when Schwartz says,
"If schools send students into the workplace for internships or other forms of work-based learning who cannot cut it, the programs will be forced to improve or go out of business."

Will this mean businesses and the presumably for-profit brokers of this new partnership get to pick over thirty interns for five jobs, reject the 25 who "cannot cut it", and keep the education $$$ we diverted to them, while still blaming kids and teachers for the economic catastrophe that faces the children we teach?

IBM or any other institution can build a Potemkin Vocational Academy with actual jobs at the end for a select few. Yes, students would claw their way toward it, and do anything to actually get to a real future. The scale-up for that, though, can't be jobs for all our youth because business has no intention of offering any such thing. So, the "scale-up" is again a public-private scam to divert public resources to well-connected corporate entrepreneurs.

Or, what would it take to have an actual social compact with our young? Mathews immediately attacks teachers, because he's a defender of Washington Post Corporation's shameful status-quo (which holds that private profit is the only source of education innovation, and diverts billions of tax dollars through its shady businesses).

Posted by: mport84 | February 25, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Remember, though, that a lot of kids need training to be suited for jobs at 7-11. We always romanticize vocational training.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 25, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Cal, I'm not convinced vocational training is romanticized. Too many success stories to change it to romanticized.

I wrote about something similar to this yesterday. Not sure if Jay will kill me on this, but the link is here for anyone who wants to comment/dispute the issue.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 25, 2011 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Playing the optimist, believing that there are indeed highly successful high school vo-tech programs about that actually lead to decent paying jobs, I say, Jay, put out an APB of sorts and see what you find. There must be vo-tech directors, high school principals, and superintendents that are mightily proud of their programs. Find out what makes them tick, and tick well. Do some skyping with students, teachers, directors, principals, as well as some business leaders who hire the grads. Find out how successful vo-tech programs train for jobs of the future as well as the present. Do they emphasize math and reading skills too (certianly necessary to understand technical bulletins in industry)? In essence, do a bit of research. Ask for stats. Ask some questions about funding and see what answers you receive. Ask if there is interdisciplinary teaching happening. Ask how vo-tech can help create/keep jobs in America. And then, report back to your readership and beyond.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 25, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

If employers in the U.S. are to play a greater role in transitioning HS grads to decent paying, skilled jobs, then the problem has to be examined primarily through the eyes of employers.

First, I would say not to give any tax-payer money to employers. Employers who are truly interested in developing valued workers don't need nor want tax-payer money. (If they do, then they are in it for the wrong reason and should be avoided.) But on the other hand, don't expect employers to be in it for altruistic or patriotic reasons. These won’t work either.

Another limitation: this concept will work unevenly depending on the state of local economies. Some places will just have more employers with the capacity to take on more trainees. This would be a disappointment to educators in those areas where there is a paucity of willing and able employers.

Finally, the employer has to have the final word on whether any given trainee is making adequate progress in a course of training. There could be many reasons why a trainee is flagging, but I suspect the leading cause will be lack of motivation. Whatever the problems that arise, they need to be dealt with promptly in the interests of all concerned.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | February 25, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

JBeeler, our experience with voced involves students who have the ability to go to college, not the interest. It involves skilled trade jobs.

But the lowest level of voced would involve students who need lots of training to be a bus boy or a McDonalds cashier. If we tiered high school diplomas and also made the tier something we put in a database--only for legal citizens--then the feds or the states could give McDonalds or restaurants a tax break for hiring high school graduates in the database. We don't need employee involvement to take five years to teach kids basic math and the understanding of what it means to be a good employee.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 25, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Schwartz brags, "As of last week we have received invitations from 11 states to speak at leadership gatherings of educators, business people and governmental officials." He doesn't mention parents or community groups.

Fairfaxguy thinks, "the problem has to be examined primarily through the eyes of employers."

Cal_Lanier suggests we need a sophisticated data-base to identify and flag our Epsilons, and give McDonalds a taxbreak for hiring them. Actually, my district is trying to pull together a program to transition our life skills students to independent living, including job placements as busboys cart helpers. Their families are major stakeholders, of course, and are included in every step. It's part of a national movement, and those severely affected kids have already been identified, long ago.

What if "business" decided YOUR child was surplus, and decided not to bother educating him or her, Fairfax?

Posted by: mport84 | February 25, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Cal_Lanier suggests we need a sophisticated data-base to identify and flag our Epsilons, and give McDonalds a taxbreak for hiring them

Not for the reasons you imply here. We need to be more understanding that not everyone has the desire or ability to be educated past the 10th grade level. We need to give employers incentives to hire our own native population over immigrants, because low or unskilled workers are the most negatively affected by immigrants.

By putting the information in a database, we could exclude illegal immigrants, who we are required (thus far) to educate in public schools, but aren't wouldn't be required to put in a worker database.

But it wouldn't be only the eligible "Epsilons". All high school graduates and their tier level would be put in the database.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 25, 2011 11:24 PM | Report abuse

In light of Mr. Schwartz's comment that this report should be thought of as a springboard for discussion rather than a comprehensive study I'd have to say it's actually a pretty good report, as far as it goes. My original impression was too harsh. I really like the idea of the social compact between society and our children. Of course we might have a hard time getting the teachers unions and tea party members to buy in to that. Many of the k-12 educators I know think all kids should show up ready to learn – ready to learn what the teachers are teaching the way they're teaching it – and if any kids aren't ready for that, tough luck for them. And as far as the tea party goes, they think its perfectly ok if a child isn't covered by health insurance, so I don't imagine they care if 40% of our kids don't get an adequate education. I'm not sure what the actual percentages are, but I'm willing to bet that most kids in this country are taught in school districts that for the most part answer only to an elected school board whose elections are held in the spring and generally draw only voters with an immediate interest in the results. If a school board didn't want to buy in to Mr. Schwartz's compact that would pretty much be the end of it.

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 25, 2011 11:58 PM | Report abuse


"What if "business" decided YOUR child was surplus, and decided not to bother educating him or her, Fairfax?"

This is easy to answer. I would tell MY child that this particular business who finds him/her "surplus" is not for him/her, and to go find another business that is more compatibile and is in need of his/her services.

It would be the same as if I was fired from my job and had to go find another one. No whining or sulking. Just get on with it and "Do It!"

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | February 26, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

What I want is for my nieces and nephews who are becoming resistant to school by their early or mid-teens, to be presented with a curriculum that would motivate them. A huge factor in the flagging achievement levels at many of our high schools is student disengagement. This affects children from every income level. That teachers are instructed to do whatever it takes to make their classes entertaining speaks to this issue.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 26, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I have personal experience that confirms your comments. I owned an internet cafe for 6 years in Albany New York and found that the kids coming in the cafe were "leaning machines" when it came to anything related to computers, video games, the internet, etc. When it came to things like that the amount they could learn was staggering. One of the kids who was having a lot of problems in school(his mother was an ex-Crack addict and he had been in foster care for 3 years up until the prior year) taught himself to repair pcs and wouldn't stop hounding me until I let him install a new video card in one of my pcs, which he did with ease. One day I overheard one kid giving instruction to another kid on how to get his World of Warcraft character from one place in the virtual world to another. It was a very detailed multi-step instruction. About 15 minutes later I heard them arguing about whether Buffalo was in New York and if it was East or West of Albany. I mentioned this to one of the teachers who came in the cafe and she livid with outrage that I would imply that a computer might replace a teacher. Here is an excerpt from a report on the teaching techniques at the High School - "A teacher's role as a 'Sage on the Stage' is the primary instructional strategy observed at Albany High School. It includes the teacher talking and students listening or sitting passively unengaged; teacher led questions and answers; students taking turns reading from a textbook or novel. The use of flexible and appropriate grouping for instruction is extremely rare. The use of differentiated instruction or project-based learning was not observed in any classes. In most classrooms, a large percentage of students were neither involved or focused." Actually this report is being generous. As far as I could tell the most prevalent teaching technique was for the teacher to write on the black board and then requiring the kids to copy down what had been written. The homework assignment was then a series of question with a one-to-one correspondence with what had been written earlier. For example - the teacher writes "George Washington was the first president of the U.S.". A homework question is "Who was the first president of the U.S.".

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 26, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

This is a very good give and take with lots of concrete examples. I will have to look for opportunities to come back to it. For shadwell1, the impressions of teachers in some voced programs are not very useful. You need data. We have some MDRC studies that show a few very well organized programs are effective, but they are the exceptions. It takes money and talent to make such programs work, and there has not been enough devoted to this issue so far.

Posted by: jaymathews | February 27, 2011 1:20 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for bringing attention to this very thought provoking report and giving the authors the chance to further explain there position. I believe your criticisms of some of the recommendations are accurate in that, meaningful implementation of some of the recommendations – especially the employer involvement piece – is quite a challenge.

On the flip side I think we can all agree, and the authors of the report argue, that an attention to core academics is critical to success in the modern economy and is essential for success of students in secondary career and technology education programs. I was disappointed to see the comment by Mr. Mathew's about his fear that increasing participation in career and technical education would result in 'dumbing down' academic rigor for secondary students. As the authors of the paper point out and as an administrator of a career center I can attest to, secondary level training programs for high skill, high wage jobs in America demand strong academic skills. This is the new reality of the modern career and technology education. College or career education is not an option – it's college and career preparation.

My school is a very typical public education career center and our school, like most career and technology schools, we use the same college textbooks found in technical and community colleges. We offer dual enrollment college course to our students and we have articulation agreements with technical colleges throughout the eastern US. The point is, we are a small and fairly poor school – we aren't out blazing a trail, we are simply following the trend. This is what common, average career centers are doing throughout the US. This is the new reality. It seems that Mr. Mathews and others are taking a stand against a type of education that existed twenty years ago but has little in common to the career and technology center of 2011.

Posted by: ebutler_PA | February 27, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

One thing schools could do without much employer input is to listen to employer complaints about the workers they hire and then address them. Play listening games in kindergarten. Stop assigning "busy work" that both teacher and students know has no purpose or relation to the lesson. When a test or an assignment is handed back with mistakes, expect the student to correct the errors and hand it in again. Allow more back-and-forth conversation in classes.

I have trained and supervised teenage workers, and it took them several weeks, months even, to realize that we asked them to dust a shelf or sweep the floor not because they were talking too much or wasting time but because the work needed to be done. They aren't used to listening to and remembering directions, and if they can't realize they have made an error, such as breaking an object or putting the wrong price on something, they simply leave it and hope it isn't noticed. Some don't ask the customers if they can help them because they have literally never initiated a conversation with an adult or have never known an adult who was not an authority over them.

This would not only encourage better work habits, but it would encourage them to feel more of a link with their learning and with society.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 27, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Jay, ebutler_PA states the situation well.

The state departments of education should have plenty of data for you to tinker with, and they can steer you in the direction of programs that are highly successful in preparing students for jobs while in high school. Dual credit, graduating with certifications or licensures, experience - what a jumpstart. Close to your neck of the woods, the Virginia Dept. of Ed. Career and Technology Resource Center looks like a good starting place. Below is a link to some of student success stories in Virginia - heartwarming too:

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 27, 2011 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Having spent most of my career in the administration of career and technical education, I am still amazed at the attitude that we are "dumbing down" education. I was involved in implementing the High Schools That Work in one of my districts. It led the entire highschool to higher national test scores. Part of the model requires schools to eliminate easy courses and require basic academic skills in all classes. As a principal of a tech center, we required high level academic teaching in all of our tech programs. Our business partners were involved with our students in the classroom and at their sites. Their other partners who assisted them in research projects included professors at the community college and university level. All of our students were required to have an education plan that included their 13th year by their junior year. With this model we were able to involve over 70% of the parents. The teachers role is to prove to the students what they are learning, why they are learning it, and where they will use it. When teachers are challenged to enhance their professional practice and invlove other experts in the process, students become challenged. Oh yes, the High Schools That Work research that was conducted showed us that our students did not feel they were being challenged and teachers felt that students could not achieve even the basics. To often that is the case. It takes outside influence to break this mold.

Posted by: ronmunkres | March 1, 2011 9:26 PM | Report abuse

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