'Pathway to Prosperity' authors educate me
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.
| 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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