Home Education Magazine
January-February 1997 - Columns
Taking Charge by Larry and Susan Kaseman
School-to-Work: Problems and Alternatives
School-to-Work programs are being promoted as a way to use the time that young people spend in school to prepare them to meet the needs and requirements of big business. These programs would have a strong effect on education, including home education, and on our whole society. They are already being put in place and have a great deal of momentum behind them. This column will examine the background and outlines of School-to-Work programs and explore problems raised by these programs, first for students in public schools and then for homeschoolers. Ways in which we can respond will be discussed.
About School-to-Work Programs
The basic idea behind School-to-Work programs has been around as long as people have thought that The principal functions of schools should be to help students develop the attitudes and skills they need to become employed. However, this idea has recently gained strength and momentum as part of efforts by the government and big business to reform education in America. Earlier steps in this process have included:
* the SCANS Report. This April, 1992, report from the Secretary of the U. S. Department of Labor's Commission On Achieving Necessary Skills is titled Learning A Living: A Blueprint for High Performance, A SCANS Report for America 2000. In it the Commission identified five competencies (which are skills judged to be necessary for success in the workplace) and three foundations (which are skills and qualities that underlie the competencies).
* America 2000, which became Goals 2000 and was written into federal law in the 1994 Educate America Act;
* outcome-based education (OBE), which requires that students acquire specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes; and
* dramatic increases in state requirements that students take standardized tests and performance-based assessments. Now the basic objective is becoming more blatant with the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 which was passed with strong bipartisan support. This act provides money to states that are willing to implement School-to-Work programs. A booklet titled "School to Work Opportunities: An Owner's Guide," published by the U. S. Department of Education and the U. S. Department of Labor, provides the following basic information about School-to-Work.
What is School to Work?
Every School To Work Opportunities system must contain three core elements known as School-Based Learning, Work-Based Learning and Connecting Activities. School-Based Learning is classroom instruction based on high academic and occupational skill standards. Work-Based Learning is work experience, structured training and mentoring at job sites. And last, Connecting Activities develop courses that integrate classroom and on-the-job instruction, match students with participating employers, train job-site mentors and build and maintain bridges between school and work.
What It Will Mean For Young People
When they enter a School To Work system, America's students will see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Graduates will receive a high school diploma or its equivalent in addition to a recognized skills certificate. Some will receive a certificate or diploma recognizing successful completion of one or two years of postsecondary education. Others will enter a registered apprenticeship program or enroll in a college or university. With these credentials and skills, a young person can expect not only to compete for a job in his or her field, but prosper as well.
The scope and seriousness of this system and the powerful effects it will have on schooling in America can be seen by considering "The School-to-Work Template: A Guide to Building School-to-Work Systems," developed by the National School-to-Work Office. The template lists a series of steps to be taken in each of the three parts of the system and provides space to check off when a state or local school district has completed the stages of system building, which are Vision (a continuous process), Planning, Early Implementation, and Maintaining the System.
School-Based Components include: Restructure schools around career majors, including all aspects of industry; Restructure school schedules; Establish career paths-K-16 systems; Change culture of schools around STW [School to Work]; Align ongoing programs to STW systems; Gain and maintain support and participation of students, teachers, parents, school boards, teacher (and other school-related) unions, counselors, school and district administrators, and community-based organizations; Establish rigorous academic content and performance standards; Develop and integrate curricula; Engage employers to assist schools with curriculum restructuring and all other STW activities; Link school activities with activities in the workplace-e.g., joint curriculum development, personnel, roles, and connections with teachers and worksite supervisors; Develop site-based collaboration for STW activities; Build in collaboration time for teachers; Offer teacher internships at worksites; Reform postsecondary teacher education (preservice/ inservice); Use authentic assessment; Offer comprehensive career counseling; and Develop individual education and career development plans.
Work-Based Components include: Adopt work-based learning curricula; Structure a planned program of training, including individualized student worksite learning plans; and Establish occupational skill standards.
Connecting Activities include: Develop collaborative agreements between schools and employers; Develop collaborative agreements between secondary and postsecondary education; Conduct marketing and PR for all stakeholders; Connect to state economic and workforce development activities; and Leverage resources to institutionalize system.
The work-based component of School-to-Work programs includes public funds being spent on students working for businesses and also being paid directly to business consultants/coordinators. Businesses not only get publicity and credit for hiring students; they also get tax dollar incentives.
How School-to-Work Programs Are Affecting Education in General School-to-Work programs raise a number of serious problems, including the following:
* School-to-Work programs turn schools into job training programs preparing students to be the kind of workers that corporations think they need. Such a development raises serious questions about the role schools and education should play in our society. Certainly it is important that young people learn to work and earn a living. But does this mean that we should let schools become primarily a place in which students are required to develop attitudes and skills that corporations think they want their future employees to have? Schools will be geared to producing workers to meet the needs and desires of big business rather than offering educations that meet the needs of children, families, local communities, and our nation.
* Students will be required to earn skills certificates (sometimes called certificates of mastery) to qualify for many jobs. Preparing for tests and assessments that will enable them to earn certificates will determine what students study in school and what skills and attitudes they develop. Tests and assessments have repeatedly been shown to be unfair, biased, limited, and inaccurate. It was bad enough when such unfair instruments were used to supposedly determine how well children did in school. Expanding their use to determine what jobs young people may hold makes a bad approach worse.
* School-to-Work programs will leave young people poorly prepared for the future because the programs are not consistent with today's economic realities.
School-to-Work programs are based on the premise that economic problems can be solved if young people overcome their personal inadequacies by learning skills and acquiring attitudes that will turn them into workers qualified to hold jobs in large corporations. However, from 1987 to 1992, 78% of the new jobs were created by businesses that had 19 or fewer employees, and virtually all other new jobs were created in companies with 100 or fewer employees. Also, in the past six years, more than 3.2 million jobs have been cut by major corporations (according to Chicago based outplacement firm Challenger and Grey). IBM alone cut its workforce from 406,000 in 1986 to 219,000 at the end of 1995.
Despite these economic realities, large corporations are having a strong influence on the development of School-to-Work programs, and small businesses have little if any say. For example, the CEO of IBM was the co-chair of the "national education summit" held in New York in April, 1996. If schools are going to adopt School-to-Work programs, the programs should at least focus on the needs of small businesses rather than large corporations.
In addition, School-to-Work programs claim that more students need additional education after high school. However, the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that from 1992-2005, 25% of new college graduates will not be able to find jobs that require a college education. (The actual figure is undoubtedly much higher than 25%, because the Bureau includes in its list of jobs that require a college education many managerial jobs that are not currently held by people with college degrees, such as managing a fast food restaurant.)
* School-to-Work programs will limit young people's access to employment, not increase it. Programs will require that young people take assessment tests as early as fourth grade to determine what areas of work are suitable for them and perhaps whether they will be able to attend college or will be put on a vocational education track. Students will be told to take courses that are approved for the "career cluster" in which they have been placed, limiting possible areas of work they can learn about and skills they can develop. Once they have finished school, lack of an appropriate certificate will keep them out of certain jobs. People's ability to change jobs and/or careers will also be diminished by the need for certificates. * School-to-Work programs do not work. They have not worked in the past. Predictions for what kinds of jobs will be available in the future have proven to be inaccurate, and our economy and technology are changing even more quickly now than they did in the past. People who have followed recommendations that they become trained for specific careers can easily find themselves out of work. For example, consider the push in the 60's and 70's to train more scientists and engineers. Many of these white collar professionals are now out of work because of downsizing and because the supply exceeds current demand.
In addition, consider the skills you and people you know use in your daily work. Where did you develop the most important of these skills? In school? In your family and local community? On the job? Can you think of examples of ways in which young people have been trained in elementary and high school for real work that they then did? Detailed, well-documented information showing that schools are not effective in preparing students for careers may be found in Ivar Berg's Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery.
* School-to-Work programs will greatly increase standardization and uniformity within our schools. School-to-Work programs are putting into effect the principles and ideas behind Goals 2000 and outcome-based education (OBE). (This is not surprising since major corporations and the educational establishment played a major role in initiating and shaping these programs.) Instead of the current requirement that children attend school, School-to-Work programs require that they acquire a specific education. In other words, they move from compulsory attendance to compulsory education. Since School-to-Work programs are by definition designed to meet the needs of big business rather than of students, they are highly uniform and standardized and do not allow students to develop their unique abilities and strengths. Also, because of the strong involvement of the federal government and state departments of education, local communities have less opportunity to shape their schools to meet the needs of their citizens.
* School-to-Work programs blame individuals and families for the difficulties that they and our society face. School-to-Work is built on the premise that economic problems can be solved if young people learn skills and acquire attitudes that prepare them to work in large corporations. However, as shown above, this premise does not fit with today's economic realities.
* In directing and controlling the choices students have and the ways they must prepare for employment, School-to-Work programs establish even more aggressive social control measures that will keep people off balance and convinced that it is their fault that they are not successful in earning as much money as they want.
* School-to-Work programs will decrease our basic freedoms. Obviously programs that standardize education, that direct what young people can study, that move toward compulsory education, and that limit people's access to jobs will undermine the development of strong individuals who understand democracy, can think freely, and are responsible citizens. Freedom of thought, education, and employment are fundamental to a free society. The effects of School-to-Work programs are serious indeed, and they are happening now as these programs operate around the country.
How School-to-Work Programs Affect Homeschoolers
School-to-Work programs are being implemented in public schools. In some places, homeschoolers are even being assured by school officials that these programs will not affect them. However, these programs will affect homeschoolers for a number of reasons, including the following:
* The general public expects the same things of homeschools as it does of conventional schools. Homeschools are seen by the public as schools and will only be allowed to continue as long as they are viewed that way. Homeschooling has gained acceptance because the public is willing to recognize that children can "go to school" at home. The public is not yet ready for the idea that children might not need to go to school, that they might be able to grow into responsible people without adults making them learn things.
This means that what the public expects of conventional schools is also expected of homeschools. In the past this has meant that children learned to read, do math, understand American government, etc. As conventional schools put increasing emphasis on preparing students for corporate jobs, homeschools will be expected to emphasize this as well. Even though as homeschoolers we may not be required to adopt School-to-Work programs used in conventional schools, we will be expected and perhaps required to show that our young people are in fact prepared for corporate jobs and possess the skills, attitudes, and values associated with such jobs.
* Certificates of Mastery will cost us much of our homeschooling freedom. It seems unlikely that homeschoolers would simply be exempt from requirements that young people have Certificates of Mastery to be eligible for some jobs. To prepare for the tests and assessments that are prerequisites for certificates, homeschoolers will have to acquire knowledge and skills similar to those being required of students in conventional schools, which will seriously limit our ability to choose for our children an education consistent with our principles and beliefs and also limit the flexibility that is an essential part of good homeschools. In other words, homeschools will have to become much more like conventional schools. In addition, if homeschoolers need to go to public schools to get their certificates, the schools will have a golden opportunity to increase their regulation of homeschools in a wide variety of ways.
Perspectives on School-to-Work Programs
Taking a long-range look at School-to-Work can provide helpful insights. In many ways School-to-Work represents perhaps the most explicit statement in a long series of developments. Tensions between individual freedom and the needs of communities, the state, schools, and business have existed since those institutions began. The idea that schools should be used to train students to meet the needs of their employers is also not new. In the late 19th century, large corporations formed education councils that determined a great deal of what goes on in schools of education and throughout the current conventional school system.
The past 10 to 15 years have seen a series of reform initiatives that were fueled in part by the publication in 1983 of A Nation At Risk, a report that claimed that our schools were not producing well trained students and this threatened our economic and political power in the global economy. The reforms have included state and national goals in education, increases in tests required by the state, development and use of performance-based assessments, longer school days and school years, pressure to send children to school at earlier ages, Parents As Teachers programs, OBE, vouchers, charter schools, and now School-to-Work, with its idea that schools are to develop a "culture" that prepares children for performance in corporate America.
School-to-Work really involves much more than using the schools for job training. If we support School-to-Work, we are advancing the idea that our economic and social difficulties should be solved by the corporate model based on fierce competition, specialization, virtually unlimited use of natural resources, and wealth for a few at the expense of many. We are putting state power and corporate profits ahead of families, local communities, small businesses, and basic freedom.
In some ways the real issue is not work or jobs or income or economic success. Instead, the fundamental question is who decides what people learn, think, and believe. School-to-Work is yet another way of turning decision making over to state and corporate power centers. Unfortunately, these power centers are showing us that they have no moral center; that they choose expediency, efficiency, and greed over other values; and that they can no longer provide jobs that people can live on and count on.
To be sure, School-to-Work is far from being the only point at which we make such basic decisions about our lives, our children's lives, and the direction our society will take. But School-to-Work does present the issues in an unusually clear way. The state and big business are being unusually forthcoming about what they are trying to do. We have a good chance to think things through and choose the direction in which we will move, the values we will embrace, and the model we will use.
What We Can Do: Direct Opposition to School-to-Work Programs
We can respond to School-to-Work programs in several ways, including opposing them directly and working to promote more appropriate ways for young people to prepare for work and find jobs. To oppose School-to-Work programs directly, we can:
* Get more specific information about School-to-Work from the National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center, 400 Virginia Ave, SW, Room 210, Washington, DC 20024; 800-251-7236.
* Share information about School-to-Work with other homeschoolers, other parents, and other interested citizens. This can be done through informal conversations, public meetings, letters to the editors of local papers, programs on public access radio and community television, etc.
* Follow developments in our local communities so we know when our local school board is going to consider establishing School-to-Work programs. Share our concerns with school board members and others in our community. Prepare fact sheets with basic information about School-to-Work programs and with concerns about the specific proposals that our community is considering. (Use material in this column that is helpful. Choose the points and concerns that are most likely to make sense to and gain support from members of our local community. Then add a point by point analysis of the specific program under consideration and the effects it would have.) Attend school board meetings and distribute fact sheets there and in other places.
* Follow developments in our state legislature and oppose attempts made at that level to institute and promote School-to-Work programs. (For example, Oregon is a leader in implementing School-to-Work. Its legislature has authorized Certificates of Initial Mastery and will be taking up legislation that would authorize Certificates of Advanced Mastery.)
In acting in our local communities and on the state level, it helps to remember that the federal government's role in education is influential but still limited. The federal government can seldom pass laws that affect education directly, since education is governed by state laws. To influence educational policy, the federal government offers money to states and local communities who are willing to voluntarily establish programs of the type the federal government wants to promote (in this case, School-to-Work programs). To be sure, federal money is a powerful incentive that states and local communities usually have difficulty resisting. But understanding how the system works shows us that it is possible for ordinary citizens to stop federal programs by refusing to participate in them on a state and local level. If states and local communities refused to develop School-to-Work programs because they don't make sense and they threaten basic freedoms, the federal legislation would be meaningless and the federal government would have to try to find another way to institute such programs.
* Encourage businesses not to participate in School-to-Work programs and not to agree to require Certificates of Mastery.
* It may be tempting to think that we don't really need to worry about School-to-Work because it is a bad idea that doesn't fit with reality, so it will fail. Unfortunately, there are many, many examples of bad ideas that have been proposed and become reality because they have been promoted by powerful interests with access to the media, government, and money and because people assumed that someone else would stop them. School-to-Work programs are being implemented in many states now, and plans for additional programs are well under way. We can't afford to assume that they won't really happen. It is up to us to say, "No," and say it now.
What We Can Do: Developing Alternatives
* Help our children get the credentials they really need. Many people are convinced that the best way to help young people prepare for work and the future is to help them learn how to learn, develop self-confidence, explore their personal interests and strengths, create strong family ties and other healthy relationships, and so on. Many families homeschool because it offers outstanding opportunities to achieve goals such as these.
* Help our children learn how to earn a living outside the corporate world, perhaps in part by providing an example and working there ourselves. People who know how to start and run their own businesses and to cooperate and barter with people in their local communities will be much less dependent on Certificates of Mastery and other such credentials. An excellent source of information about many different kinds of employment and ways of earning a living is the Whole Work Catalog, available for $1.00 from The New Careers Center, Inc., 1515 23rd Street, P. O. Box 339-CT, Boulder, CO 80306, 303-447-1087, FAX 303-447-8684.
* Support alternatives to large corporations. Whenever possible, we can spend our families' resources in ways that support small businesses and entrepreneurs. We can buy our food locally from small growers, co-ops, and independent, locally owned grocers rather than from supermarket chains. We can buy gifts at art fairs, choose independent health practitioners rather than large clinics or HMOs, buy books from small presses and independent book stores, participate in local currencies, etc. It can often be challenging to find such alternatives, and sometimes it's essentially impossible. (Does anyone know of cars that are not made by corporations, for people whose living situations require that form of transportation?) But the more we spend our money on such alternatives, the greater the number of people who can earn a living by working outside of corporate America and the stronger and more widely available such economic alternatives will become.
School-to-Work programs are currently being implemented in many states, supported by federal legislation and federal tax dollars. Unfortunately, these programs will have serious negative effects on education in general, on the public schools, and on private schools, including homeschools. They will change the "culture" and curriculum of conventional schools to meet the perceived needs and interests of the state and big business. They will limit young people's options and opportunities. They will decrease our educational freedoms, including our homeschooling freedoms, and move us closer to compulsory education.
Opposing these programs will not be easy. They are built on education reforms that have been developing over the past decade or more. They have strong support from federal and state governments and big business. They are gaining momentum. But despite these obstacles, people like us need to understand what is really at stake, let our concerns be heard, and share the information we have with other parents and other citizens.
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