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Education-Workforce Links


Q. There's so much emphasis on skills training and career planning in our schools today. It seems like our schools are morphing into places of mere job training for the masses of children. Is that off base?

Of course, any program of schooling should end up with a graduate who is ready, willing and able to be productively employed in the American workplace. But you are among a growing number of concerned citizens who are wondering how workforce development gained primacy over other goals of education.


Most people would agree that K-12 education is intended to not only get students ready for their careers, but also to produce an informed electorate and a civilized society with people who treat each other well and appreciate culture and so forth. That has gotten complicated with extremes of wealth and poverty, and the recent waves of non-English speaking immigrants. We are committed to public schools as the best way to instill bedrock American values and equip each child for a good run at having the American dream. Those basic goals haven't changed.


But where did all this emphasis come from on standardizing learning the way you standardize an assembly line?


When did we stop "testing" and start "assessing" each student?


Why are schools starting to get kids to make career plans 'way back in early grade school, based on economic projections of what jobs are going to be needed 15 or 20 years on down the road?


Why are schools trending more and more toward a workaholic, year-round school calendar, and making schools "feel" more like an adult workplace than a place for children to learn?


Are we moving closer to a "planned society"?


It sure looks that way. Employers and others started complaining in the 1970s and '80s that the high school graduates of the day weren't as good at reading, writing and arithmetic as past generations seemed to be. Pundits whined that the "human capital" of tomorrow - the workforce - weren't being educated as well as they used to be, and it would hurt America's economic health and competitiveness if something wasn't done to fix it.


In response, starting in the 1980s, using various grants and government agency regulations, we've switched schools out from a traditional model of local control and teacher autonomy, to a nationalized one.


Federal legislation such as Goals 2000, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, were used to organize and fund this process. Federal labor and education officials collaborated on the SCANS (Secretary's Commission on Acquiring Necessary Skills) list of job skills, which were integrated into the school standards in every state and made part of high school graduation requirements and so forth.


Now the federal government basically controls a nearly identical curriculum from state to state and has set up a carrot-and-stick accountability system involving federal education grants and standardized tests. Locally-elected school boards and even state legislators are basically rubber stamps and irrelevant paper-pushers now, just "cogs" in a gigantic school "system."


The first step, in the late 1980s, was instituting "Outcome-Based Education" (renamed "standards-based" or "performance-based" in the late 1990s) in each state and each district.. Basically, the standards are the same from state to state - boilerplated through a series of identical "community" meetings held across the country with basically the same agendas and pre-planned outcomes. So basically, we've been led unsuspectingly to have a nationalized curriculum.


Along with that has come a shift in direction. We've gone away from keeping each student's future job options open by providing everybody with a balanced curriculum of the liberal arts. Now we lean more toward the German-Japanese-Soviet educational style that "sorts" kids by high school into who will get to be an "elite" and who will be a "worker bee," or minimizes traditional academics in favor of spending a large part of the school day focusing on a certain line of work, such as health care, food service or technology.


We're now delivering "skills" training from K-12, with an emphasis on "competencies" and what each student should "know and be able to do." We are moving toward "certifying" basic kinds of employability at different stages of schooling ("career passports" or "certificates of initial mastery"), and adding every day to the apprenticeships, job shadowing


There's a lot more paperwork and record-keeping, with constant assessment and reassessment by teachers, who don't really choose their curriculum and instructional activities any more, but are more or less "human file servers," handing out the standardized work and making sure it's done.


The same standardization of the teaching profession, and the same constant assessment and scrutiny, are changing the job of a teacher just as much as they are changing the activities and atmosphere in our schools for our students. Team teaching, inservices, nationall teacher standardization, and sweetheart pension deals to promote early retirement of veteran teachers, all were used to hasten the transformation of public-school teaching from a profession to a government service job.



Homework: The best compilation of articles about School-to-Work is from Ohio politician Diane Fessler, former member of the Ohio State Board of Education who moved on to the state legislature.


By Susan Darst Williams Government & Politics 14 2008


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