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November 28, 2013

For my entire career in education I believed that high school success was a function of engagement in the life of the school. Students who participate in extra-curricular activities, take electives that match their interests, and students who enter school with a clear and specific goal ALL succeed in high school. Those who attend school because it is an obligation do not get a lot out of the four years spent there and often leave without a diploma… and a large number of these students are capable, hard-working employees at part-time jobs or imaginative and creative in endeavors that are not part of the school curriculum. Connecting with these adrift students is public education’s biggest challenge, for it is the middle 60% of high school classes that will constitute the middle class in the future and if that group is as disengaged in the life of the community as they are in the life of the school our democracy will be in trouble.

20 years ago Marc Tucker wrote a monograph titled “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages” where he argued that we needed to increase the technical skills of “average” students if we hoped to compete the in global economy. The high school students we were trying to connect with in the early 1990s are now in their 30s, and their wages are eroding as the high skill jobs migrate overseas. The only way to restore the wage base of the middle-level earners in this country is to ramp up the technology skills, and the best way to do that is to abandon our current model of high school and move toward a tiered system that provides paid apprenticeship opportunities for students who do not aspire to college.

The Washington Post describes one such system  in an article titled “Recasting High School, German Firms Transplant Apprenticeship Model to US”.  The article describes the frustration the German firm Siemans encountered when it opened a factory in North Carolina. It seems that there were not enough sufficiently trained high school or community college students with the skill sets required by their company. Instead of joining some ALEC-like coalition of businesses and complaining about the poorly prepared students, the German human resources department decided to launch an apprenticeship program in a partnership with local community colleges and high schools. The curriculum for the apprenticeship program is narrow and specific, but since the corporation is providing the funding for the curriculum it is only fair that they determine its content… and the students enrolled in the program have no complaints since they are choosing entry into the program for a wide range of reasons, many of which are described in the Post article.

After reading the article, I offered the following comment:

American corporations would rather pay dues to ALEC to get their taxes lowered than roll up their sleeves like Siemans and recruit students from high schools and train them. As other commenters noted it wasn’t always this way: many large corporations actually PAID trainees enrolled in colleges and junior colleges instead of using unpaid interns and many used community colleges as a vehicle for delivering their curriculum. It IS easy to offshore labor, dodge taxes at all levels, support legislation that lowers everyone’s wages, and then complain about the lack of government services and “prepared workers”. Siemans is reminding us that there is another way.

I’m thankful that some corporations are showing the way to a new kind of approach to schooling… and maybe their example will spread in the coming years so that our country can choose high wages over the tired model for schooling we have in place today.

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