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State Chiefs Focus On Transition From School To Work

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ATLANTA--Educators' obligations to students do not end with a high school diploma, but should be stretched to include successful entry into the workforce or postsecondary education, state education commissioners from across the country agreed last week.

In a sweeping policy statement, the Council of Chief State School Officers took aim at the general-education track followed by many secondary students and called on education officials to revamp curricula, forge stronger ties with local employers, and overhaul teaching and assessment practices in an effort to better prepare the nation's youths.

The council said it was moving beyond its previous goal of ensuring high-school graduation in favor of one "that encompasses gainful employment for all youth."

Such a basic shift, the policy document continues, also translates into striking changes in a number of school traditions--beginning with the general-education track, which the chiefs targeted for extinction. "Programs of general studies which do not produce high rates of graduation with promise for continued education or employment must be replaced with programs that prepare youth for continued education and employment in high-performance workplaces," the group's statement says.

"We have not developed the necessary structures at the appropriate scale for ensuring systematic access to and success in the workplace for the majority of youth who will seek to enter employment before or during completion of some form of higher education," the document adds.

Among the other changes, the policy statement seeks curricula that apply academic skills in a work: context, greater flexibility in the times and locations of courses, increased employer responsibility for developing local links between school and work, and new assessments of student skill levels. In addition, the group called for more attention to staff development by both schools and employers and stepped-up efforts to expand pro- grams, such as youth apprentice- ship and cooperative education, that usher students from school to work.

State Chiefs' Key Role State education commissioners are pivotal figures in making such a major transition, suggested Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover of Wisconsin, who served as president of the C.C.S.S.O. during the group's year long study of ties between schools and the workplace.

"The truth is, I don't think that you do this district by district," Mr. Grover said. "We can force institutions to collaborate rather than going it alone, so I think the state is properly poised on this issue."

Still, he said, to be successful, state efforts must be reinforced by national policy.

While the C.C.S.S.O.'s effort comes at a time of heavy business involvement in education reform, leaders of the group said last week that much of the national attention on school restructuring has not embraced the expanded focus sought by the council.

My. Grover said he was disappointed that President Bush's America 2000 education package did not concentrate on school-to-work issues.

"It's amazing to me that the advisers to the President haven't forced the Department of Labor and the Education Department to deal with this and restructure pre-adulthood training programs around school-to-work," he said. "This is breaking the mold, this is restructuring, this is blocking and tackling."

"The rest of this stuff is glitz and glamour and points of light that will burn out," Mr. Grover argued. "This is systemic change built around the rights of students ."

As an example of such change, the C.C.S.S.O. report cited a new Wisconsin effort aimed at restructuring education around school-to-work issues, which has led to development of a pilot program that would create apprenticeships for students bound for the workplace.

A recent study of likely participants in the Wisconsin program and their parents showed enthusiasm that the state was implementing such a career-oriented program and support for business involvement, the report notes, but indicated mistrust if businesses alone or local educators were given leading roles in the effort.

Parents and students also complained of ineffective guidance counseling and concern that students not be channeled into "menial work."

Growing State Interest

In addition to sparking increased parent and student interest, Mr. Grover said, the school-to-work emphasis has also gained momentum among educators during the past year.

"In any systemic changes there are always doubting Thomases," he said. "But they are asking how, not why. That's a telling distinction."

A sign of the growing state interest, noted Gordon Ambach, the executive director of the C.C.S.S.O., was reflected in a recent grant competition among state education agencies to develop pilot youth-apprenticeship programs.

"We had 28 states that came forward," he said. "If anybody had come out with this notion about a year ago, with the interest in youth apprenticeship, I don't know if you would have had more than three or four. The momentum now is very strong."

Mr. Ambach said that the advent of tech-prep programs required in each state under the new version of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act passed by the Congress last year has forced many officials to confront the school-to-work issue. Tech-prep programs traditionally link high-school and community college curriculums, leading from 11th grade to an associate's degree.

Mr. Ambach added that educators may be left to develop programs without significant input from business groups, despite their growing influence in the education-policy arena.

"Most of the corporations that are involved don't hire students right out of high school; they hire students out of college," he said.

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