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School to Work: Helping Students Learn a Living

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Many American schools are taking bold new approaches to teaching, revamping their governance structures, bringing computers into classrooms, and building partnerships with their local business communities. As important and well-meaning as these efforts are--a new program here, another change there--they are not the kind of sweeping overhaul of schools we need.

Most schools continue to operate the same way they have for at least half a century. And what worked well decades ago, simply doesn't work any more because the demands of the modern economy are fundamentally different than they once were.

Students are paying a heavy economic price for schools' continuing to do business as usual. The most disturbing finding of the U.S. Labor Department's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) was that more than half of all young people leave school without the skills needed for productive employment. These young people will face the bleak prospect of dead-end job after dead-end job, interrupted only by periods of unemployment.

Because schools aren't teaching the skills needed today, a high-school diploma is no longer a ticket to a decent job. In economic terms, the market value of the diploma is rapidly falling. Between 1969 and 1989, the percentage of men between the ages of 25 and 54 with 12 years of schooling who earn less than enough to support a family of four above the poverty line has grown at an alarming rate. Among African-Americans it grew from 20 percent to 42 percent; for Hispanics from 16 percent to 36 percent; and for white men it grew by more than two-and-a-half times, from 8 percent to 22 percent.

As the SCANS chairman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor William E. Brock says, "By our failure to change how and what our schools teach our young people ... we have put our country on a downward path toward low skills, low productivity, and low wages. In a very real sense, we are failing our children and shortchanging their future and ours.''

Ignoring the skills deficiencies of the American workforce means we will continue to see incomes decline and jobs shipped overseas. One goal of education reform is to restore the American dream in which each succeeding generation can enjoy a better quality of life than the next. For many of today's young people, the prospect of enjoying the same or better standard of living than their parents is dismal.

So how do we re-establish the dream? First, schools must begin to teach the skills people need to be productive and adaptable workers. Two SCANS reports outline the skills students should be taught and what needs to be done to effectively teach them. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991, and April 15, 1992.)

The SCANS skills include the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, but they also include such skills as problem-solving and decisionmaking. Sãáîó also identified five "competencies'' students need, which include the ability to manage resources, work with others, acquire and use information, understand systems, and use technology.

The SCANS reports are already leading to concrete change. Fort Worth, Tex., students are learning the SCANS skills now. A chemistry class, for example, is learning chemical properties by analyzing fertilizers used on school grounds and recommending what is the most effective, economical, and environmentally safe product for the school district to use.

Los Angeles is taking a different approach. The school system has decided that, beginning in 1994, it will offer a "diploma warranty'' based on the SCANS skills.

Florida has decided to make the SCANS skills part of its statewide student-performance standards. Indiana high-school students verified that the SCANS skills are indeed used in the workplace and the state is now considering what changes need to be made in the state curriculum framework.

The SCANS reports can help other local efforts to improve schools. They provide a guide so states and local schools don't have to start from scratch.

Teaching the SCANS skills, however, will require new ways of thinking in which teachers look beyond their own discipline to the other courses students take and their lives outside of school. It will require a commitment by the entire community to help students understand how what they learn in class relates to the outside world and their future lives as workers, parents, and citizens.

The SCANS agenda also requires changing not only what students are taught, but how they are taught. The commission believes the most effective way to teach the SCANS skills is to teach them in the context of real-life situations and real problems. Through creative projects, students who are learning mathematics, for example, can also learn such SCANS skills as how to allocate resources, work in teams, solve problems, and use technology.

Teaching the SCANS skills will complement and reinforce the learning of traditional subject matter by making it more relevant and interesting. Students will work harder and learn more when they are engaged and understand why what they are studying is important and useful. At the same time, students will learn the broader skills they need to succeed.

Integrating the skills into classrooms can be accomplished by unleashing the creativity of teachers. Once teachers know what skills they are expected to teach, I am confident they will be able to figure out innovative ways to teach them. But teachers will need time to work together to share ideas and develop new teaching strategies. And curriculum developers may need to develop prototypes and work with teachers as coaches.

The changes SCANS envisions will require additional resources. Among the most important will be investments in staff development and teacher training to develop new pedagogical skills. It will also require investments in technology and instructional material, including computer-based and multimedia materials.

One of the more difficult challenges that has confronted SCANS has been to avoid being perceived as anti-intellectual or narrowly vocational.

The first SCANS report said: "We understand that schools do more than simply prepare people to make a living. They prepare people to live full lives--to participate in their communities, to raise families, to enjoy the leisure that is the fruit of their labor. A solid education is its own reward and has value beyond specific skills.''

As Denis Doyle, hardly an anti-intellectual, said of the report, "Sãáîó calls for a revival of the ancient and honorable idea of a liberal education, the education that makes lives of ordered liberty possible. Writing more than 150 years ago in The Uses of University, John Henry Newman captured the essence of the SCANS report when he said that the only truly vocational education is a liberal education.''

In its second report, "Learning a Living,'' SCANS was even more emphatic: "We are not talking about transforming high schools into trade schools that ignore the beauty of literature, the elegance of scientific theories, or the lessons of history and geography.''

Still, there are some who think SCANS did not mean it. Some were skeptical because of the composition of the commission (educators were outnumbered by labor leaders and corporate executives) and its focus on the needs of the workplace.

Other critics believe that schools do not have a primary responsibility to prepare youths for employment. Here, the commission simply disagrees. Sãáîó recommends that "all Americans are entitled to multiple opportunities to learn the SCANS know-how well enough to earn a decent living.'' The commission thinks that schools should provide this opportunity.

Another layer of criticism is directed to the idea that preparation for work should begin in high school, let alone earlier, for the college bound. Sãáîó, however, thinks schools should prepare students for employment, whether work comes immediately after high school or only after graduate school. The SCANS skills are needed by everyone. After all, unless they can live off of a trust fund, college students will eventually enter the world of work too.

Sãáîó recommends that schools be reinvented. That does not mean making all schools "academic,'' where the word carries the dictionary definition of "pedantic, ... having no practical application.'' Nor does it mean vocational, where the word means learning a narrow skill or trade.

Sãáîó' mission was to consider the demands of the workplace. Perhaps other commissions could be established--with philosophers, artists, and public servants (perhaps even former Presidents and those retiring from the Congress)--to examine what schools should do to prepare students for their civic and other roles.

Schools should prepare youngsters for a multi-faceted life in the world beyond school. Because the world keeps changing and reinventing itself, schools should do the same. Sãáîó described how and why schools must change to reflect the new world of work. Another, equally illustrious commission could provide the same service for the challenges that face us as citizens and human beings. And learning should then be reinvented--transformed, if you will--to serve our needs in the 21st century.

Arnold H. Packer was executive director of the U.S. Labor Department's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). In May, he became a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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