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States Aim To Ease Transition From School to Work

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As part of broader efforts to strengthen their economies, a growing number of states are joining Oregon in moving to raise expectations for all students and to ease the transition from school to work for young people not headed directly to college.

While the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century represents one of the most ambitious of these efforts, it is far from the only approach.

This month, the Rhode Island Skills Commission released a report calling for fundamental changes in the relationship between the education and business communities.

The bipartisan panel, created by Gov. Bruce Sundlun in 1991, included more than 175 volunteers from education, business, labor, government, and social services.

Like the Oregon law, the report is modeled closely on the national study "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.'' Ira C. Magaziner, the Rhode Island business consultant who chaired the national group that produced "America's Choice,'' also headed the state task force. Its recommendations include:

  • Creating new educational standards, benchmarked to the highest in the world, for all Rhode Island students. After students meet the standards, they would be awarded a "certificate of initial mastery'' at about age 16. The certificate would be a requirement for a high-school diploma.
  • Establishing community-based "learning centers'' for students who drop out of school or who need additional help in attaining a certificate.
  • Creating three- to four-year programs that lead to professional-technical certificates for occupations not requiring a bachelor's degree.

The programs, developed in collaboration with business and industry, would combine academic, technical, and on-the-job training. Students could enter them after achieving the certificate of initial mastery.

  • Providing employers with incentives to invest in additional training for their front-line workers and to create high-performance workplaces.
  • Reorganizing the state's employment-and-training services into a "coherent, comprehensive system that is driven by customers' needs.'' The state now has more than 30 separate programs spread across five departments and agencies.

William J. Maroni, the project director for the commission, said the group decided not to start off with legislative mandates. Given the public's distrust of government, he said, the commission felt it better to focus on a grassroots effort.

"The whole premise behind 'America's Choice' is high-performance work,'' he added. "And in a high-performance work organization, you start at the boardroom with the vision, but then you go to the shop floor and you talk with the front-line workers about how to accomplish that vision.''

The commission has mailed a summary of its report to every superintendent, principal, and teacher in the state. It is inviting citizens to form three state-level consortia: of school districts, industry and labor groups, and employment-and-training providers. Members of the consortia will be asked to make a five-year commitment to carry out the reforms.

'Random Walk' Process

In New York State, a gubernatorial task force is expected to release recommendations this month on easing the transition from school to work.

The panel includes representatives from the business, education, labor, and employment-and-training communities.

Among other proposals, it is expected to recommend the creation of a "career-pathways certificate,'' similar to the certificate of initial mastery, as well as the development of professional-technical certificates in a number of occupational fields.

"Most of the youngsters, instead of having a linear transition to the workplace, undergo what I call a 'random walk' process,'' said Walter Cooper, the co-chairman of the Task Force on Creating Career Pathways for New York Youth and a member of the New York State Board of Regents. "They get their high-school diploma and then they go from one job or training program to another.''

The average age for entry-level apprenticeships in New York, he noted, is 28. The new requirements would be the basis for a more formal school-to-work transition, he said.

Massachusetts has taken a slightly different approach. Lawmakers there filed a bill last week that would require students to have attained a "certificate of initial mastery'' by about grade 10 in order to graduate.

The proposal would also create a separate "certificate of occupational proficiency'' for youngsters who demonstrated the skills and competencies required for different professions.

But, unlike in other states, students could obtain the certificate without first earning the certificate of initial mastery or obtaining a high-school diploma. "We left that open at the moment,'' said Michael J. Sentance, the undersecretary for policy and planning in the office of Gov. William F. Weld.

The bill would also create a "certificate of advanced mastery,'' but it too would differ markedly from the Oregon approach. The certificate would be awarded to students who scored 3 or higher on two or more Advanced Placement examinations, or who demonstrated excellence in areas not reflected by the state assessments, such as artistic achievement.

California Competitiveness

This spring, the Council on California Competitiveness released a 12-month action plan to improve that state's stagnating economy.

In its section on education and training, the task force urged:

  • Creating high-quality career programs--including apprenticeships and structured work experiences--for interested 11th and 12th graders, in collaboration with business.
  • Setting standards for skills needed in such high-wage occupations as biotechnology, computer-based applications, financial services, and health care. Regional panels would develop curricula, assessments, and credentials based on the standards.
  • Developing professional-technical certificates, to accompany the high-school diploma, for those who have taken the career option and passed the industry standards.

Last year, the state shifted its high-school testing program from the 12th to the 10th grade, a move that Jere Jacobs, the deputy chairman of the education task force of the California Business Roundtable, said would facilitate the changes recommended by the council.

The council has advocated that students take a 10th-grade mastery test, but that their decision to enter a career track remain voluntary. "While we haven't called it 'America's Choice,' in those words, we were working on this kind of concept at the time Ira Magaziner's report came out,'' he said.

'A Lot of Debate'

Washington State also passed legislation this spring that calls for the creation of a "certificate of mastery'' as a prerequisite for high-school graduation. In addition, lawmakers enacted a $97,000 grant program aimed at better integrating academic and vocational training.

An 11-member Work Force Training and Education Coordinating Board has been established to plan, coordinate, evaluate, and monitor education-and-training programs.

The new high-school assessments are scheduled to begin in 1997-98. Representative W. Kim Peery, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers agree they want to go beyond "seat time'' as the determinant of high-school graduation. But "we're still having a lot of debate'' about what a certificate of mastery will look like, he added.

A task force on school reform and education funding is expected to make further recommendations for strengthening the school-to-work transition later this year.

'Kind of Our Bible'

In Tennessee, lawmakers passed a reform bill this spring that does away with the "general education'' track in high school and asks students to choose between a strengthened college-bound or vocational-technical program. The bill also calls for the creation of a high-school exit exam.

Brad Hurley, the executive assistant to the state schools chief, said the impetus for the law came from the state's business community, not from the national reports.

But in Indiana, Stephen L. Barkdull, the assistant to the commissioner of workforce development, said "America's Choice'' is "kind of our Bible these days.''

Last year, Gov. Evan Bayh created the department of workforce development to place the state's employment, vocational training, and workforce-literacy programs under one roof.

This year, the legislature passed a sweeping workforce-development law that mirrors closely what was passed in Oregon. The bill:

  • Creates a state-level task force to set standards for students in traditional academic subjects and in such "essential'' work skills as teamwork and critical thinking.
  • Requires the development of a "gateway examination'' at grade 10, which students must pass in order to graduate. Upon passing the exam, students will develop an individual "career plan'' based on either a college-preparatory or technology-preparatory curriculum. By 1994-95, tech-prep programs will be available for all secondary students in the state.

The state is also developing its own version of the College Board's Advanced Placement examinations in technical areas. Students will be able to use certificates attained through the exams to show to potential employers. In addition, the law calls for the creation of a "career awareness'' curriculum in grades 1-12.

To allay concerns that students would be prematurely tracked into a non-college-bound option, the law specifies that both the tech-prep curriculum and the college-preparatory curriculum must meet the entry-level requirements for the state's colleges and universities.

"Indiana is experiencing what the whole country is experiencing with a vengeance,'' Mr. Barkdull said. "We have an aging workforce. We have a changing workforce. And we have a real skills gap when you talk about moving into high-performance work areas.''

'Gateway' Assessment

Wisconsin policymakers also drew heavily on "America's Choice'' and other national documents to help guide their reform efforts.

In 1991, the state passed the Wisconsin School-to-Work Initiative. The measure was based largely on the recommendations of Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover and on the report of the Governor's Commission for a Quality Workforce.

The bill has four key components:

  • A 10th-grade "gateway assessment'' that will be similar to a certificate of initial mastery;
  • Creation of a tech-prep program in each school district in the state, in collaboration with the state's vocational-technical colleges;
  • Development of a statewide youth-apprenticeship program; and
  • Creation of a postsecondary open-enrollment program for 11th and 12th graders, beginning this fall, that will allow them to take courses at public and private universities and vocational colleges at state expense.

Other statewide youth-apprenticeship programs are being implemented in Arkansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. The Council of Chief State School Officers also has awarded planning grants to 10 state-education agencies--in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin--to design and develop youth apprenticeships.

In Minnesota, a task force on the school-to-work transition created by the legislature is expected to release its recommendations this winter. Representative Ken Nelson said the task force was formed in response to "The Forgotten Half,'' a national report on the plight of non-college-bound youth produced by the William T. Grant Foundation's Commission on Youth and America's Future.

'Smart Jobs' Initiative

In Texas, Gov. Ann W. Richards plans to introduce a comprehensive legislative package known as the "smart jobs'' initiative. The legislation will propose an extensive "workforce preparedness'' program, similar to that outlined in "America's Choice,'' according to Sonia C. Hernandez, the director of education policy in the Governor's office.

A bill passed in May 1991 calls on the state to develop a certificate of initial mastery as a requirement for a high-school diploma. In April, the state board of education approved moving the high-school assessment from the 11th to the 10th grade.

Maine is also working to raise expectations for students and provide a smoother transition to the workplace. The Maine Common Core of Learning and its related statewide assessment program represent one of the most ambitious efforts to specify what students should know and be able to do by the time they leave high school. (See Education Week, April 1, 1992.)

A measure passed by the legislature this spring creates a pilot youth-apprenticeship program. As part of that effort, said Deputy Commissioner of Education Polly Ward, the state will be exploring something like a certificate of initial mastery.

"Maine is doing a good job of educating its college-bound students, but we are not providing an education in the world of work for the 21st century for the general student,'' Ms. Ward said. On the statewide educational assessment, she noted, college-bound students average between 300 and 400 points, out of a total score of 400, while non-college-bound students score between 100 and 150.

"One of the things that the Magaziner report pointed out and that Maine has discovered to be true,'' she added, "is a decrease in the number of jobs available to people who do not have clearly identified skills. Maine used to rely quite heavily in the southern part of the state on manufacturing jobs, and those are disappearing.''

A Range of Experiences

In 1991, the Council of Great Lakes Governors adopted an initiative to improve the quality of the workforce throughout the region.

As part of that effort, it has contracted with Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., to complete a survey of workbased-learning efforts throughout the area and to make recommendations on how such programs could be linked. The Council is also attempting to form partnerships with local industries around the issue of standards development, which could become the basis for professional-technical credentials.

Jeffrey B. McCourt, the economic-policy director for the council, said each state is tackling the workforce issue a little differently, but "they're all oriented in the same direction.''

"One of the goals we have in terms of credentialing,'' he added, "is eventually to have a system that would recognize a whole range of educational experiences, so that the type of education and training that young people get--whether within traditional academic settings or in the workforce or through company training--becomes increasingly transportable, both between different parts of the education-and-training system and between the education system and the workplace.''

"Particularly in the Great Lakes states,'' he added, "there's an understanding that if we're going to remain a center of high-wage manufacturing and services ... we increasingly are going to need a higher basic level of skills.''

Additional information on state-level workforce-development efforts is contained in "States and Communities on the Move: Policy Initiatives To Build a World-Class Workforce,'' from the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. Copies of the report are available for $5 each, prepaid, from the commission at 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 301, Washington, D.C. 20036-5541.

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