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'No Wonder Johnny Can't Read'

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Once again, we have a new federal education plan: the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. This time, the plan is jointly funded by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education and is heralded as the savior of American education. Advocates of this federal program claim that it is the remedy for all of society's ills, from poor citizenship and lazy or illiterate workers to spoiled and undisciplined children.

Champions of this plan have marketed school-to-work programs as options to vocational education that are so terrific that "all students" should participate. They present success story after success story to prove their point. But, these stories are smoke and mirrors. After all, they are only anecdotes of recent collaborative school and community-business projects, not stories of the long-term impact such programs have had on participants' job placement and success. There is absolutely no evidence that school-to-work programs successfully prepare all schoolchildren to make significant--or even adequate--contributions to the workplace.

Not one student in the United States has completed a training program such as those outlined in the federal script, which requires that a student would have been counseled, during school time, from "the earliest possible age, and no later than 7th grade," on the career choices available to him.

Consider this: The student would have been trained in a curriculum that "integrated all academics with vocational skills" and taught in the "context of [his] future workplace." This hypothetical school-to-work student would have been taught on the approved work site, as well as having his workplace academics or "applied" academics taught part-time at the school site. "School-based mentors" and "work-based mentors" would have counseled and guided the student successfully through a smooth transition between his "school-based learning" and his "work-based learning." Just getting through the jargon would require a full day's work.

But there is no record of such a program having produced a skilled, responsible citizen who is a productive, contributing member of her community. Do we want our federal money going to an educational quick fix that has yet to be evaluated?

Advocates of school-to-work programs assume that every child--when placed in such a program--will achieve the outcomes intended for them. Will such a program work for all children? These anecdotes only account for children who have been educated within a traditional curriculum. Only when these students have mastered the necessary basics and have reached an age when they can begin to open their minds to their futures are they placed into a high school career-exploration program or a vocational program. Proponents cite these successes and proudly claim total credit for the potential achievements of all students--regardless of their age or whether they have mastered the basics. Anecdotal evidence of these successes has brought career-training programs to students as young as elementary age.

These "success stories" only prove what we have always known: If you give children a solid basic education in their younger years, then give them a quality vocational experience in their high school years, they will go on to become productive members of society.

Good teachers with a quality academic curriculum have been successfully producing good workers, good leaders, and good citizens for more than a century. They have accomplished this in all kinds of environments with all kinds of teaching tools.

Kindergarten teachers used to be able to use class time to teach the young minds in their class the alphabet, numbers, and simple arithmetic. Sadly, teachers at all grade levels face an increasingly serious time deficit. Much of the problem is due to programs, driven by social needs, that cut into academic class time. Time is the currency of education. The minutes a teacher spends on activities like AIDS awareness, career awareness, service learning, scoliosis checks, vision and hearing screenings, counselor interviews, career fairs, and employer visits are minutes not spent teaching reading, writing, history, geography, math, and science. No wonder Johnny can't read. If our nation's children leave 1st grade unable to read, it makes little difference what they decide to be when they grow up, because their options will be as limited as their education.

Disruption of the curriculum is not the only problem with the school-to-work program. The federal program includes a list of mandates that would require nothing less than systemwide change in public education. One of these changes is in the district leadership. Most districts are led by locally elected boards. If local residents do not like the direction in which the district is going, they can elect a new board.

The law calls for a new leadership, called the "local partnership," to make the decisions. By federal mandate, the majority of this leadership body must consist of employers and labor-union representatives, not educators. It is this new local partnership that retrains teachers, sets curriculum, standards, benchmarks, and assessments, approves appropriate work sites, and negotiates contracts. In this mandated structure, with the local partnership retraining teachers, negotiating contracts, and setting curriculum, what is left for the site councils and school boards to do? And how does our community replace the local partnership if we don't like the direction they are taking our schools?

The proponents of this plan have indeed focused on a so-called national need. They have created an education urgency and come up with a quick-fix solution that puts them in control. Meanwhile, the Labor Department, businesses, and the labor unions will have a hand in defining curriculum, negotiating contracts, and, in essence, controlling education and the human capital that will be produced by our radically altered public schools. And all of this is being pulled off right under the nose of our elected officials. Why? Because this program, as a federal grant to the state, can be put in place without the oversight of elected officials, except the governor.

The reins of control, in this case and others, are slipping further and further from the schools and teachers. With programs like this one, teachers are losing control of how to spend their time in the classroom. More important, they are losing the creativity and authority to determine what the students need to progress and succeed. Let's get back to teachers and school administrators deciding what is best for their students' futures.

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by Margaret A. O'Neill.

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