Published Online: March 7, 2011

Keeping Youths in School: An International Perspective

Blending work and learning may provide pathways that ensure that more students are able to complete high school and successfully enter the workforce

The United States is not alone in confronting the challenge and frustration of not being able to ensure that every student completes high school. All of the countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have a group of “youths left behind.” These are the young people who don’t complete upper secondary. Often, they’re members of immigrant or minority groups, or they live in rural areas.

However, there are important differences in the way the U.S. tackles the dropout challenge and what occurs in other OECD nations. Perhaps, in learning more about how other nations address the issue, the United States can discover ideas that would also work here.

According to Jobs for Youth, a 16-country OECD study of transitions from school to employment, three-fourths of young left-behinds were already far removed from the labor market, either because they had been unemployed for more than a year or because they didn't seek a job. In the United States, this is a large group because of the sheer size of the population, and because the U.S. youth cohort is declining in numbers more slowly than in most European countries. During the current recession, this group will account for much of the rising youth unemployment, and it will grow as more youths experience longer periods of unemployment after leaving education (OECD 2009). The 16 OECD Jobs for Youth studies, including one on the United States, can be found at www.oecd.org/employment/youth.

In winter 2009, at an international workshop at the OECD offices in Paris, a number of countries presented their approaches to stemming their dropout rates. The Netherlands, with a low but still worrisome noncompletion rate of 11%, described a comprehensive campaign to recapture dropouts — literally: A bus picks them up from the streets of Amsterdam and takes them to their programs. For struggling adolescents in danger of not completing upper secondary school, Norway (12%) shortened the vocational education structure from three or four years to a two-year integrated work and learning program.

Even Korea, which has a high secondary completion rate (above 90%) and has a higher education completion rate that is second among the OECD countries only to Canada, asked for help with its small dropout problem. Korea is actually attempting to discourage so many young people from going on to postsecondary education, instead touting the virtues of strong vocational and technical high school programs.

The analyses of why students drop out are remarkably similar across countries, but there are dramatic differences among countries in rates of dropping out and in solutions. Even definitions of dropout are a challenge: Some countries count as dropouts young people who don’t complete a school-leaving certificate, others focus on a group labeled “NEET”—neither in education nor employment or training.

Caution is required in comparing U.S. high schools with upper secondary schools. In many OECD countries, compulsory schooling ends at age 14 or 15; upper secondary schools are separate institutions serving 16- to 19-year-olds. The completion of these vocational programs is more like earning an associate’s degree than a high school diploma, and their academic programs are more like one year of college.

One way to avoid the problem of definitions is simply to ask which countries have kept the highest percentages of young people in school and transitioned them most successfully from schooling to work.

The United States had a youth unemployment rate in 2008 of about 11%, while the OECD average was 14.4%. By July 2010, the U.S. rate had risen to about 19.1%, and it is continuing to rise. During that year, Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland (lowest at 4.5% in March 2010) were doing substantially better. Those countries had lower rates to begin with and smaller than average increases (Scarpetta, Sonnet, and Manfredi 2010: 13).

International Policies

What policies and practices stand out in the countries that have the fewest young people in danger of being left behind either in school completion or access to jobs? Countries showing the most resilience to youth unemployment educate the majority of their teenagers in a mix of school-based and company- based vocational training. And they come to vocational education and training (VET) with a different purpose than we do in the United States.

With its “college for all” mantra, the United States uses VET (career and technical training in the U.S.) mainly to engage unmotivated students and introduce them to various career options. This strategy makes the United States an outlier. In the more successful countries, VET has little to do with engaging unmotivated students, though that is one robust outcome, nor with keeping them from dropping out, though completion rates are high and pathways from VET to tertiary education and training are increasingly available and encouraged. These countries have expanded VET from its earlier guild, handcraft, and blue-collar focus to include whitecollar occupations and those requiring sophisticated technical skills. VET also prepares young people for citizenship and lifelong learning. Completion of a VET program certifies that the young person has the nationally standardized qualifications for their chosen occupation.

The decisive factors in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland — the highest performers — are that these countries:

  • Have VET systems that serve a large number of students;
  • Match education closely to labor market needs by combining work and learning in VET programs that lead either to jobs or to postsecondary education in applied learning institutions and then to jobs; and
  • Have standardized qualifications developed with participation and buy-in by employers and unions that are accepted as trusted currency in the labor market.

VET programs aren't designed to cure at-risk youths of their potential for disconnection or dropping out. Although there are exceptions, the better-performing countries structure combinations of work and learning to address specifically the needs of struggling young people. Approaches include:

  • Youth guarantees. The notion of a youth guarantee is gaining popularity as governments struggle to protect young people from the economic downturn. The European Union is working to create a youth guarantee that will ensure a job, apprenticeship, or other education option to young people under the age of 25 years within six months after they've left the labor market or school. From 2010, this entitlement will be provided after four months and includes income supports. Australia, the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, and New Zealand have variants of such policies.
  • Mutual obligation policies. Also called "activation policies," these entail "mutual obligation" agreements among young people, their families, and the state. Young people must actively seek work or be in a combination of work and school in exchange for targeted actions to help them. In some countries, young people put their income supports in jeopardy if they refuse education or work.
  • Adapted work and learning programs. Where VET is the standard pathway for young people not headed for academic and research careers, it entails a return on employers' investments, including the chance to get to know, train, and hire the young people most suited to their enterprises. To serve at-risk youths, countries alter and adapt standard VET policies and add incentives for employer participation.

Following are profiles of three countries — Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia — that are implementing versions of the above policies. Norway and the Netherlands have low dropout rates and a focus on equity. Australia is included because it has challenges similar to those in the United States.

When comparing these countries to the United States, keep in mind the size of both their total populations and their immigrant populations: Their populations make them comparable to some U.S. states. For example, both Texas and Australia have over 20 million people, and the Netherlands has the same population as Florida (17 million). Second, they are homes to immigrants: Norway has an immigrant population of about 10%, and 25% of the Oslo population is foreign born. The Netherlands has an immigrant population of about 20%, and Australia has an immigrant population of 25%.

Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia also have both universal and targeted social and financial supports. For example, all Dutch families receive child support for children up to age 18; this monthly payment can go for books and school expenses not paid for by government means-tested scholarships and loans. Those over 18 receive monthly support directly, with a larger amount for those not living at home. Norway and Australia have variants of these policies.

An example of targeted supports is the Netherlands long-standing practice of providing additional per pupil funding to schools taking students with disadvantages. Norway has put in place various language support measures, including the right to “adapted language teaching” and extra financial resources for schools with high proportions of immigrant students in need of special language support.

Norway

In Norway, all youths below age 25 have the right to three years of free upper secondary education to be completed before age 24. Unemployed youths who aren’t enrolled in education have the right to a job or to participate in employment programs. The guarantee is not a legal right but is advanced as a promise to young people. To ensure that the guarantee is operational, all counties must track and provide individualized counseling for youths between ages 16 and 21 who are outside of education and employment. Each county must create an individual program for each youth and coordinate that program with other social service agencies. With a low NEET rate and a healthy economy, Norway can afford such personalized services, which are especially important given that many young people live in isolated rural communities where finding options outside of school or an apprenticeship position is challenging.

For students struggling with school, Norway recently implemented a shorter upper secondary VET program: two years of integrated work and learning, rather than the standard two years of school-based learning, followed by one to two years of apprenticeship in a firm. While students must still complete the usual general education courses in Norwegian, math, and social sciences, these three subjects have been redesigned to be vocationally oriented. Early data show that the students in the combined work-study, shorter-cycle VET program are advancing in substantial numbers to complete the more rigorous and longer apprenticeship training.

Building on what it has learned about dropout prevention, Norway has introduced a new subject in lower secondary education for all young people: “working life skills.” The country also has made the entire curriculum more practical.

The Netherlands

In 2002, the Netherlands set a goal to cut the dropout rate in half by 2011, from 70,000 each year to 35,000. To achieve this objective, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science made individual covenants with municipalities and schools in 39 regions for the years 2008-11. By 2009, the number of dropouts had been reduced 20% compared with the 2005-06 school year, to 42,000 (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science 2009).

To achieve this success, the Netherlands mounted an aggressive, multipronged “blitz” on dropouts, with a goal not only to return them to school but also to transition them into a career. The Youth Care Act of 2005 adopted three strategies for reducing youth unemployment, which is already among the lowest in Europe:

  • Prevent early leaving and ensure that young people obtain a basic qualification;
  • Pursue an active approach to structural youth unemployment, combined with compulsory working and learning programs; and
  • Conduct intensive supervision and development programs (“pilot projects to study the behavior of work-shy youngsters”) as well as implement a system for tracking every student’s school participation on a daily basis.

Based on these principles, a combination of incentives, rewards, and programmatic initiatives are keeping an impressive number of young people in school through the completion of a qualification. As of fall 2008, the school-leaving age was extended from 16 to 18. And in 2009, the Investment in Youth Act mandated that young people who haven’t obtained an upper secondary diploma by age 18 must be in a full-time or part-time education program or be in a job, or a combination of both. Those age 18 to 27 who haven’t completed an upper secondary qualification must enroll in a work/study activity. A young person who rejects such an offer can lose his or her income supports.

All students are tracked by a unique Education Number linked to demographic, employment, and benefit information; the data are detailed enough to locate dropouts by neighborhood. A Digital Absence Portal records standardized attendance data across the country daily. Through the Kafka Brigade, an applied anthropological research method, the government engaged young people in describing the barriers and problems they encounter in getting help from the system. As a result, policy is now developed starting with the student, rather than with the system or institutions.

The Netherlands’ dropout programs are based at the school and community levels. As stipulated in the National Youth Monitor, an information summary, schools must “hold truants accountable, take care of pupils with problems, introduce pupils to occupations, and see that they make a smooth transition to a follow-up programme of study.” Schools receive 2,500 euros for each single reduction in the total number of dropouts from the previous year, up to a total of 250 million euros for the country. The local authorities serve as partners to schools enforcing the Compulsory Education Act and seeing that Dropout Registration and Coordination Centres provide appropriate services and cooperate with Debt Assistance and Addiction Care providers. In response to data that young people want and need more work-based options and better counseling, the government has established a system to accredit the prior learning of 18- to 23-year-olds, and it has engaged large employers in helping 20,000 young people gain basic qualifications.

Australia

While Australia has a high rate of postsecondary completion, it also has a dropout rate from upper secondary school of over 25%. This bifurcated attainment pattern means that Australia must struggle to improve the chances for youths left behind, a large proportion of whom are aboriginal peoples living in impoverished and isolated rural areas. Because Australia has a robust youth labor market, with 47% of 15- to 19-year-olds holding some kind of job, and a relatively low youth unemployment rate, there is substantial temptation for young people to leave school for low-wage jobs.

In April 2009, the liberal government released a new youth strategy, titled Compact with Young Australians. Developed by the Council of Australian Governments, the policy established education and training requirements for 15- to 24-year-olds who have left or are thinking of leaving school without completing upper secondary education, “providing protection from the anticipated tighter labor market, and ensuring they would have the qualifications needed to take up the jobs as the economy recovered”.

The compact has three elements to promote skills acquisition and ensure young people are “learning or earning”:

  • A National Youth Participation Requirement requires all young people to participate in schooling (or an approved equivalent) to Year 10, and then participate full time (at least 25 hours per week) in education, training, or employment, or a combination of these activities, until age 17.
  • An entitlement to education or training for 15- to 24-year-olds focuses on attaining Year 12 or equivalent qualifications. The education and training placements are for government subsidized qualifications, subject to admission requirements and course availability.
  • To be eligible for income support, those under age 21 must participate in education and training full time or in part-time study or training in combination with other approved activities, usually for at least 25 hours per week, until they attain Year 12 or an equivalent Certificate Level II qualification.

Beginning in January 2010, the government gave contracts to Registered Training Organizations to provide vulnerable youths with nationally recognized prevocational training, support, and assistance in preparation for an Australian apprenticeship. The program includes a minimum of 150 hours of nationally recognized, accredited prevocational training linked to an Australian Apprenticeship pathway. Following the training period, participants receive individualized, intensive job-search assistance for up to 13 weeks. Participants who gain an apprenticeship or other employment or enter further education or training receive 13 weeks of post-placement support.

Conclusion

European and Australian youths complete the portion of their education that is “all school” at around age 15 or 16. As they mature from their later teens into their 20s, they enter a period of “learning to work,” which integrates school and experience in a career area and ends with a nationally recognized qualification. By their early 20s, young people enter their careers, often transitioning seamlessly from integrated work and learning into a full-time role in their apprenticeship company.

In countries with low dropout rates, preparation for a vocation is a much more important focus of education than it is in the United States. And education itself is one component of a national youth policy that includes safety nets and special initiatives. Thus, “mutual obligation” policies, while appearing punitive to Americans because the young person can be denied income support, have a different resonance when they are part of a broader social contract that takes particular care to ensure that young people are prepared for the future. Educators in these countries would say that it is responsible policy to require young people to have the minimum qualification to enter the labor market. After all, to do productive work is a fundamental human need. Work attaches citizens to the public world and supports the health and well-being of families and communities. It makes sense to young people to engage in learning how to do real work and to discover their inclinations and talents as a critical step in becoming an adult and entering “the working life.”

References

  • Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science. "The Results of the 2007-2008 Performance Agreements." Amsterdam, Netherlands: Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science, 2009. www.aanvalopschooluitval.nl.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Tackling the Jobs Crisis, The Labour Market and Social Policy Response, Theme 3, Helping Youth to Get a Firm Foothold in the Labour Market." Background Document, Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting. Paris: OECD, Sept. 28-29, 2009.
  • Scarpetta, Stefano, Anne Sonnet, and Thomas Manfredi. Rising Youth Unemployment During the Crisis: How to Prevent Negative, Long-Term Consequences on a Generation? OECD Social, Employment and Migration Papers, no. 106. Paris: OECD, April 2010.

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