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Q&A: Learning On The Job

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Lynn Olson, a senior editor at Education Week and a contributing writer for this magazine, is one of the nation's top experts on the burgeoning movement to link children's school experiences to the world of work. Her new book on the subject, The School-To-Work Revolution: How Employers and Educators Are Joining Forces To Prepare Tomorrow's Skilled Workforce, was published last month by Addison Wesley. In it, Olson describes how various programs work, the promise they hold, and the obstacles they face. She talked with us about the trend.

What is the school-to-work revolution?

It's an effort to connect the academic content that students learn in school with its use in the world outside the classroom. School-to-work activities can range from exposing young people to real-world experiences in the classroom to putting them in the workplace to learn for a period of time. Good school-to-work programs don't jettison academics; they help provide more students with access to rigorous academic content by providing opportunities to learn in active, hands-on ways. Many students say they learn better that way and that they're more motivated when they understand how learning applies to their futures. School-to-work also provides an avenue for educators and employers to collaborate on the needs of young people instead of just throwing rocks at each other.

Who are the players driving this movement?

In the communities that I visited, this was really a grassroots effort. Sometimes educators began a program after they realized that many of their students were going straight into the workplace or off to college without being prepared for that transition. Other times, employers approached schools because of specific labor shortages or because they were concerned that high school graduates lacked the skills to succeed.

These efforts are spreading slowly. But it's hard work. Schools and businesses are not used to working closely together. Vocational and academic teachers both fear losing ground. And parents, rightly, want to ensure that these programs don't cut off access to college.

The best messengers for school-to-work are really the students themselves, who often are extraordinarily moving in describing what it has meant for them. One young woman, Alfreda Cromwell, told me, "I wasn't this big, bad person before. But I definitely wasn't into school, and I definitely didn't want to go to college.'' After she began participating in an internship at Harvard University's real estate office and enrolled in a work-based seminar at the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her whole attitude changed. She earned straight A's. She stayed late to finish projects. And last I spoke with her, she was arranging her college-admission interviews. The research done to date suggests that other students have been similarly motivated by well-structured school-to-work efforts.

How will this new emphasis on the workplace change what we expect of students?

Both employers and colleges want high school graduates who have a solid academic foundation that includes the ability to read fluently, speak cogently, write coherently, and solve mathematical problems. But educators, business leaders, and colleges increasingly recognize an additional set of skills that young people need to make it in today's world. These include the ability to use technology, to work in groups, and to frame questions and find answers to problems that aren't always neatly structured. These are skills that schools have not necessarily emphasized in the past.

School-to-work also challenges educators to rethink some of the traditional hierarchies within the academic disciplines. Why do we assume that only a tiny fraction of students can benefit from a physics class? Why is calculus more valuable than a good course in probability and statistics?

Will teachers have to do things differently?

That all depends on the teacher. I think the best teachers encourage their students to learn by doing and to apply what they are learning in new ways. Furthermore, not everything in education needs to be immediately useful or practical. Applied learning or career-focused instruction can be taken too far. There is nothing worse than asking students to write a memo to Macbeth.

But we can't expect all young people to be motivated solely by abstract ideas and principles. At some point, students will ask, "When am I going to need this?" For many teachers, that will mean bringing more real-world problems and projects into the curriculum and providing more opportunities for students to get out into the community, whether that's through service-learning projects, observing and talking with employees on the job, or more intensive forms of learning in the workplace.

One of the best ways to help teachers get started is for companies to provide short-term internships for teachers so they can observe modern workplaces firsthand. But there's also a need for high-quality, well-validated curricula so that teachers don't have to invent everything from scratch.

We also need to break down the barriers between vocational and academic teachers within high schools because both have a lot to contribute. And we need to rethink 45-minute class periods that make it hard to find room for hands-on learning or learning outside the classroom.

Does the school-to-work movement have implications for elementary schools?

Many elementary schools already provide rich learning experiences for students that connect children with the community around them. I think about my children's own school. Last year, my son went on a simulated trip to the moon, complete with a visit by an astronaut. It was a wonderful unit that included applications from math, science, reading, writing, and history. Professionals from all walks of life regularly visit the school as part of a "visiting scholars'' program. Some people advocate that school-to-work begin in elementary school. But I think what's really needed are these kinds of engaging, interdisciplinary projects that tap children's natural curiosity about the world, let them learn by doing, and suggest that all kinds of futures are possible. I think a lot of educators have wondered why we lose so much of that excitement as students progress through school.

There are those who argue that in preparing students for the workplace we run the risk of giving them a narrow education. Is this a problem?

It's a legitimate concern. Many vocational programs have been too narrowly focused in the past, and they have provided students with watered-down academic content. In contrast, many of the jobs that will exist in the next century haven't even been created yet. That's why it's essential that all students have a solid academic foundation.

Many of the good school-to-work programs that I visited focused on preparing students within a broad career field--such as medicine or manufacturing--rather than training them more narrowly to be, say, certified nursing assistants or welders. The way the economy is changing, most of us will have to continue learning on the job and in school for the rest of our lives. So we want to give students the basis for doing that. In addition, schools need to prepare students for citizenship and for a rich personal life, not just for work. I'd never want to see a system that focused solely on preparing students for careers. But for most of us, a good life also means the ability to earn a living and support a family. And there's nothing wrong with that.

What are the three most important things schools need to bear in mind as they put school-to-work programs in place?

Quality is everything. Both educators and employers need to look at what they're doing and ask if it's really worthwhile. The worst thing that could happen would be to slap a new name on existing poor practices or to ignore quality in order to reach large numbers of students.

First, schools need to ensure that these are rich, rigorous learning experiences for young people--both in school and out. Second, students and their parents need much better information about careers and colleges so that they can make informed decisions about the future. The goal should be to increase choices and opportunities for young people, not to make decisions for them. Third, I think one of the most powerful aspects of good school-to-work programs is that they put young people in close, ongoing relationships with adults who can serve as role models and mentors. We've allowed many of our high schools to become much too big and anonymous for young people. I think school-to-work can be part of a much broader agenda to raise academic standards and make high schools more personal, meaningful places for learning.

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