In Denmark, Remembering The 'Forgotten Half'

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Like many American young people, Hans, age 20, wants to follow in his father's and brother's footsteps. They are fitters, skilled workers who attach pieces of machinery to one another. Like Americans pursuing a similar goal, Hans is working in a shop while he attends school. But unlike Americans, Hans is also learning highly technical skills and advanced knowledge in mathematics, science, and languages that will enable him to pursue other careers and to go to a university should his plans change in the future.

Hans goes to school in Denmark. This Scandinavian country has committed itself to providing all of its young people with the knowledge and skills they need to enter the increasingly technological workforce. The Danish system does not simply inculcate narrow job skills. Rather, its most salient feature is its flexibility. Its aim is to provide young people with the options to lead any life they want, and to ensure that they have the basic knowledge and skills that will equip them to make any choice.

Of course, the Danish system is not perfect, and there are aspects that Americans may not want to adopt. But at a time when the United States is focused on developing high academic standards for all young people and improving the transition from school to work, the Danish system has many lessons to offer.

The core of the Danish education system is the Folkeskole, which all students attend from age 7 to age 16. All Folkeskoles, public or private, follow the same, nationally set curriculum. The course of study includes Danish, math, physical education and sport, and Christian studies every year, as well as additional subjects, depending on the year. There is virtually no tracking in the Folkeskoles.

The differentiation in Danish education occurs after the 9th year, when students are about age 16. At that point students have a number of options. One is to remain in the Folkeskole for a 10th year. More and more youths are taking advantage of this option, to bone up on their coursework, to take more advanced study, or simply to mature for a year before getting on with their lives. Whatever the reason, there is no real stigma attached to staying for a 10th year in Folkeskole.

Another option open to students is to take national examinations. At the end of the 9th or 10th year, a student can choose to take exams in any of a number of subjects, administered by the national Ministry of Education but scored by local teachers. The exams include written and oral components; an oral section of an English exam, for example, might ask a student to tell the instructor a story he or she has read and to answer questions about its content and style. The exams are graded according to national standards, on a 0-to-13 scale.

Although the exams are optional, there are powerful incentives for students to take them and to do well on them. Upon leaving the Folkeskole, students receive a certificate, which includes their exam scores. Higher education institutions and employers rely on these certificates in making admissions and hiring decisions.

Once they leave the Folkeskole, students have numerous choices about where to go. One option relatively few take is to go directly into the workforce. Only about 7 percent of students end their schooling at the Folkeskole level, since the only job opportunities available to them are unskilled, low-paying positions. Nevertheless, the Danish ministry has expressed concern that the country's dropout rate is too high.

In pursuing further education, students can go in basically three directions: the gymnasium, the technical college, and the business college. (There is also a smaller program, similar to the latter two, for health care and social work.)

The gymnasium is very much like the best of American high schools. A three-year academic program, the gymnasium is the traditional route for university-bound students. But in recent years more and more young people are attending the gymnasium if they are uncertain about their futures. In the gymnasium, students can, again, choose their options, in this case choosing between two different "lines," a mathematics line and a languages line. But all students, regardless of which path they select, study a rigorous curriculum in all basic subjects. For example, students in the math line take two languages, including English, other than Danish. Those in the language line study a third language.

Those enrolling in the technical and business colleges, by contrast, tend to be focused on entering the workforce. But the kind of education they receive, which includes heavy doses of academic coursework, allows them the flexibility to take another path, such as university study, if their aspirations change. Moreover, the technical and business colleges also include a gymnasium, which offers a curriculum similar to that in the regular gymnasium but with instruction that is more project-based and hands-on. The standards, though, are the same, and students in all gymnasia take the same examinations.

The academic component of the technical education rankles some students, who are impatient with theory and want to work with their hands. But as one young electrician student told me, learning theory is what he has to do to enter the trade. So he, along with his classmates, completed the assigned project: writing a technical manual, in English.

The program, moreover, is successful in leading students into skilled trades. It does so in two ways. First, students in the technical college--like Hans, the would-be fitter--work as apprentices in their chosen fields, doing real work on real equipment. In some cases, students line up apprenticeships right after the Folkeskole; more typically, they enroll in coursework first and then find a position. The students alternate between school and work in what Danes call a "sandwich" program. But though the work is intermittent, it is serious: A student and his employer sign contracts, in which the employer pledges to keep on the student for four years, and the student pledges to do his job. Absenteeism and lateness, problems U.S. employers constantly complain about, are extremely rare in Denmark.

The second way the technical and business colleges prepare students for the workplace is through coursework. Unlike in the United States, where the equipment and curriculum in vocational and technical schools may not match those of industry and business, in Denmark the education and corporate sectors are formally linked. Representatives of employer groups and labor unions sit with teachers and students on committees to plan the course of study. Their involvement helps ensure that students learn what they will need on the job.

That does not mean, though, that students learn only narrow skills. In part because Danish firms tend to be small and there is high worker mobility, employers and educators want to ensure that young people possess a broad range of knowledge and skills that will serve them well, as workers, citizens, and family members. For example, on the day I met him, Hans was at a computer terminal, learning to use computer-assisted design, an application that enables users to plot out the specifications for a piece of machinery. His instructor told me that Hans would not be using computer-assisted design when he leaves school and gets a job but that he might need to know it in the future. That is why it is part of the curriculum.

By building a solid learning foundation for all students and providing a means for young people to pursue any number of pathways, the Danish education system offers a powerful model for the United States as Americans set out down the reform road. Yet in considering that model, we need to be aware of some cultural factors that may be difficult to import. For one thing, the Danish system relies on a remarkable degree of public-spiritedness by the private sector. Danish business leaders speak, to a person, about the moral commitment they feel to provide learning opportunities for young people, even though many of the apprentices they hire will not end up working for those companies.

Another unusual feature of the Danish system is the heavy public subsidies that support it. All of the public institutions are tuition-free; university students receive a stipend as well. This free education also extends to adults who learn in the technical colleges alongside the teenagers. But providing such benefits comes at a cost: Danish income tax rates are considerably higher than those in the United States, and the chances are next to none that Americans would be willing to pay that much for such services, particularly in the current political climate.

These factors, along with other differences between Denmark and the United States, do not mean that the Danes have nothing to teach us; far from it. A decade ago a W.T. Grant Foundation report challenged Americans to address the needs of the "forgotten half" of students who do not go on to four-year colleges. The Danes have met that challenge. We would do well to listen to their experience.

Vol. 15, Issue 38, Pages 40, 42

Published in Print: June 12, 1996, as In Denmark, Remembering The 'Forgotten Half'
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