College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Let’s Get Real: Deeper Learning at Work

By Contributing Blogger — February 20, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Nancy Hoffman, Vice President and Senior Advisor at Jobs for the Future.

UPDATE: New link added.

While policymakers often use the phrase “college and career readiness” to describe the goals of K-12 education, the truth is that most school reform initiatives focus on college readiness alone. Career readiness is often treated as an afterthought, as if it were just a side-effect of completing a college-prep curriculum and not something to be pursued in its own right.

However--and as I argue in a newly released report, Let’s Get Real: Deeper Learning and the Power of the Workplace (the latest in Students at the Center’s Deeper Learning Research Series)--career readiness deserves serious attention of its own, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, millions of this country’s young people are starved for work experience. Over the last decade and a half, the youth labor market has plummeted to levels not seen since the end of the Great Depression. In 2000, 44 percent of U.S. teenagers were employed at least part-time; by 2011, the figure had dropped to 24 percent (and for urban, low-income teens of color, to roughly 10 percent). Today, as a result, most students leave high school having had no real introduction to the workplace and its demands, no opportunities to figure out which kinds of work might suit them, and no job-specific skills that might enable them to support themselves as they pursue post-secondary education.

Second, while education is certainly a prerequisite for success in the workforce, the reverse is often true, as well: Work can provide powerful opportunities for education. On a regular basis, it can challenge young people to master new content and skills, solve unscripted problems, collaborate on complex projects, communicate with partners of all ages and backgrounds, follow difficult assignments to completion, criticize their own performance, and plan for their own career growth.

In short, a structured workplace experience can be well-suited--perhaps more so than the typical high school experience--to the task of helping young people develop the range of academic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities that are referred to, collectively, as deeper learning.

In my paper, I take a close look at the Swiss system of vocational education--not because I think that the U.S. should try to copy that model but, rather, because it provides a terrific illustration of just how much, and how deeply, students can learn when given the chance to integrate work and classroom-based studies.

Today, almost a third of all Swiss companies (ranging from state of the art factories to insurance agencies, banks, hospitals, and on and on) participate in the country’s vocational education system. And no, they don’t ask young people to spend their time fetching coffee or making photocopies. Rather, apprentices interact with customers, work on complex machines, advise bank clients, carry out basic medical procedures, and do everything else that entry-level employees would be expected to do, albeit under the wing of credentialed teachers and coaches.

Moreover, apprentices are paid a monthly starting wage of about $800, rising to about $1,200 in their third or fourth year (not a bad salary for teenagers working part-time and still living with their parents). Also, it is widely understood that a vocational credential opens doors to good jobs (including upper level management) in the private sector and to higher education at a university of applied sciences. No wonder three quarters of all Swiss fifteen year olds choose this option.

No part of this country boasts anything like the extensive Swiss system of career education, but the U.S. does have a number of impressive schools and school networks that can serve as models to be replicated or expanded. For example, these include up-to-date vocational high schools, career academies, High Tech High Schools, Big Picture Schools, Cristo Rey schools, and early colleges. All feature applied study in one or more thriving sectors of the labor market (e.g., finance, veterinary technology, information technology, engineering, and health care), and all provide opportunities for students to become truly engaged in problem solving, teamwork, and other aspects of deeper learning.

For example, consider the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART), a public school in Clovis, California, that provides half-day programs for 1,300 11th and 12th graders from fifteen other nearby high schools. Designed to replicate a high performance business atmosphere, the CART building is organized around four career clusters: professional sciences, engineering, advanced communications and global economics. Within each are several career-specific laboratories, in which students complete work assignments that also allow them to earn academic credit for advanced English, science, math, and technology. Students do everything from testing water in the High Sierra to making industry-standard films to trying out aviation careers by actually flying planes.

But does this sort of guided work experience truly support the combination of academic, inter-, and intra-personal development that readers of this blog define as deeper learning?

For the details, I invite you to read the paper. But the short answer is yes. When work-based learning is designed thoughtfully and implemented carefully, the results are impressive. Such programs not only teach advanced academic content but also require young people to apply it to the real world. They give them a much-needed boost into the workforce. And they introduce them to grownup roles, responsibilities, and interactions that they would be unlikely to learn in a classroom full of other teenagers.

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