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Infrastructure

N.J. Businesses Take Message Into Classrooms

By Catherine Gewertz — December 19, 2006 6 min read

Alarmed that so many young people lack the skills to excel at work, the business community has been using summits, papers, and political alliances to urge stronger preparation for adolescents. But in New Jersey, businesses have taken their ideas from the bully pulpit straight into classrooms.

Sixty-five schools are using all or part of a program designed jointly by business leaders and educators to help more students master the skills employers say are crucial, such as computer proficiency, critical thinking, and a solid work ethic. Certificates of completion in each of the program’s Web-based modules give students bragging rights to those skills in job interviews or on college applications.

Get more information on the LearnDoEarn program.

The LearnDoEarn program—shorthand for Learn More Now, Do More Now, Earn More Later—has been boosting enrollment in mathematics, science, and economics courses in New Jersey pilot schools for the past four years and is beginning to draw national notice.

Schools in other states are enrolling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlights the program as a noteworthy business-education partnership. Achieve, a Washington-based group of business and political leaders that presses for more rigor in education, plans to include it in an online “toolkit” of things businesses can do to help improve schools.

“The singular strength of this program is to help kids see that what they do now in school does relate to what they can do later on,” said Richard De Lisi, the dean of the graduate school of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who examined the program at Education Week’s request.

Making the Case

The program uses PowerPoint presentations and other materials to make a case for why students need core technology skills, why they should take top-tier high school courses, and why they have to know “soft skills” such as being punctual and working hard. Teachers in math and English classes build assignments around the presentations, such as writing a persuasive letter to convince a friend that he should avoid general education courses in favor of a college-prep curriculum.

Political, business, and education leaders have found common cause in recent years advocating more-rigorous middle and high school courses of study. But in most cases, those messages operate on public-awareness and policy levels, not as actual classroom lessons. Experts said they knew of no other business-driven program that encompasses the broad academic and personal competencies necessary to success in college and employment.

One of the most-often praised aspects of LearnDoEarn is its attempt to answer the perennial student question: “Why do I need to take this stuff?”

The Web-based modules argue that technological advances demand higher and higher levels of skills. Car mechanics, for example, must be able to read at the level of college juniors just to understand automotive manuals now, the modules say. Strong skills will help students gain admittance to college and graduate, and to earn higher salaries even if they don’t attend college, the presentations say.

The Business Coalition for Educational Excellence, an arm of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, devised the pieces that became LearnDoEarn in response to years of employer complaints about the poor quality of their applicant pools. A New Jersey security company, for instance, sought to hire 130 security guards. Applicants had to pass an 8th grade math test, but the company had to interview 1,300 people before it found 130 who could pass it.

“For 20 years, employers have been saying that applicants have bad credit, can’t manage money, have poor computer literacy, can’t read, don’t show up on time,” said Dana E. Egreczky, a former high school science teacher who is the president of the business coalition. “We needed to get across to kids, ‘Hey, this is stuff you need to know.’ ”

The coalition has worked closely with New Jersey education leaders for a decade, helping draft the state’s academic standards and supporting efforts to improve curriculum. The group used the input of teachers and employers, and research about the benefits of rigorous coursework, in designing LearnDoEarn, which operates with business and foundation money.

The World Class Students portion, which is part of a national venture called the State Scholars program, urges students to build a college-prep curriculum that includes biology, chemistry, physics, a semester of economics, and mathematics through Algebra 2. SchoolCounts requires them to have a 95 percent attendance rate, be punctual to class, work hard, and maintain a C average. The Technology Challenge includes exercises that establish critical computer-literacy skills.

Other pieces are being phased onto the LearnDoEarn Web site this year, including Math Challenge, and a seminar about handling personal finances wisely. “Virtual” field trips and job shadowing will allow students to “follow” police officers, engineers, and others at work and ask questions.

Although the overall messages about hard work and achievement are important, said David H. Weiner, the co-chairman of the board of New Jersey Citizen Action, which works on a range of social-justice issues, businesses’ prominent role in the program risks conveying “subliminal messages” that could amount to marketing themselves or their products.

The logo of Prudential Financial, a high-profile member of the New Jersey Chamber, receives prominent display on the LearnDoEarn Web site. One of the virtual-field-trip modules introduces students to Prudential and discusses why it is a good place to work.

Ms. Egreczky acknowledged that some people might see the virtual field trips as advertising, but said the coalition worked “very hard with the companies on this, to be sure that it’s teaching the kids something larger, and doesn’t cross the line into being marketing.”

Student Demand

Schools that use the program have seen it influence students’ course choices and their own course offerings.

Rocco Tomazic, the assistant superintendent of the 6,400-student Linden district, near Newark, said officials there are phasing out the less rigorous, nonlaboratory science courses such as oceanography and encouraging more students to take the chemistry they had been avoiding.

George J. Solter Jr., the director of education in the 9,000-student North Bergen district, near Jersey City, which has used LearnDoEarn for four years, said enrollment in physics classes has soared, and officials had to reintroduce economics classes, which had been phased out earlier, because of mounting student demand.

Joseph P. Kirk, a senior in the college-prep academy within the Gloucester County Institute of Technology, a vocational school in Sewell, N.J., south of Camden, said he was “slacking off” his freshman year until he saw a LearnDoEarn presentation at school.

“It made me put things together,” the 17-year-old said. “I decided that in order to get where I want to in international economics, and to distinguish myself in applying to college, I would have to take those courses” outlined in the World Class Students program.

Mr. Kirk believes that the SchoolCounts program helped him land a job as a teller at a local bank last year. “The things they stressed to us really help me at my job. My attendance and grades showed I was responsible and able to work hard. Usually they don’t hire 16-year-olds.”

Gina Mateka, who oversees high school programs at Gloucester Tech, said more students are taking physics and economics since the school began using LearnDoEarn four years ago. The work-ethic focus of the SchoolCounts module is particularly important in the school’s vocational program, she said, since many of those students are working even before they graduate.

“Students do need the academic component, but they won’t be productive members of society unless they know how to work in the workforce,” Ms. Mateka said. “Those soft skills are critical.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as N.J. Businesses Take Message Into Classrooms

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