I've written about some innovative New York high schools that combine traditional academic learning with workplace internships and apprenticeships. But most American teenagers have little access to experiences like these, and the Obama administration's new blueprint for career and technical education, released today, would do little to change that.
The additional $1 billion in proposed CTE funding would be directed mostly toward improving existing programs and making them more relevant to the economy's needs; many of these programs provide very little or no actual workplace learning outside the classroom, and instead present a fairly traditional curriculum through the thematic "lens" of a particular field, such as healthcare or engineering.
To vastly expand high school kids' access to high-quality workplace learning experiences, we would need to build up a robust infrastructure linking businesses and schools, in order to help workplaces become sites for education--and we would have to incent employers to hire students who successfully complete CTE training. (Yes, this is a public-private partnership, but it would also be quite expensive.)
In Switzerland, Finland, and Germany, these types of systems are already in place, and youth unemployment is much lower than it is in the United States. That said, there are real costs to consider in terms of the social ramifications of tracking. Over at The Nation, I discuss the European high school apprenticeship model with Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future, and while this is a pretty wonky interview, I think it's filled with interesting thoughts:
I was fascinated by your idea of providing older teens—especially “the forgotten half” that will not attend a four-year college—with an easier “transition to adulthood.” You describe upper secondary school students in Switzerland working behind the counter in a cell phone shop for school credit, which will certainly horrify a lot of advocates of a college-prep curriculum. Can you talk about why you think this type of “transitional” work is so important?
In Switzerland there are whole stores run by kids, so there are multiple jobs including management, repair, all the technical jobs, plus customer service. If we have a situation in the United States where only about 20 percent of 26-year-olds have any credential, we need something for people to do to get them from 16 to 20 without landing in jail, on welfare or on the street; something that gives them a structure and lets them figure out their potential and interests.
This guy working in customer service at the cell phone shop was going to get a retail certificate in meeting the national standard. And whether he is going to make the leap forward to become a cell phone designer, who knows? But being in a setting where adults have goals, having a structure from age 16 to 19, seems like a much more positive option than what many young adults experience in our country. This Swiss person has an income. He gets paid anywhere from 800 to 1,000 euros per month. He has to demonstrate his competencies in sales. He will have the equivalent of really a year or two of community college, because he was also going to school two days per week.