The third doable objective is to create effective school-to-work transition for the vast majority of those who will not go on to complete a four year academic college degree. We know that this is a realistic objective, because Germany has done this for decades with dedicated technical schools and apprenticeships. And recently Singapore is also succeeding with such a program. As it is now, our students in the lower part of the class academically fall behind and by age 16 feel humiliated and demoralized by this situation. Many drop out, and the labor market, even in better times, does not take them seriously until they are well into their twenties. And this group has the greatest social dysfunction, including jail and bearing children they can’t support.
To help these students we must offer a clear path to an honored place in the labor market, and in adult life. The key to success in apprenticeship and intern programs lies in students actually seeing the benefits of greater academic and non-academic education, and to having mentors in the real world who can show them a credible pathway to success. In this situation, the motivation that comes from goals meaningful to the student. These will lead to hard work, instead of despair and dropping out, either mentally or actually. And then schooling that leads them step by step from where they are to where they need to be—following the mastery learning model—will keep them progressing. Today, though successes do exist, technical and vocational education is a neglected step-child of secondary education. But it is a proven success when designed and resourced properly.
If early childhood education, mastery learning, and strong school-to-work programs can meet the problem of educating poor children, why aren’t they now adopted? One of the reasons is, of course money. But money reflects priorities. Instead of money going to buy another yacht for the super-rich, it could go into schools, including these programs. In the case of mastery learning, Mamary succeeded in implementing it without additional funds. But in order to do it he had to focus the entire school on carrying it through, arranging teacher’s schedules so that children could always find a tutor after school and on vacations to help them master material, or to give them enrichment material if they had moved ahead of the class. It seems that because of the challenge of implementing it without additional cost, it has not spread widely. Of course, hiring more teachers would make it much easier to succeed.
In the case of effective school-to-work programs, there is an additional barrier, which is the cry of discriminatory ‘tracking.’ This is a bitter irony because the system is now tracking the weaker students to jail and poverty. A strong program would, starting at age 16, have diverse options for students with different goals. Students shouldn’t be forced into such programs, but they should be offered them. What we do now is play ‘let’s pretend’ that everyone has equal gifts until they are 18, and then let society ‘track’ them ruthlessly. We need a better transition, in the last two years of high school, and for most an additional one to two years, that will prepare students to be adults in a highly competitive society.
My own proposal has been to have a minimum academic skills standard that would be tested for at age 15, and those who don’t pass it will continue to be helped to master this level as they go through further education, with more diverse pathways. (This would be an exam based on criteria, as the driving test; these don’t have the dysfunctional effects of high-stakes normative tests.) The standard would be set at the level that is a minimum level of academic achievement to hold a career-track job in our economy. Once this is in place, it can also be used to inspire younger students. Teachers can tell a 9 or 10 year old, "if you master the next step, you are on the road to a respected place in adult life. I’ve helped other children like you, and I can help you; you can do it.” Stronger early childhood education, mastery learning of skills, and diverse, good school-to-work programs are proven successes in meeting the challenge of educating poor children. We should adopt them, instead of fruitlessly chasing blue-sky goals.