School-to-Work. Along with "Goals 2000," "outcome-based education," and "national standards," it has become a big education buzzword.
School-to-Work. It will train a student "to be a compliant worker under supervision," complains Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum.
School-to-Work. It "indoctrinates students implicitly and explicitly-without parental knowledge or consent-to consider trade occupations rather than attend four-year colleges" argues Jeanne Donovan of the Texas Education Consumers Association.
School-to-Work. It "injects the federal government deeply and dangerously into shaping the curriculum of American schools," and "locks students into career tracks much too early, chilling opportunity and killing youthful dreams," says Richmond, Va., newspaper columnist Bob Holland.
What is it about School-to-Work that gets so many people all worked up? The concept is not all that clear-the National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center, a joint initiative of the federal departments of Labor and Education, provides a glossary of 60-plus pages just to define the terms. But the idea has roots in a political galaxy that now seems far, far away and hard to recall: the first heady weeks and months after Bill Clinton's 1992 electoral victory.
That's when Democrat policy wonks, excluded from the Washington corridors of power for 12 years, trekked to Little Rock and Washington, their briefcases bursting with plans to fix America. The emphasis was on youth and new ideas, on moving the country forward, away from a fear of technology. President-elect Clinton promised change, even at the White House, which was so backward that the president was required to go through a switchboard to place a call. He evidently had many personal calls to make on his own, and he urged the country, "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow."
We now know that tomorrow came all too soon for some of the Clinton administration's biggest ideas. With Democrats in control of the Congress, the administration pushed through a hefty tax increase, yet health care, revealed as an all-encompassing plan, crashed. The lessons of its death taught the administration how to move forward a progressive agenda: Go slow, go quiet, and use creative public relations.
That strategy, not lack of scope, explains why Clinton-style education reform has flourished, while Clinton-style health care reform withered on the vine. That, plus the environment in which the Clinton Administration came to power. Remember, after all, that early in this decade the economy was coming out of a recession. Some businesses had been restructuring, downsizing their workforces, laying off many middle managers, and moving some manufacturing jobs overseas. The Bush administration, concerned about changes in the workforce, had already dipped its toes into workforce planning with SCANS (the Secretary's Commission to Achieve Necessary Skills).
At the same time business was restructuring, report card after report card showed that public schools were failing. SAT scores were down. Dropout rates were up. Many students couldn't read well or do basic math. In international competitions American students were more likely to be near the bottom than on the top. The education bureaucracy chased fad after fad-"whole language," for instance-and delivered failure after failure. School reform became a rallying cry for everyone but teachers' unions. The first calls for national education standards came during the Bush administration.
But President Bush lacked the vision or the political desire to push through a comprehensive federal education agenda. It would fall to President Clinton to take the next step.
The Clinton plan to "reform" public education promised to be kind to teachers' unions, which were his biggest political supporters. The plan promised to meet the needs of business owners, who complained they were unable to find qualified workers. The plan focused on the needs of poor, urban districts, where children from faltering families entered rotten, failing schools.
But instead of focusing on the root causes of bad education, the administration redefined the problem. It wasn't that schools were doing a poor job teaching the basics. It wasn't that parents had failed their children. Rather, the problem was that the country was moving into the 21st century with "industrial age" skills and school structures. The problem was structural and technological-and thus could be fixed if a big enough plan were devised to fix it. Schools were failing, the Clinton experts said, echoing a cry from the 1960s, because they were not "relevant." America needed "a new form of education for a new economy that links learning and earning."
On that principle, President Clinton in the spring of 1994 signed both the Goals 2000 Educate America Act and the School-to-Work Opportunity Act. Both School-to-Work and Goals 2000 expanded the reach of the federal government into public education-and both were key components of an overall reform plan. School-to-Work introduced the idea of comprehensive, inclusive, career education for all students in all states at all grade levels. School-to-Work promised to make school relevant. Goals 2000 emphasized content and performance standards.
School-to-Work was born from a union of the federal departments of education and labor, and it bred further offspring in the states and counties. Proponents compare the federal role to that of a venture capitalist who puts up "seed money" for local and state STW efforts. Along with the money, the National School-to-Work Learning & Information Center, a joint initiative of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, makes available "a cadre of experts" to state and local programs.
When critics of School-to-Work look for the father of the Clinton school reform program, Marc S. Tucker's name often comes up. To his critics, Mr. Tucker seems like the "Brain" character (from the Pinky and the Brain TV cartoon) who is always trying to take over the world. And, indeed, he seems to have fingers in every school-reform pie. He is president of the education think tank called the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). He created and served as a member of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. He chairs the research committee of the National Skills Standard Board, leading the design of the national occupational skill standards system.
Mr. Tucker also created "America's Choice," which provides technical assistance, professional development, and a school-reform model to local districts. For years Mr. Tucker has advocated the adoption of Certificates of Initial Mastery (CIM) and CAMs (Certificates of Advanced Mastery). CIMs (earned by students at age 16 or by the end of 10th grade) are designed to measure the attainment of certain education goals rather than time spent in school. Oregon, a School-to-Work state, has adopted both CIMs and CAMs.
Mr. Tucker's organization, in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, released in December 1996 new standards called "New Standards" (he later changed the name to "America's Choice"). These performance standards, based on national content standards in mathematics, English language arts, science, and applied learning at the elementary-, middle-, and high-school levels, are now used in New York City.
Mr. Tucker's ideas have found their way into legislation that is now influencing the way state and local entities are restructuring their schools. But most of the ideas have not received much press coverage because about the only people paying attention are conservative family and policy groups.
To get an idea of the way Clinton-style education proposals fit together, it's helpful to read Mr. Tucker's paper, "The State of Standards: Powerful Tool or Symbolic Gesture?" He writes that a standards-based system does not begin only with the standards, but with "certificates set to standards." In other words, if a student can't meet the standards, the student doesn't get his CIM or CAM. A school's job is to help the student pass tests that show he has met the standards-which means that the standards drive the curriculum.
Many of the elements of School-to-Work and standards-based reform worry the critics. They know that whoever controls the standards controls what's taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught. Mr. Tucker knows what he is up to: He proclaims that "no change in the last 60 years has had an effect as profound as this one will on the way school people think about what they have to do and how they must do it to succeed." If employers demand conformity to the Tucker standards, those standards could affect Christian as well as government-run schools, because Christian schools would also be under pressure to produce certified, work-ready graduates.
NCEE spokesman Joseph Garcia denies that the standards-bearers have any "hidden agenda." Everything "is out there," he says, including a book, Standards for our Schools, co-authored by Marc Tucker last year, that details the entire plan. Mr. Garcia does acknowledge the need to have the certificate widely accepted if it is to motivate changes in student behavior: "The public has to accept these standards for them to have meaning ... if there isn't some new demand placed on students they'll continue doing what they are doing now." But he says the standards would control only 100 days of the curriculum, out of a typical school year of 180 days. That, Mr. Garcia says, allows "for substantial classroom time for Christian schools to carry out their unique religious mandate while still moving their students to high academic standards."
The critics agree that it is good for high-school students to be aware of career possibilities. The general School-to-Work pattern starts very early-career awareness at the elementary level; career exploration such as job shadowing in the middle grades; and direct career-related learning experiences such as structured work experiences, internships, service learning, and cooperative work experience in high school. It may seem overdone, at a time when so many students don't know the academic basics needed for anyone to be all he can be. But around the country the first tangible fruits are ripening, and critics detect a bad odor.
For example, Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, Ore., offers a CAM in Health Services. Juniors take a two-hour class in which they study "fitness, wellness, and human biology." They take part in fitness lab activities such as "strength and flexibility testing," and they "have the opportunity to be on a personal training team, managing stress, diet, and fitness of participants. Students will assist elementary schools in their screening programs." Sounds good, but are students learning the academic principles of biology?
In Austin, Texas, the Capital Area Training Foundation, a School-to-Work partnership, invites students to its Web site to explore career options. A student can click on an icon for music/arts, for instance, and six possible occupations come up: rock star, dancer, photographer, cartoonist, disc jockey, archivist, or curator. If the student then clicks on rock star, he learns what these workers do ("musicians sing, play musical instruments, and write and arrange music"); what the job is like ("rock musicians and groups often go on concert tours to big cities in the U.S. They sometimes perform in major cities around the world. This requires a lot of travel"); and where to look for more information ("Rock music magazines"). Research in rock magazines sounds like fun, but it could leave students in a few years with one career option: deadhead.
Even education trade publications occasionally have small articles about School-to-Work embarrassments. Education Week reported that the federal Department of Education recently honored five New Urban High Schools because of their successful implementation of School-to-Work and their potential to be models for other schools. But it turned out that two of the schools had such low standardized test scores that they were near the bottom of the performance scale in their own districts. In San Diego, the 1,865-student Herbert Hoover High School was one of the 20 lowest-performing schools in the San Diego district. The Chicago Vocational Career Academy is also a low-performing school, according to the Illinois state board of education.
Critics also pass around stories. At West Lake Elementary School in West Lake, Calif., students reportedly worked at a local Hyatt Hotel during "career day," acting as bellhops, maids, and kitchen workers. One girl boasted that she earned a $2 tip in addition to getting out of school for a day. Can this kind of program reverse America's academic decline? Texas education analyst Chris Patterson doesn't think so: "There is no empirical evidence to show that Tech Prep, national standards, or School-to-Work increases academic standards."
It is difficult, however, to judge how representative stories of School-to-Work failure are. What is easier to determine is how School-to-Work is transferring power from elected boards of education to unelected bureaucrats.
In Oregon, for instance, the state board of education is the fiscal agent for School-to-Work. But there is also a Workforce Quality Council, composed of business, labor, and government leaders, educators, legislators, and citizens, whose job is integrating the state's economic development efforts with education reform. Although Oregon still pays lip service to local control of education, the Education Commission of the States notes that Oregon's School-to-Work system "receives policy direction from the State Board of Education ... the Office of Education and Workforce Policy, Bureau of Labor and Industries, the Economic Development Department, the Employment Department, the Department of Human Resources, the Office of Community College Services and the Vocational Rehabilitation Division." School-to-Work's bypass of local, often conservative, elected school boards may explain why some of its most vehement critics are members of state and local boards of education.
The School-to-Work debate provides many ironies. Critics say that School-to-Work changes the emphasis from traditional academics and liberal arts to preparation for employment. Education analyst Chris Patterson says School-to-Work "reshapes the purpose of schools to preparation for employment." But the idea of a broad liberal arts education for all students is a 20th-century American invention and was always more dream than reality. In the 19th century a liberal arts education was a privilege of the rich or the most talented.
Most children in the good old days went to school when they could be spared from farm or factory work. When they learned to read, write, and cipher, they finished their formal education. Some critics of School-to-Work may be romanticizing America's education past, and in some ways defending the past of a public system that has been long subject to teaching fads and long hostile to expressions of Christianity.
A second irony is that some of the most popular progressive reforms of the 20th century have been child labor laws protecting children from exploitation by work. Now some schools must get waivers from these laws in order to put School-to-Work programs into effect.
Mark Wilson, a labor economist at the Heritage Foundation, says School-to-Work is doomed to a failure that will become increasingly evident, although not statistically provable for another 15 years: "It won't change anything. The teaching methods that are being promoted by STW are failures. If we don't change the way we teach ... we're going to reap the failure of that system."
Even though the federal School-to-Work program is scheduled to sunset in 2001, Mr. Wilson is not upbeat about the future: "It's like the Titanic on the way to an iceberg. Once you go on a certain course, it takes a long time to turn."