Cover Story

What will it take to get School-to-Work?

Certainly not another faddish, government education program. But otherwise, what's the big controversy over School-to-Work?

Issue: "School-to-Work debate," Sept. 5, 1998

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.

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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.


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