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Cross-posted at Education Week
A few years ago, my team and I were doing research in a high school in a Midwestern community. We found ourselves in the classroom of a long-serving high school vocational education teacher, standing around a workbench in his woodshop. He was despondent. Years ago, he said, when he was much younger, he had taken great pride in his work. Young people came to him in the secure knowledge that, if they worked hard in his classes, they would leave high school ready for a good job in the construction trades, a job that would pay well, enable them to live well, raise a family and keep their head up high among their friends and neighbors.
He told us his story. About 20 years earlier, the school administration had given up its program to prepare young people for the trades; it had turned into career education, a welcome break for many of the academic students from their studies, but not serious preparation for anything. Then came the career academies, which, like the career education program, did not result in students getting any certificate that said they were prepared to take up a trade, but were there to provide an environment that might keep kids in school who would otherwise drop out. Then came the standards movement, he said. It was all about rigorous academic work. The number of academic courses in the school calendar was radically increased and many of those devoted to vocational education were squeezed out. The budget for vocational education dropped like a stone. None of the shop programs could afford modern equipment, the kind that would enable them to prepare any of their students for real jobs. Then came the accountability movement. Now, he said, he gets the students the academic teachers don’t want to deal with or don’t want to be held accountable for. His shop had become a dumping ground. Most of his students, all of them in high school, he said, did not know how to measure the length of a 2×4 piece of lumber, nor could they divide it into pieces of equal length. He had, he said, become a baby sitter and a teacher of very simple arithmetic. When he told us this, he was in tears.
This week, NCEE published Gold Standard: The Swiss Vocational Education and Training System, by Nancy Hoffman and Robert Schwartz, the third report in our International Comparative Study of Vocational Education and Training Systems. The first in the series, The Phoenix: Vocational Education and Training in Singapore, which I wrote, came out last year. The second, Made in China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational and Technical Education System by Vivien Stewart, was published just two weeks ago. The report on China portrays a system in transition, in a country that knows that, in no small measure, its future rests on radically upgrading the quality of its vocational education and training system. The reports on Singapore and Switzerland present vivid portraits of countries that have succeeded in building two of the finest vocational education and training systems in the world.
What one finds in Singapore and Switzerland are well-designed systems of vocational education and training, systems that provide a very high level of program quality for virtually all the students enrolled in them, in contrast to the islands of excellence in the United States. They do not have to teach elementary arithmetic or reading in their high school vocational schools because the students entering their programs are among the most accomplished in the world for students of their age in reading, writing, mathematics and science. Their programs are a very carefully designed blend of academics and practical work. Their vocational teachers are regularly cycled through work stints with state-of-the-art employers, so they can teach state-of-the-art practice. The technology the students use is up-to-the-minute current. They work to standards set by employers who themselves set the world standards in their fields. They get credentials recognized by these employers and the employers participate in examining the students, so they can be confident that the graduates can meet their demanding standards. Students get plenty of counseling. They get a broad and deep education, not just narrow training, so they can readily adapt to the inevitable swift changes in technology and work organization. Their system is designed so that there are no dead ends in it. If they want to, and do well enough in their courses, they can go all the way to the boardroom. Unemployment rates among recent high school graduates in Singapore and Switzerland are a tiny fraction of what they are in the United States. Inequality of incomes among workers is much lower, because adults doing technical work not requiring a four-year degree are far better prepared to do the high-pay work required in advanced industrial economies.
When I think of what this country has done to a vocational education and training system we could at one time be proud of, I too want to cry. The price we have paid in terms of unemployed and lost youth, wasted lives, feelings of anger and hopelessness, lost industrial productivity, a weakened economy and income inequality are incalculable. And it will get worse. Automation is rapidly destroying low-skill jobs and jobs involving routine work at ever-increasing rates. The proportion of working-age adults in the workforce is steadily declining, the result of workers who have given up looking for work because they do not have the skills that employers are looking for. It is now the case that the skills of many of our workers are so low that it is easy to find a robot that will do the work for less money. The cost to the individuals involved is often devastating. The cost to the rest of us is steadily rising.
Gold Standard casts a very different picture. It makes it clear that the situation we face here in the United States is not the result of inexorable forces. It shows us the sort of system we can have if we choose to have it. The report is written by a husband and wife team that is deeply versed in this arena and, not least important, writes very well. Bob Schwartz played the key role in building a youth development system for young adults in Boston many years ago that has since become iconic. His view expanded to the state level when he worked on these issues as an aide to Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts and at the national level when he worked on youth policy in the White House for the Carter administration. Nancy Hoffman’s comparative study on vocational education systems became something of an instant classic in its field. Both husband and wife have many years of experience working with the OECD on these issues. I commend this report to your attention. Read it and get a picture of what we could offer to our young people if we just put our mind to it.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Geoff Masters, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research, is one of the treasures of Australia. Not just my opinion. He holds the Medal of the Order of Australia, the highest honor the Australian government can bestow on its citizens. He’s written a paper you need to read, with the innocuous title “Is School Reform Working?“
In it, Masters makes the point that countries that have long been top performers may have that status for reasons—mostly cultural—not directly related to their education policies and practices. So, to determine which policies and practices work best, he looks first at countries that have been doing well and improving rapidly, on the assumption that cultures do not change very quickly, so it is more likely that education policies and practices are responsible for the high performance. Then he looked for systematic differences in policies and practices between these improving countries with others in which student performance has been relatively poor and either holding steady or declining.
This approach is a little different than the one we have taken at NCEE. We’ve looked at the top performers and contrasted them with one country, the United States, a country in which student performance at the high school level has been flat for years and slipping fast in relation to the top performers. What is interesting is that our conclusions and those of Masters are pretty much the same.
But Masters lives in a country quite unlike the United States. When the PISA scores first came out in 2001, Australia was among the PISA top ten performers. But that is true no longer. Australian student performance has been sliding steadily since then, both relative to the top performers and in absolute terms. Masters points out that his country, New Zealand and the UK are all countries that have embraced a set of reforms driven by reformers—mostly economists—who have argued that education reform will be most effective when driven by policies intended to unleash market incentives on education professionals in order to improve their performance. These policies include increasing competition among schools, providing financial rewards to teachers whose students score higher on standardized tests, firing teachers whose students fail to achieve and so on. Much the same, of course, could be said of the United States. And it is precisely these countries that have seen their performance eclipsed by a growing number of other countries and, in some cases, actually trend downward in absolute terms. Over the period in which PISA has provided this comparative data, the gap in average student performance in mathematics between Korean and Australian students has grown by the equivalent of a full year. Nor has there been any compensating lessening of the gap between Australia’s highest performing majority students and its most disadvantaged students. Everyone went down together. All this while performance, as measured by average student achievement and equity, was improving in many nations.
Masters observes some common themes among the countries in which average student performance and equity were improving: “[R]eform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system.” He also notes that top performers have emphasized the training of teachers to “undertake systematic research into their own teaching,” another mark of an effort to professionalize the occupation of teaching. He observes that “[a]nother feature of high-performing systems is that they have put in place system-wide processes to identify students who are falling behind and to intervene quickly to put students back on track…These countries set high expectations for every student’s learning…[and] appreciate the importance of effective system and school leadership.” He makes a particular point of the importance of making sure “that performance improves across the entire education system.” And they do this, he says, in part by making sure that resources are equitably distributed across all schools.
Regular readers of this blog will recognize all of these points as findings from our own research over the years. What is new here is that those findings are confirmed by a prominent researcher on the other side of the world who has also found that other countries with faltering systems of education share a pattern of policy drivers with the United States, policy drivers very different from those found in the top-performing countries.
Food for thought.
Cross-posted at Education Week
In 1978, When Deng Xiao Ping took over the moribund Chinese economy, only the Red Army had access to people with any significant technical skills. China had an informal education system that was millennia old, but Mao had destroyed the formal Chinese education system a decade earlier, and the rudimentary vocational education and training system that China had built along with it. Now, 38 years later, China boasts some of the world’s most advanced Maglev high speed train systems, many of the world’s most advanced airports, many of its most technologically sophisticated buildings and a large fraction of the world’s most technologically advanced port facilities. Have you ever wondered where the skills to build these modern wonders came from? Or what those skills might portend for China’s place in the global economy as the dynamics of that economy take their next twists and turns? Well, we did.
So four of us, with the cooperation of the Chinese government, went to see for ourselves, to try to understand how China, less than 40 years ago a backward, rural economy virtually bereft of modern technical skills, had managed to pull off this prodigy of technical competence on such a grand scale, and to see if, having some insight into the answer to that question, we might be able to gauge the probability that China has the skills needed to move from an economy in which growth was largely driven by low skill, low wage manufacturing for export, to an economy driven by internal consumption and innovation and powered by high skills, rather than low wages. We had a hunch that, to a significant extent, the future of the Chinese economy as a whole might depend on its ability to produce millions of Chinese workers with high technical skills, but less than a four year college education.
Made in China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational Education and Training System is the result of our research. Authored by Vivien Stewart, Formerly Vice-President of Asia Society and a member of NCEE’s Board of Trustees, the report traces the development of China’s vocational education and training system, assesses its strengths and weaknesses and presents the research team’s views as to what China will have to do to create the kind of modern vocational education and training system that could conceivably enable China to successfully make the transition from a low-wage, low-skill export-driven economy to a high-wage, high skill economy driven by a balance of domestic consumers and external customers. Stewart’s deep knowledge of China and her wide-ranging experience with other education and training systems worldwide were an enormous asset to our team as we tried to make sense of an endlessly complex country, one full of contradictions at every turn.
First, there can be no doubt that the Chinese accomplishment is simply staggering in its scope. Engineering marvels abound in many parts of the country, on a grand scale. But this unfolded in stages, beginning in Guangdong Province, on the mainland of China, close to Hong Kong. At first what was needed was the construction of port facilities and simple buildings that could be used by foreign-invested firms to manufacture relatively simple products using China’s very cheap labor. Much of the technical expertise to do this sort of construction came from people who had been in the Red Army. At the time, the management and professional expertise required to staff manufacturing enterprises of this sort were in very short supply. Some of the people they needed were recruited from all over China. But much of the needed expertise came from Hong Kong, which initially acted as an intermediary between foreign investors worldwide and the mainland Chinese interested in partnering with foreign investors.
In time, very large firms in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, backed by deep-pocketed investors all over the world, undertook very large-scale development projects in China, bringing with them the technical expertise needed to design and complete the projects that have since earned the admiration of people all over the world. These firms typically came into China prepared to supply, all or nearly all, the technical training required by their native Chinese employees, often sending new employees all over the world to their own facilities for training. This proved very expensive, but it made good bottom-line sense because of government subsidies and because Chinese labor was so cheap and hardworking that this high training expense could easily be born.
Prior to Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms, all companies in China were state-owned, because everything was owned by the state. The large state-owned companies provided everything their employees needed, from their meals to their housing to their medical care. And this included training, too. In time, foreign-invested companies took their place side-by-side with the state-owned firms. Some state-owned firms, in time, entered the global markets for their services and learned how to compete with foreign firms in the same markets. Many did not. Among those that did, some produced training for their employees as good as any we have seen worldwide. But the vast majority of state-owned firms stuck with their domestic market and their standard of training was often far below the global standard. Though the training standards of foreign-invested firms were typically higher than those of the state-owned firms, working conditions in the foreign-invested companies were often far below the minimum standard expected in Western countries.
By the turn of this century, the foreign-invested firms were using fewer expatriates in their Chinese operations, as the Chinese educational institutions supplied ever-larger numbers of people with the credentials they were looking for and Chinese who had gone to college and graduate school abroad returned to their native land.
Many of our readers know that Shanghai has placed at the top of the world’s league tables in secondary education on the PISA Survey for two survey administrations in a row. There is good reason to believe that Shanghai is not alone among coastal Chinese provinces in providing a high level of education to its students. But this turns out to be a two-edged sword in China. The ancient veneration of highly educated people in China comes with a downside, which is a very low regard for people who work with their hands, In China, this translates into a very low status for vocational education and training. Even within the vocational education and training sector in China, there is a sharp divide between those who provide the “theoretical” (read “classroom”) part of the training and those who provide the practical training. Though those who provide the theoretical training have higher status than those who provide the practical training, both have much lower status than those who hold positions as teachers in the regular (non-vocational) schools and higher education institutions. This creates a world in which the vocational education classroom teachers often have very little practical background in the industry they teach in and very little incentive to acquire such a background. Those who are in charge of providing practical experience in firms are not typically in a position to provide a high quality experience for their students.
Our team observed other key weaknesses: the structural barriers that exist between vocational and academic education that magnify the image problem that vocational education suffers from, the narrowness of the vocational education curriculum, weak connections to industry, a frequently deep mismatch between skills of graduates and needs of employers (most especially the need for graduates who can apply what they have learned in the environment in which they will be working).
China faces an enormous challenge. For a host of reasons, ranging from the demographic effects of the one-child policy, to the need to get far more from each acre farmed as the Chinese move to the city from the countryside to the need to greatly reduce the acute pollution in the cites, the productivity of the Chinese economy must increase dramatically in the next few years to avoid major economic and social disturbances. That can only be accomplished by greatly upgrading the skills of those Chinese who will do the work requiring high technical skill below the level of college graduates. China is already producing a potentially socially destabilizing number of unemployed college graduates. Though the numbers of high school graduates is rapidly increasing, the proportion of those young people who have the skills the next economy will need is disturbingly small.
China has a boot-strapping problem. It needs to find a way to identify the domestic and foreign-invested firms that have the competence and need for highly skilled technicians to make them well-qualified to train the native Chinese and to raise the training standards for the country as a whole. But the state has yet to find a way to offer the kinds of incentives to either their domestic champions (think Alibaba) or the best of the foreign-invested firms that would induce them to offer powerful apprentice-like experiences to the millions of students who will need them. Training institutions have established relationships with state-owned firms, but the training standards in those firms are typically very low. This is not a problem that is unique to China, but, because China’s vocational schools are so insulated from the industrial settings in which their graduates will work, it is an especially serious problem in China.
These are very daunting problems. But anyone betting against the Chinese government solving them has to contend with the astonishing record of accomplishment of the Deng Xiao Ping years, when the government at all levels reduced illiteracy among Chinese adults, increased enrolment in Chinese primary and secondary schools and built universities and research institutions on a scale and at a pace without precedent in world history. Chinese governments, both national and provincial, are now focused like a laser beam on the need for technical skills. Much now depends on their success.
It turns out that vocational education and training provides a powerful lens for helping the reader to understand some of the most important challenges facing modern China. Combine that with the fact that Stewart is a fine writer, and you will, I predict, not be able to put this report down once it is in your hands.
Cross-posted at Education Week
The prospects for a successful rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act are uncertain after the House’s failure to hold a floor vote last Friday. But Senate staff are busy working to achieve HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander’s vision of a compromise measure capable of gaining approval from the upper chamber. As Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Senator Patty Murray continue their work in the Senate, I thought it might be helpful to stand back and ask what it is that we are trying to achieve with the reauthorization.
I recently participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). In my remarks, which you can view below, I spoke about how NCLB was the result of a federal government too consumed with demanding accountability for its investment, and not sufficiently focused on building a system designed to improve student achievement. It is a call for putting accountability in perspective.
Date: March 27, 2015
Date: March 20, 2015
Date: March 13, 2015
Date: March 12, 2015
Date: February 27, 2015