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Education Reporter
Number 136 EDUCATION REPORTER May 1997


What’s Wrong with School-to-Work?

Robert Holland
Robert Holland
The following speech was given at a conference entitled What Goals 2000 Means to the States on February 12 on Capitol Hill.

by Robert Holland

What’s Wrong with School-to-Work? That is, succinctly, the question many of us will need to answer for our local, well-meaning chamber-of-commerce folks, educators, journalists, and parents, who believe this federal push is merely about helping young people make a smooth transition into careers—a benign upgrading of vocational education to 21st Century, Information Age standards.

Unfortunately, the School-to-Work system-for it is just that and not merely another program of federal aid-is not about expanding individual career choices or educating students broadly so they can change jobs many times in a lifetime.

Let me answer the question "What is Wrong with School-to-Work?" as concisely as I can, and then go back and explain briefly.

  1. School-to-Work, which is linked with Goals 2000, injects the federal government deeply and dangerously into shaping the curriculum of American schools. It puts the United States in the camp of regimes that decree what knowledge is "official," and, even more than that, how that knowledge should be taught and for what purpose.

  2. School-to-Work locks students into career tracks much too early, chilling opportunity and killing youthful dreams.

  3. School-to-Work drastically narrows the curriculum, making it less likely that schools will produce literate, well-rounded generalists who can cope with rapid change in civic life as well as the workforce. School-to-Work is about the servile arts, not the liberal arts. We should remember that the liberal arts derive from the Latin libera, which means freedom. Vocational training can be liberating, too, but not compulsory training to meet state workforce quotas. That is a form of slavery.

  4. School-to-Work infringes on the sovereignty of the individual and the family.

  5. School-to-Work, as part of a national human resource development system, cuts local school boards and state legislators almost completely out of the decision-making loop.

  6. School-to-Work is part of a managed economy and data-collecting network that poses grave dangers to Americans' liberty and privacy.

    And finally, but not least . . .

  7. Judging by the historical record, School-to-Work simply does not work. Throughout their history, Americans have rejected efforts to have the government track their children into jobs satisfying the designs of economic planners. This has been, and remains, the land of boundless opportunity, and everyday folks who are not drunk on the heady brew of government-subsidized think tanks like it that way. Furthermore, history is littered with the remains of regimes-such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany-that sought to create the New Economic Man and shape him to the specifications of the all-powerful state.

How about some details to back up those points? Let's look at the illegal encroachment of the federal government, particularly the Labor and Education Departments, into the shaping of school curricula.

The language of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, the companion of Goals 2000, both of which were enacted in the spring of 1994, is amazingly blunt; there is nothing subtle about it. Those who would understand School-to-Work would be well-advised to read it carefully. I would hope that would include current members of Congress-we could only hope that they would all become as well-informed on the intricacies of the "seamless web" as is our host today, Chairman Henry Hyde.

The section on congressional intent repeatedly refers to "all students" and "all states," making evident its breathtaking sweep. The act stipulates that it is to be a "national framework" within which "all states" are to create School-to-Work systems as part of "comprehensive education reform." All School-to-Work plans are to be "integrated with the systems developed" under Goals 2000, among them the National Skills Standards Board (NSSB), which is hard at work preparing to identify and eventually certify the skills necessary for every type of job in the country, from manure spreader to airline pilot.

Recently, the NSSB carved the economy into 16 sectors-communications, manufacturing, retail sales, construction, etc.-and will now prepare skill certificates for all the jobs in those sectors. The influential Education Week reported that these certificates, though initially voluntary, are expected to profoundly influence what is taught in America's schools.

That's where School-to-Work comes in. It will teach those skills the government planners say that children-whom they consider to be "human capital"-need to have in the Brave New Millennium. Furthermore, according to official board minutes, NSSB members have said that they envision their skill certification plan eventually becoming compulsory.

Despite statutory prohibitions against federal dictation of school curricula, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act declares as a federal purpose "integrating academic and occupational learning," and "integrating school-based and work-based learning." It also calls for "all students" to participate in "high-quality, work-based experiences" (including apprenticeships) during the school day. ALL students, mind you.

Now, some students might prize the opportunity to serve as apprentices in local industries. But shouldn't that be optional, not a condition of universal education? And shouldn't such work be done after school, so that precious class time is spent on learning the basics of language, literature, science, mathematics, and our heritage as Americans?

In Dresden, Ohio, high school students can use two class periods a day to learn basket weaving on the job at a local manufacturing company. The students receive academic credit. The company gets to sell the baskets for a profit.

At Milwaukee's Hamilton High School, students must choose at Grade Eight the "career cluster" they will pursue. Thus, for example, a student in the Health and Human Services Cluster studies such profound subjects as food service, fashion and fabrics, parenthood education, and human diversity-while not being required to take any foreign language. Core subjects like English are integrated into the vocational training.

Suppose by the 12th grade the youngster has decided he wishes to be a scientist or doctor. That's awfully late to get the credits needed for admission to a top-quality university. In some majority black and Hispanic districts in California, portions of high schools are being turned into hospitality or food service academies. There is a great potential for School-to-Work to have the most severe impact on minority youngsters, who will be taught that they should not aspire to loftier goals than cleaning tables or toting luggage for the elite.

The buzzwords for this pervasive vocationalism are "curriculum integration" (meaning the total merger of academics with vocational training) and "applied learning," which owes much to John Dewey's progressive education doctrine that all instruction should be socially relevant. Influential as he was in the schools of education of the '20s, Dewey could not have dreamed of having the money and power behind him that his latter-day disciples possess.

Under a Carl Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the California School Boards Association has prepared a manual intended to bring all local school boards on board with curriculum integration. The manual stresses the "critical role" of local school boards in bringing about this radical change, and it defines "leverage points" to use in bringing others along. So much for local autonomy and variety of approach among the nation's 15,000 school districts.

Career counseling, under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, is to begin "at the earliest possible age, but not later than the 7th grade." All students must select a "career major" in secondary school (and in practice, many School-to-Work schools put students in a "career pathway" in middle or even elementary school). Intriguingly, the act specifies that curricula should "incorporate instruction . . . in all aspects of industry, appropriately tied to the career major of a participant."

Ohio has one of the most elaborate School-to-Work implementation plans to date. It contemplates inculcating work skills in kindergarten, and requires that all student prepare a Career Plan by the 8th grade. All must finish their secondary education with a Career Passport (more commonly called a Certificate of Initial Mastery), without which they need not apply for a job. The system is geared to industry's "labor market needs" and will train students for jobs in accordance with "the state's workforce development and economic development strategies."

Essentially, School-to-Work envisions tracking children not only into a general career field but, when possible, into a specific industry. The law calls for a sequence of study providing students "with strong experience in and understanding of all aspects of the industry the students are planning to enter." This is vocationalism with a vengeance.

At a national School-to-Work conference in Orlando last November-a session sponsored by the National Education Association-national School-to-Work officials stated repeatedly that college-bound students should be required to follow this work-specific track as well. "All means all" was the conference mantra.

School-to-Work's infringement on the sovereignty of the family will become increasingly apparent as more and more children receive career counseling in elementary and middle schools. As School-to-Work attempts to steer children into slots deemed in the interest of regional labor market and economic development needs, it will become obvious how children are being cheated and deprived of a chance to realize their dreams and achieve their highest potential.

Computerized career inventories are being used in early grades to begin guiding children into career tracks. In Las Vegas, young Ashley Jensen, who has a 4.0-plus GPA, dreams of one day going to work for NASA, but her middle-school inventory says that her choices ought to be between sanitation worker and interior decorator. Another Nevada student aspires to be a veterinarian, but was told by her counselor she ought to become a bartender. Her Christian parents understandably felt that their rights had been trampled; they would not want their daughter to become a server of alcoholic drinks.

Finally, a disturbing feature of the School-to-Work system is the use of sophisticated technology to sort out and track students. This is happening even without the Labor Market Information System, the national databank that would have been set up by the workforce development legislation that expired with the last Congress (but that may be revived with the current one).

At last spring's National Education Summit, which was exclusively for corporate CEOs and governors, IBM showed off electronic portfolios bearing assessments of students' social/workforce skills. Most state School-to-Work implementation plans make heavy use of the SCANS reports, those infamous Labor Department documents that called on schools to keep electronic resumes of students' personal qualities and workforce skills. And at the Summit, governors and CEOs approvingly reviewed the first scannable workforce Smart Cards, which students in some places (like Nevada) already must present when applying for a job. These uses of technology are horrendous invasions of personal privacy.

It is hard to believe that all this is happening in free America. In the aftermath of his re-election, our President lectured us in an appearance in Northbrook, Illinois, that we must "no longer hide behind our love of local control of schools." It would be healthier for the nation, however, if he and the First Lady got over their love of socialist prescriptions for such services as education and health care. School-to-Work is going to rob many dreams, not to mention many pocketbooks, before the people finally catch on, rise up, and demand that this hushed takeover of American education be rolled back.

Let's hope for the sake of our children that repeal comes sooner, not later.

Mr. Holland is a columnist and Op-Ed Editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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