The Value of Education Excellence for All in Meeting Global Competition and in Maintaining a Democratic Society
by Anne L. Heald
It's clear we are in the new global economy and that this change, this whole epochal shift, is driven by technological innovation. The one thing we know about is that we are not going back. The shift has happened and there is no turning around. From my perspective, I see a past similar in many ways to that of my generation, and the current young generation is helping to transform our education, social, and economic institutions to fit this fundamental new economic order. It's a very, very big job. It's a job we don't understand. A very central task of the United States is to internalize this change in the world and to develop a new vision of how we are going to organize our society to prosper in the future.
When we talk about competition, most often that term is used in terms of nations, but if you listen to discussions of global competition, much of it is about a very different kind of competition. It refers to competition of very large firms. I'm going to talk a great deal about how individual workers compete, but these interests -- those of nations, firms, and individual workers -- are not always the same. A company can prosper at the expense of its country. How well individual workers can prepare themselves can make a great difference in contrast to workers in the next county or in another country. So, our interests can both be united and separate, and I think often we don't differentiate enough when we think through what the stakes and what the consequences are for public policy.
My comments are really informed from more than a decade of working with and helping American leaders -- business leaders, public policy leaders, union leaders, educators -- as they take a look at the principally Northern European approaches to help us in preparing young people for work. The insights really come from listening to them, listening to their observations, both about the competitive challenge, the contrast between our societies, and the challenge that is before all the industrialized nations, including the United States. As one looks across industrialized countries, there is actually an extraordinary consensus that the preparation of young people for work is one of the most singular important things a society can do to improve its ability to prosper in a new international economy. There's an extraordinary tension to modernize education, with a particular focus to what happens to the majority of young people in a society who will never finish a university degree.
If you take our own society, we send 50 percent of American young people on to college, but by age 34, less than 25 percent have a college degree. In our society, that's the only clear path to success, but other societies have taken other approaches. While a university career is clearly the option of preference of parents and students the world over, there still are other respected alternatives to success. I'd like to talk a little bit about what international trends are in this whole area of education modernization, and talk a little bit about what the American challenge is and what we can learn from the best.
If one looks at international trends, there is a tremendous push in increasing what you need to know and be able to do to get paid a high wage the world over. The number of places in the world who now can provide a good education to large numbers of people has increased tremendously, and the ability of business to get access, either through communications or faster transportation, to those educated people has changed at a breathtaking pace in the course of your lifetimes. This means academic standards have gone up. It also means that there is an increased focus and interest in the importance of vocational education and academic standards within vocational education have gone up. There are trends toward convergence between vocation and academic education. If you look at some of these trends, you might think the traditional demarcation between vocational and academic education is old-fashioned. In vocational education, many of the lessons of organizing learning around careers and of doing experiential, hands-on learning are being taken on board in high-performing academic courses. Many of the lessons of academic content in vocational education are being increased by the demands of high technology and the need to be able to participate in a high level of communication, even in the service industry.
There are observable trends around linking school-to-work. This country is extraordinarily weak on this dimension by international standards. It is happening in various ways. Maybe the most powerful example of that kind of linkage exists in the apprenticeship countries in Northern Europe, where in the last years of many young peoples' education, a substantial portion of their learning experience takes place in firm-controlled learning situations. They may be schools or they may be in the actual workplace. In Japan, in Sweden, and in other countries, trends are to increase linkages to the workplace, to increase flexibility, to increase hands-on learning, and to increase conversation and communication between educators and businesses. That's what is really needed in preparing young people for the future.
Let's talk about the American challenge. It is often said, nationally, that we are the only industrialized country in the world that has no school-to-work transition system -- no way to help young people move from their education into a career. I think this is very much built around the profound value, as a society, we place on the individual. We very much leave it up to young people, with very little guidance by international standards about how to build a career path. For those going to college -- it starts actually at a very, very young age -- you start getting messages about what you need to do to go to college. If that's not the path you're choosing, there's very little information flow and no clear path laid out. There is only one success track.
Young people typically in the United States flop around in the labor market in short-term, low-skilled, low-benefit jobs until their mid-twenties, often with probing questions about what's wrong. In fact, there is usually nothing wrong -- it's how our system works. They typically don't settle into good career-track jobs until nearly ten years later than their European counterparts. In fact, most employers of note, employers with career-type jobs that you might want to stay with, don't hire young men until their mid-twenties. They consciously stay away from employing young men, black or white, as not having gone through a maturation process that they find suitable. They prefer to let smaller firms do the breaking-in. It's kind of a rough and ready process. It's not very efficient. It's pretty costly, both personally and, I think, in economic terms.
What can we learn then from other societies that seem to do a much better job on school- to-work transition? Let me say, first and foremost, that when asked this, I'm not saying that we ought to be doing this the German way, or the Danish way, or the Japanese way. In fact, the Canadian Competitiveness Commission did a very powerful study which laid out many successful approaches. What's really critical is that the approach is coherent; that it's consistent with the education and the economic system; that it's clear to people how they get from one place to another. We lack a system. We excel internationally in terms of being innovators, building individual model programs that are absolutely wonderful. They are usually done by exceptional individual leadership, often kind of pioneering efforts, that fail to deliver to the kids in the next school, or in the next neighborhood, or next county, or next state.
One of the central features of successful international systems is that they are universal and systematic. We have layers and layers programs; a situation I call this program gridlock. In the federal government we have about 90 different employment training programs in 16 different agencies involving about 16 billion dollars. State government is equally divided. It's impossible for someone seeking training, or for an employer seeking workers, to know who to work with under what circumstances. Our programs are typically built around special population groups -- young people, poor people, returning veterans, dislocated workers, refugees, women returning to the workforce. An employer is not looking for a dislocated worker or a refugee, they are looking for someone with a certain set of skills and capacities to bring to their firm. From other countries, we could learn to be more systematic.
Another very central issue is that we have a low expectation education system by international standards. It shows up in every international comparison. The United States comes up thirteenth or fourteenth in most international comparisons. We have a second rate education system when it comes to achievement. We are an international innovator in creating an educational system that was universally available, but not in creating a system that effectively links school-to-work. The United States does some of the best social science and learning research in the world, and from it, we know that student performances vary enormously by the expectations directed at them. As parents, as employers, we are not expecting enough from our schools. It's a central and difficult issue.
The role of adults is another matter of critical importance. One sees in the European systems that link school-to-work that adults are much more involved in the career guidance, in communication with the schools, and in designing standards. The role of a mentor in an apprenticeship program illustrates this. The mentor is the first person outside of parents, and outside of the school, that guides the young person on how do you handle the workplace. An apprenticeship in Denmark or Switzerland or Austria is not just narrow skill training. It is the broad end of education, and it is about socialization to work. A mentor will guide the apprentice on how to resolve conflicts within the workplace, how to deal with problems of authority, with peers, with completing tasks, with problem solving, with very important issues. These are the issues that employers face so often as they deal with young people when they come into the workplace. In American schools, the career guidance counselor ratio typically, at least in my own state, ranges anywhere from one guidance counselor to 300 or 600 students. It's likely the guidance counselors are doing scheduling, handing out information about colleges, and organizing some special programs for students with problems. There is very little genuine career guidance taking place in most American schools.
One of the huge differences in the United States is that incentives are not working in our schools. It is really only those students who are competing for the most selective schools who are really working hard at their own education. We have all kinds of evidence that suggests that this is the case. One of the differences is that performance doesn't matter and everybody knows it. If you go to a good school, you do have to work hard. If you go to an average school, you can kind of skate through and get by. Our admissions policies pretty much let everybody in and the sorting out process happens later. In places as diverse as Germany and Japan, employers ask to see transcripts. American employers rarely ask to see a diploma, much less a transcript from high school or junior high school. Students and their parents in other countries know that it matters how you do.
When we talk of education reform, about building a school-to-work system, we will, of course, build an American system. Almost always in a forum like this, I am asked, or I am told, "you know those cultures, they are really different than ours." That is true. I have spent a good part of my life in "those cultures," and I am aware that ours is different. I am also aware that we couldn't do it any other way than the American way, so I am not suggesting that we imitate Japan, nor am I suggesting that we imitate Germany, Sweden, or any other country. However, there are some powerful messages about what works out there in the world, and in a period of rapid innovation, borrowing from the best is one of the most effective ways of speeding up the innovation curve. I suggest to you, at the same time, that we are not only behind now, but other countries see this as a critical area and are seeking to improve their posture. They are not staying still.
How do we get beyond model programs where one school and one business work together? We do know. We have many examples from leaders who have taken a look at the best of international experience in Tulsa, in Boston, in Maine, in Oregon, and in Wisconsin. We do know that in individual programs we can replicate learning successes, and that kids can come alive in these kinds of programs -- in much the same ways that we see in their international counterparts. The difficulty is getting to scale. The difficulty is first understanding what a "system" might mean in our non-system, and creating and crafting ways of building one.
A very first step we have to take is that we have to build a vision. We have to understand we have a big task to internalize how the global economy has changed our lives. We have to create a kind of infrastructure that will build on American strengths and begin to allow us to work together in ways that we haven't in the past. American education policy is unbelievably decentralized by international standards. It is principally the province of state and local communities. Federal funds and mandates in this area, other than around certain compensatory things, are really very limited. We've got fifty different policy arenas in states, and 15,000 local school districts. That's a lot of places that need to get the vision and then begin to understand ways of working differently. There is a huge staff development, leadership development, and public education process that we must undertake.
One thing that is happening at the national level, and it is a fairly rapid innovation for the United States, is the effort to develop national education standards. The effort to develop national academic standards is a process that was started under Republican leadership and continued under Democratic leadership. The effort is to develop voluntary standards, not mandatory standards, but there has been work commissioned in eight different areas, and there are efforts to look at the best practices internationally. By and large, the standards boards have created standards that are too broad and too thick to accomplish. The math standards could probably be studied through graduate school. The experts have not made the decisions leading to recommendations about what makes the essential core. That's now really in the hands of states.
A parallel effort to develop national skills standards will have a strong presence with employers. This effort will have to grapple with defining occupational clusters, and with combining applied learning with higher forms of learning for careers. It will take us many years to begin to sort this out. In the meantime, states have to create their own standards, or rethink the ones that they have. It's a critical role at the state level and one that has been enormously complicated in political terms. Some parents, for example, fear that somehow this will impose values on their children. I think that moving toward national education standards will remain a difficult subject for us across the country for some time, and that concern has been chilling some of the political leadership.
Employer involvement is really central. It may be the single biggest difference between us and other systems. American employers and educators cannot and do not know how to talk to each other. They are in different worlds. At least in northern European countries, there are brokering organizations who have the expertise and capacity to essentially carry out that conversation. In the United States, employer organizations are principally organized to say no to government. Don't tax us, don't regulate us. They are very rarely organized to help member firms be more competitive and more profitable. There has been some shift in those directions in recent years as some employer associations and companies have seen that their training needs have gone up, and they are at a loss on how to cope. A very critical issue is working out and connecting, not only education of young people, but training of adults, to meet the needs of industry around various employment sectors.
In the United States, there are probably about five streams of reform in secondary schools related to vocational education. They are tech-prep, which is essentially an in-school program trying to raise academic content and link students directly into the community colleges. There are career academies, which largely take place in inner cities, and are organized around subject areas like finance, printing, or banking. There are youth-apprenticeship programs with very deep connections with groups of employers in the school agenda. There is upgraded vocational education, which essentially seeks to upgrade existing programs, and there is co-op education, which rotates young people through the school into work experiences that are usually not guided learning experiences. One can imagine that, by adding learning standards centered on industry sectors, then all of these different streams could help prepare young people to make the transition from school-to-work.