Robert Schwartz, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Does a strict focus on academic
at the expense of adequate career/technical preparation?
A Civic Caucus
Human Capital Interview February 11, 2015
Present from the
John Adams, Pat Davies, Paul
Gilje (executive director), Lars Johnson, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz
(chair), Dana Schroeder (associate director). (Also present were
approximately 30 other invited education and public-policy leaders.)
According to Harvard
Professor Emeritus Robert Schwartz, the rise of the standards system
in U.S. K-12 education has led to increased pressure on schools to
devote more time to core academics at the expense of vocational
education. By their mid-20s, only 32 percent of young Americans have
graduated from a four-year postsecondary institution. Yet, those
four-year colleges and universities are the ones influencing standards
for high school graduation.
Schwartz says strong vocational education
systems in certain other countries, especially those with the
strongest youth apprenticeship programs, help kids make a successful
transition from adolescence to adulthood. He believes the U.S. system
keeps kids in adolescence longer than they need to be. He points to
Switzerland's system as a good example of a system that supports the
learning and development of young people and helps them through the
transitional years. He notes that the Swiss and German apprenticeship
systems are mainstream systems, preparing students for white-collar
careers in high tech or banking, as well as for traditional
He believes Americans have always seen
vocational education as a second-class system for kids who can't do
academic work. As a result, vocational education in comprehensive high
schools has withered away and we've behaved as if college were the
destination for all. Schwartz says all kids could benefit from much
earlier exposure to all kinds of career options and the kinds of
training and education that can get them to those careers. He endorses
graduating students from high school with both certified, structured
work experience and experience taking courses on college campuses.
Robert B. Schwartz is
professor emeritus of Practice in Educational Policy and
Administration at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education
(HGSE). He joined the faculty there in 1996. He also co-leads the
Pathways to Prosperity Network, which is a collaboration among a group
of states, HGSE and Jobs for the Future designed to ensure that many
more young people graduate from high school, attain an initial
postsecondary degree or credential with value in the labor market and
get launched on a career, while leaving open the possibility of
From 1997 to 2002, he also served as
president of Achieve, Inc., an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit
organization created by governors and corporate leaders to help states
improve their schools. From 1990 to 1996, he was the director of the
education grant-making program of the Pew Charitable Trusts. He began
his career as a high school English teacher and principal. He has also
served as an education advisor to the mayor of Boston and the governor
of Massachusetts; an assistant director of the National Institute of
Education; special assistant to the president of the University of
Massachusetts; and executive director of The Boston Compact, a
public-private partnership designed to improve access to higher
education and employment for urban high school graduates.
Schwartz has written and spoken widely on
topics such as standards-based reform, public-private partnerships and
the transition from high school to adulthood. He holds a B.A. in
English from Harvard University, an M.A. in English from Brandeis
University and a Certificate of Advanced Study (C.A.S.) from the
Administrative Career Program at the HGSE.
This meeting, featuring
Harvard University Professor Emeritus Robert Schwartz, was convened by
Ted Kolderie, senior associate of Education|Evolving, senior fellow of
the Center for Policy Design, and Civic Caucus interview group member.
Although the Civic Caucus did not organize the meeting, several
interview group members were included because of the organization's
continuing focus on human capital issues in Minnesota. The Civic
Caucus has released two recent statements on human capital:
one in September 2014 laying
out the human capital challenges facing the state today and in coming
years and a follow-up paper in
January 2015 offering
recommendations for maintaining a high quality workforce in
In 2011, the Harvard
Graduate School of Education (HGSE) published the report Pathways
to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for
the 21st Century.
The report, authored by Robert Schwartz,
economist Ronald Ferguson and journalist William Symonds, was intended
to follow up on a 1988 report, The Forgotten Half: Non-College
Youth in America, issued by a commission established by the
William T. Grant Foundation. According to Schwartz, looking at
high school and higher education dropout data, the Pathways
report concluded that the case for investing in developing a set of
rigorous career and technical education pathways, alongside the
strictly academic pathway, is even stronger today than it was in 1988.
The idea in recent years that all kids need
a solid foundation of core academic skills to be able to take a
successful next step somehow morphed into the idea that, therefore,
all students needed to go on to a four-year college. The rise of
the standards movement in K-12 education has led to rising academic
expectations and rising accountability standards, Schwartz said. This
has increased pressure on schools to devote more time to core
academics at the expense of career-related programs that might engage
kids and motivate them to stay in school. "While the rhetoric in
today's policy environment is that all students should leave high
school college- and career-ready, the reality is that almost
everywhere, career readiness is on the back burner," he said.
Schwartz noted that research for the
Pathways paper showed that over 70 percent of high school
graduates go on to enroll in a higher education institution. But by
their mid-20s, only 32 percent of young Americans have graduated from
a four-year institution, another 10 percent have a two-year degree and
about 10 percent have acquired a recognized one-year occupational
certificate from a postsecondary education or training institution.
"That gets us to 52 percent," Schwartz said. "What's our strategy for
the other half of the kids?"
And, in looking at how the "successful
ones," that is, those with four-year degrees, are doing in the labor
market, Schwartz said 44 percent of them under age 25 are
underemployed, while another seven or eight percent are unemployed.
Schwartz referenced the 2011 book,
Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,
which posits that too many students are drifting into four-year
institutions with no idea of why they're there. The book presents a
study of 2,300 students at 24 universities that shows that, measured
by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, 35 percent of the students
showed no significant improvement in critical thinking skills,
analytic reasoning, persuasive writing and other skills after four
years in college.
All kids could benefit from much earlier
exposure to the kinds of career options that are out there and the
kinds of training and education that can get them to those careers.
Schwartz reiterated that students often show up on college
campuses with no idea of why they're there. He said they choose majors
with no information about the job opportunities associated with the
majors. They don't think they need any job experience, because they
believe someone will hire them once they have a college degree.
In the U.S., university systems serving only
one-third of the kids are deciding on standards for high schools.
Countries with strong vocational systems divide high school into upper
secondary and lower secondary, Schwartz said. Compulsory education
ends at the end of ninth grade. "That has a powerful effect," he said.
"Kids who are barely hanging on only have to hang on through ninth
grade, not through 12th grade. It avoids this disease that
in the upper years you have universities deciding on standards for
what all kids need to learn."
In these other countries, students are asked
what they want to be in the world and then the system designs an
education program to give them the continuing academics they need and
also a really customized path to the particular occupational sector
they've chosen to work in.
On the last Programme for International
Assessment (PISA) exam, which measures how well 15-year-old students
can apply what they've learned to real problems, Swiss kids had the
highest math scores anywhere in Europe, including Finland.
Strong vocational education systems in
certain other countries, especially those with the strongest youth
apprenticeship programs, help kids make a successful transition from
adolescence to adulthood. Schwartz has studied these systems in
Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and
Singapore. The programs, he said, offer lots of support from adults
and help kids who are 16-to-19 years-old move into more adult
settings, taking more responsibility in a highly structured way. "The
systems support the learning and development of young people and help
them through the transitional years," Schwartz said.
"The Swiss have done a better job than
anybody else I know in designing a system that works both for young
people and their economy," Schwartz said. "It's a very expensive
country and they can only survive by competing on skills, not cost.
Why is the Swiss economy so strong, despite the fact that only 25
percent of kids have classical academic university degrees?" Schwartz
said the Swiss argue that one key factor is the deliberate
intentionality in the way their vocational system is structured.
According to Schwartz, the Swiss and German
apprenticeship systems are mainstream systems, serving a broad range
of students, preparing people for white-collar careers in high tech or
banking, as well as for the traditional blue-collar trades.
The way we do things keeps kids in
adolescence longer than they need to be. By age 15 or 16, Schwartz
said, many kids want to get on with their lives and be doing something
meaningful. The question, he said, is how to get kids connected with
adults doing things they're really passionate about. One way to get
kids into adult settings is through the workplace and another is to
get kids onto college campuses while they are still in high school.
Graduating our kids from high school with
both work experience and college experience would be a good strategy.
According to Schwartz, the best way to assure that a student is ready
for college is to have him or her successfully complete college-level
courses on college campuses while still in high school. College is not
just an academic phenomenon; it's a cultural phenomenon, as well. Some
states, he said, might make this a graduation requirement.
The best way to measure career readiness
would be for kids to have a structured, certified work experience
while in high school, he said. We could certify the softer skills:
working in teams, solving problems collaboratively, learning to take
initiative when appropriate and to work under close supervision when
appropriate, and solving problems in multiple steps.
Joe Nathan, director of the Center for
School Change, reported that high school graduation rates in Minnesota
increase dramatically for low-income kids and kids of color who
complete at least three career-tech college courses while in high
We've always seen vocational education as a
second-class system for kids who can't do academic work. Schwartz
pointed out that while we've always had strong vocational programs in
some parts of the country, "we have a not-so-happy legacy from the
vocational system. Too often, vocational programs, especially in our
urban districts, became dumping grounds for kids of color, tracking
them into low-skill dead-end kinds of jobs."
Vocational education in comprehensive high
schools withered away and we behaved as if college were the
destination. "One consequence of focusing so heavily on college as
the destination" he said, "is that we lose a lot of kids along the
way." He said there are two main reasons kids drop out of high school:
(1) it's really boring and (2) they see no relationship between what
they're being asked to study in school and any future they can imagine
We need to change cultural attitudes to
reflect the realities of work and educational opportunities.
Schwartz referenced the January 2015 statement by the Civic Caucus,
"A Statewide Crusade to
Secure Minnesota's High Quality Workforce," which
calls for a change in cultural attitudes about what are better and
lesser careers and educational options, strengthened career
counseling, support for early career-oriented goal-setting,
encouragement for teachers to take internships in their fields,
exposing students early to the soft skills needed in work, nurturing
the expansion and public awareness of apprenticeships, linking
education paths and career opportunities, and ensuring that students
and teachers understand the operation of the workplace.
We in the U.S. need to deal with many
cultural issues regarding types of education and types of work.
Schwartz said some of the issues are related to parents and their
assumptions about what their children will do. And there's a devaluing
of skilled work and the actual making of things, he said. But in
cultures that have a strong apprenticeship tradition, the skilled
worker is a respected cultural figure.
In these countries, Schwartz said, the
vocational apprenticeship system is the mainstream system. Switzerland
has maintained a system where 70 percent of the kids move into the
vocational system. Germany's system has been losing market share,
however, and is now down around 50 percent. Denmark's system has been
declining, as well. Policymakers in these two countries are worried
about the decline and about falling into the American system.
The Swiss have loaded up the vocational
system with incentives. Schwartz said students there have two
choices: sit in classrooms only and learn strictly academic subjects
or, at age 15 or 16, move into a system of applied learning. "You can
be in an adult setting; you can be getting paid while you're learning,
starting at $800 a month in Switzerland; you can be in a situation
where you're getting a ton of support; you're getting a credential
that has value all across the country; and you have opportunities for
"You're not dead-ended," he said. "You can
cross back over to the academic side. You can also switch from the
academic side to the applied side, but you need to get a year of work
experience first." He pointed out that Switzerland doesn't do the same
early rigorous tracking that the Germans do.
In the countries with good vocational
systems, classroom learning becomes much more aligned with learning at
the workplace. In the U.S., apprenticeship happens after high
school and serves mostly people in their 20s, Schwartz said, and is
really part of the workforce system. In the other countries, however,
the apprenticeship system is under the umbrella of the education
system and it's focused on the learning of young people.
In response to a question about the
background of the students in the good apprenticeship programs
overseas, Schwartz said, "None of these countries would allow 23
percent of their kids to grow up in poverty. So they're not dealing
with some of the challenges we're dealing with."
In countries like Switzerland, the employers
take a much more active role. In the U.S., educators are designing
programs they think will meet employers' needs, Schwartz said. In the
other countries, business sector groups define the standards they
think kids need to meet to effectively move into their sector. He said
the businesses collaborate on curriculum and assessment development.
The business groups recruit companies to provide paid internships or
apprenticeships. "It's a very different model," he said. "The
educational program is shaped around the learning taking place in the
To prepare for a broad range of occupations
in countries like Switzerland, Schwartz said, the preferred route is
for students to go into an apprenticeship program for three or four
years. It might not take three or four years to learn some
occupations, he said, but "they're learning lots of things other than
just the technical skills they'll need."
Following the Pathways to Prosperity
report, Schwartz joined forces with a Boston-based nonprofit, Jobs for
the Future, to develop a national network, working with 25 to 30
regions in 10 states on how to adapt the lessons from the strong
vocational systems overseas. In the U.S., the community colleges
and the technical colleges need to be at center of this work, Schwartz
said. "Start with community colleges," he advises people in the
network. "They already have established relationships with employers.
Get agreement on pathway programs at the community colleges that are
aligned with high-growth, high-demand fields and then map backwards to
the high schools."
Schwartz said the strategy is to start kids
on college while they're still in high school through programs like
Minnesota's Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. Connect
them with these technical programs, he said, and then employers might
be willing to provide paid summer internships between students' junior
and senior years in high school.
Jay Haugen, superintendent of Minnesota's
Farmington School District: We can reimagine education and we should
be expecting way more from the system and from the kids than we are.
Haugen said the Farmington schools are teaching kids by third
grade to customize their own learning. "Teach them the skills of
self-direction," he said. "Let them start creating their own learning
pathways through technology. Staff members can help students raise
their aspirations, help them discover things and help them assess
themselves." He said the students can explain what standards they're
meeting through their projects.
"Our final belief is that we are powerful as
a people more because of our uniqueness than our sameness," Haugen
said. "Find that uniqueness in each kid, make sure they don't have
hurdles in their life, help them learn the things they need to know
and let them fly on things they're excited about."
The Cristo Rey model is an adaptation of
getting kids to link their education to their work. In
Cristo Rey Jesuit high
around the country, including the one in south Minneapolis, students
work one whole school day each week at real jobs in companies and a
few nonprofits. Their pay goes to help pay their tuition at the
The communication about these issues must
come from state-level leadership. Schwartz said state leaders must
help parents understand their state's economy and what skills young
people need to have to keep that economy growing. He called for
designing a system where young people and their families get much more
information much earlier in a systematic way. "Think of this as
restoring a better balance between the academic purposes of education
and the career and civic purposes of education," he said. The career
and civic purposes have gotten submerged in the overzealous response
to the academic standards side.
To create internship and apprenticeship
programs at scale, you need a well-staffed workforce intermediary
organization that sits between the employers and the high schools and
colleges. Schwartz said the organization must prepare both kids
and the workplace settings for internships and apprenticeships. He
also believes the organization can take the internship logistics off
the back of small- and medium-sized businesses, which will encourage
them to participate in the programs.
As an example, he mentioned the
Boston Private Industry
organization that connects business, the Boston Public Schools, higher
education, government, labor, and community organizations. The PIC's
website describes the organization as "the connection between
education and workforce, between school and career, and between
classroom and the workplace."
"This can't be done on the fly," Schwartz
said. "Schools can't do this by themselves."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman