The Academics Of School-To-Work

Looking at the German Model

By William G. Durden, Ph.D.
Director of the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth

To say that today’s American schools serve as both battleground and showroom for endlessly mutating, continually conflicting practices, fads, or ideologies (depending upon your disposition toward each) is now commonplace. Cooperative learning vs. ability grouping, phonics vs. whole language, homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping, full “inclusion” vs. “pullout” education, voucher or charter schools vs. standard public schools, national or state standards vs. local judgment.

These dichotomous approaches breed programs that provide students, parents, and educators with a kaleidoscope of opportunities (some would say chimerical ones) for improving learning in America. In each case, what is advanced as the solution is pitted against a clearly posed “other.” The sword fights between the two sides in each pair of opposites is the stuff of educational politics today.

A recent addition to the list of educational alternatives is currently being pitted against regular public education. The new collaborative model “school-to-work” enables students to attend school part-time while working part-time in a company setting. The promise attributed to school-to-work for both children and for working America is immense; the stakes attributed to its acceptance or rejection by American educators are said to be high. Business Week, for example, set aside many pages for a lengthy advertisement with an unprecedented focus on pre-collegiate education in its October 30, 1995, edition:

“At last, the American educational system, the part of it where schools and companies intersect, is in a can-do phase. And it’s called quite simply school-to-work ....”

School-to-work, the section continues, is “on everybody’s agenda,” including the Business Roundtable, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Conference Board, the National Alliance of Business, and many trade associations according to Bob Soltys, executive director of the new National Employer Leadership Council, whose founding members include a crosssection of industry from American Express and Cybernet Systems to Thom McAn, Peorey Electronics, and Simens. J.D. Hoge, director of the national school-to-work office in the U.S. Department of Labor, puts it this way: “School-to-work provides a framework for an education that will lead to something. After all, education must provide more than continuous learning. ‘Is my child going to be okay financially?’ It’s a worry for people.”

In defining what school-to-work is going to do for children, the educational approach to which it is said to be opposed also takes shape. School-to-work is intended to evoke the type of learning essential for the future, that is, the learning that will be required of the future worker entering “the global marketplace where goods, services, and investments freely flow across national boundaries and corporate competitiveness has a take-no-prisoners kind of determination.” In this marketplace, there will be little room for the poorly prepared worker. “In ideal form, the versatile toiler of the future will communicate effectively, solve problems swiftly and creatively, concentrate on quality and manage change.” Entry-level job applicants will have to be problem solvers with high-tech skills, good communicators who can work in teams.

The education that is dismissed in this pro-school-to-work rhetoric is that which requires students to acquire facts and knowledge through traditional academic disciplines, to appreciate the theoretical aspects of learning as well as the practical, and to emerge as vibrant individuals, not solely as team players. The Business Week text underscores this prejudice: “There [are] plenty of warning signs that students emerging from high school or college are about to enter a hostile job environment in which their classroom talents might not have much relevance. What happens in schools has little bearing on what will take place in adult life.”

The American public is thus being fed a good dose of anti-intellectualism and an unreflective disdain for traditional learning. While American school-to-work contains academic course work, the majority of it is transfigured into “occupationally relevant” material. The implicit message is that math, history, science, English, and foreign languages in and of themselves are inconsequential and unworthy of attention unless they promise immediate practical application. The guiding principle is that if learning does not bear directly on a student’s particular target job, it is not worth his or her time or effort in school.

Germany’s “Dual System”

While it is far too early to judge whether school-to-work programs will improve learning in America, their definition and justification are advanced most often by the school-to-work program, or “Dual System,” already in place in Germany. It is productive to take a look at what school-to-work means in the German setting.

The best description of the German school-to-work program, or “Dual System,” is contained in a 1995 publication of the American Federation of Teachers, entitled “What Secondary Students Abroad Are Expected to Know: Gateway Exams Taken by Average Achieving Students in France, Germany, and Scotland.” What this paper says bears repeating.

Full-time compulsory education in Germany begins at age six and lasts through ninth or tenth grade; students must continue in school at least part-time until they are 18. Through grade four (longer in several German states, or Lander), all students (except the severely handicapped) attend common primary schools where they are taught according to a detailed curriculum promulgated by the Lander Ministry of Education. After fourth grade students stream into three different lower secondary-school tracks. At the end of each track, successful students earn a certificate that entitles them, depending on the track and on their academic performance, to a university education, further vocational training, or apprenticeships. The Hauptschule, the least-demanding track, is attended by students headed for lower-skilled jobs and vocational training immediately after secondary school; a Hauptschule certificate is a prerequisite for most apprenticeships in Germany’s Dual System and entitles students to enter full-time vocational schools. The Gymnasium offers a rigorous academic curriculum for university-bound students; successful performance in the Gymnasium and on a subsequent examination, the Abitur, qualifies students for university entrance. The Realschule is a compromise between the two, offering a largely academic curriculum, but without the same depth, breadth, or rigor as the Gymnasium. Realschule graduates who qualify for the most-prestigious apprenticeships are entitled to attend technical secondary schools which lead to admission to technical colleges, and, if their performance is particularly high, to transfer to the Gymnasium and proceed to a university.

An apprenticeship in the Dual System is the option chosen by most German students at the end of their compulsory education. Roughly 70 percent of young people eventually enter the Dual System, either immediately after lower secondary school or after attending other upper secondary schools. In fact, 14 percent of apprentices have already passed the Abitur.

Students are hired by individual employers as trainees in specific occupations ranging from auto mechanic to carpenter, plumber, office clerk, salesman, painter, and bank teller. The apprenticeships last from two to three-and-a-half years. Students generally spend three or four days at the worksite, working and receiving on-the-job training. The remainder of the week they spend at a part-time vocational school, the Berufsschule, where they receive classroom instruction in the skills needed for their occupation as well as continuing instruction in general academic subjects.

Students are motivated to participate and do well in the Dual System because it is the only gateway into most skilled occupations. For jobs officially designated as apprenticeship positions, employers are required by federal law to hire workers with Dual System certification. At the same time, since the Dual System is an employer’s only source of skilled workers, there is a good chance that a student’s apprenticeship will result in a permanent job.

Students must do well in secondary school if they wish to enter the apprenticeship of their choice. Most apprenticeships require at least a Hauptschule diploma and more-prestigious ones require a Realschule certificate. In addition, most employers routinely examine applicants’ grades and applicable exam results. Many firms also administer their own entrance exams to screen potential trainees.

The federal government has primary responsibility for coordinating the Dual System. Relevant policies are generated by the Federal Institute of Vocational Training, known by its German acronym of BIBB. BIBB consists of federal officials, state officials, and representatives of employer associations and unions. Its specific responsibilities entail developing guidelines for worksites and classroom training for apprenticeships in each occupation in order to ensure standardization and ensuring that skills taught match current technology and employer needs. BIBB guidelines also help guarantee that employers provide their trainees with worthwhile experiences. The BIBB issues guidelines for some 373 job titles, establishes exam requirements for each title, and provides a timetable for training.

Individual Lander are responsible for the classroom portion of the Dual System, which generally takes place in state vocational schools. The Lander follow BIBB guidelines in developing the curricula to be integrated into each apprenticeship. The vocational schools often concentrate on a single occupation; for instance, there are metal-working schools, carpentry schools, and arts/mechanic schools. Roughly 60 percent of the classroom curriculum is occupation-specific, and 40 percent consists of general academic courses such as German, math, social sciences, economics, religion and a foreign language.

Federal law requires student/trainee and employer to enter into a legally binding training contract at the start of the apprenticeship, which spells out the student’s training program and governs pay rates and other employment issues. At the conclusion of the program, the student sits for a final examination to earn a certificate of completion for that particular job title. Local examination committees consist of employers, employee representatives, and vocational instructors who administer the exam according to BIBB performance standards. Trainees have three chances to pass the exam, and at the third try, nearly all (92%) are successful. In addition, students receive a Berufsschule certificate upon successful completion of their in-school certificate.

The Dual System’s Traditionalism

Much here is instructive when contrasted to the rhetoric surrounding the emerging American version of school-to-work. It is clear that in Germany the Dual System works, in part because students must perform well in traditional school work even before the program begins. Traditional school work includes core courses in mathematics, the sciences, German language and literature, history, and foreign languages — at least to what is considered a “middle”- or compulsory-level education. This would be the equivalent of ninth or, in some cases, 10th grade in American schools. In addition, the quality of high-school work is given heightened importance. Grades and exam scores determine whether one will be awarded the apprenticeship of personal choice. The better the performance in the traditional academic subjects to the middle level, the greater the chance of a student obtaining an apprenticeship in a more-technologically and intellectually demanding occupation. Moreover, the system of passing from performance solely in traditional subjects during compulsory education to an apprenticeship program of one’s choice and, finally, eventual employment is closed and rigidly set. German law permits no other path to these occupations; i.e., there is no room for late bloomers who display a poor academic performance early in the game.

The implicit, sometimes blatant, anti-intellectualism expressed by numerous proponents of school-to-work in America simply has no place in the German system. In Germany, traditional knowledge matters, and even during the Dual System program, while 60 percent of the “academic” courses are adjusted for occupational relevance, 40 percent remain stubbornly traditional. (These courses even include in-depth study of a foreign language.)

American commentators on German school-to-work tend to be interested in how much material is studied by all German students in compulsory education, as opposed to American students at the same point in their education. And yet what is important about the Dual System is not the uniformity it imposes, but the standards it upholds. School-to-work “works” when the academic component is robust; apprenticeship experiences are fully realized when they build upon highly developed student capacity.

To clarify this distinction, I refer to the Standards for the Middle-Level School Completion in the Subjects German, Mathematics, and the First Foreign Language, issued in December 1995 by the Administrative Office of the Standing Committee of the Cultural Minister of the States of Germany. Standards deemed applicable to all German states represent knowledge and skills to be obtained before school completion and, thus, at the point just before potential entrance into the school-to-work program. Special attention is given here to the discipline of mathematics, although the level of work in other fields is equally instructive; for example, in the area of the first foreign language, continuous study starts at grade five and at the end of the ninth or 10th grade, a level of achievement is expected that is equivalent to at least that of a third-year American high school program.

At the end of the middle-school level, all German students should possess the necessary arithmetical, algebraic, and geometric knowledge and skills in order to solve discipline-specific questions in everyday life, to satisfy the further educational requirements of a recognized professional technical education, and to continue their studies with the basics thoroughly mastered. Again, these expectations are not limited to merely the above average; all students must meet these requirements.

Students are expected to obtain proficiency by the end of the American equivalent of the ninth grade in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, and a field called Stochastik, which is an extension of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry and can be best compared to work in statistics and probability.

All American ninth-graders would be hard put to reach these German standards of academic achievement by the end of the ninth or the 10th grade. It is simply not yet possible for American educators consistently to require such levels of understanding and skill from their students. And yet the success of the German school-to-work initiative in large part ensues from the rigorous knowledge and skill base expected of all students before they enter into apprenticeships.

The American School-to-Work System’s Challenge: School as Work

The challenge, then, to Americans is to make the learning experience through the ninth-and l0th-grade levels more substantial. The gap in learning must be closed to make any school-to-work initiative truly viable. If this gap is not closed, the applicability of the school-to-work program for international competitiveness in the workplace will never be achieved, not withstanding rhetoric to the contrary.

School-to-work initiatives may indeed help to address what ails American education, but if they are to do so they must overcome, I believe, any inherent anti-intellectualism or disdain for facts, knowledge, or even theory.

The intellectual labors of young people in classrooms are the one from which adult capacities and skills can later be mined. As we think about school-to-work, we need to remember that school is work and should be some of the hardest and best work there is. School-to-work cannot evade the problems of the American classrooms from which it draws. And the learning needs of children must not be neglected as we fantasize about their competence as adults.

William G. Durden, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

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