Thursday, July 29, 2010

Employment School

Disastrous dropout rate and token qualifications leave many unemployable

If you want to know one reason why the nation's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high -- and why President Barack Obama is tackling the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers on reforming public schools -- just stop at the D.C. Department of Employment Services' dreary Naylor Road One-Stop Career Center on the District's Southeast Side.

On any given day, out-of-work residents step off buses and walk past shuttered stores into the unemployment office to attend mandatory employment counseling sessions or prepare résumés for their latest job hunt. While there are more white-collar workers -- many from the surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland -- than in previous years, the vast majority used to work in old-school blue-collar work, office jobs such as executive assistants, and service sector positions such as hospital cooks and hotel maids. Many of them came through here before, looking for work before the recession began three years ago -- and will likely be back here again because they are high school unqualified for all but the most-menial of labor.

Those are just the D.C. residents actually looking for work. There are at least 38,491 residents in D.C. -- more than a tenth of the workforce -- who are either chronically underemployed (or haven't had a steady full-time job) or have gone a year or more without a job. Many of them are either high school dropouts or barely graduated from D.C.'s woeful public schools. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, their lack of education and skills would have meant nothing; they would have easily found some kind of gainful middle-class employment. But in an age in which many blue-collar jobs require an apprenticeship or tech school degree, most dropouts are shut out altogether. And no amount of federal stimulus package will do more than keep them on the dole.

For all the sparring between Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans this past month about extending federal unemployment subsidies beyond the current allotment of 99 weeks (that's a year and eleven months, if you're counting), little has been said about the long-term jobless -- who will likely be a drain on taxpayers for decades to come -- and one of the most-persistent underlying causes of this problem: The nation's woeful public school systems. With some 1.3 million teens dropping out of high school every year (and millions more graduating with inadequate reading and math skills), even more will either land in prison, on welfare, or engaged in some less-than-legal pursuits. This will further fuel the growth of big government that is draining the nation's long-term economic prospects.

Almost none of this has been solved with the $600 billion in unemployment subsidies and federal stimulus dollars -- including subsidies for job-training programs that cannot solve the problems of illiteracy and poor math skills plaguing the permanently underemployed -- nor will it be addressed through future entitlements. The best solution in the long run is the one part of President Barack Obama's agenda that has wide bipartisan support: The array of charter school expansion and school reform efforts -- including the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative -- now fiercely-opposed by the NEA, the AFT, and their allies among traditional public education and old-school civil rights groups. It will take an array of school choice measures, new curricula standards, an end of the system of seniority- and degree-based benefits and pensions, and a more-entrepreneurial culture within education to stir the future growth needed to overcome a $300 billion anchor on the nation's economy.

FOURTEEN PERCENT OF HIGH SCHOOL dropouts age 25 and over are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the jobless rate for college graduates and four points higher than high school graduates. But that rate obscures the true level of unemployment. The employment participation rate for dropouts is a mere 45 percent versus 62 percent for high school grads and 70 percent for college grads; most dropouts aren't even working in the first place.

The problem is even worse for the newest generation of dropouts, who, unlike earlier generations, are coming into the workforce in an age in which old-school manufacturing jobs such as those in the auto industry are no longer plentiful. Fifty-five percent of high school dropouts age 16-to-24 are unemployed, according to the BLS' 2009 survey (the most-recent data available); this is double the unemployment rate for collegians and high school grads not attending college. Even worse, 52 percent of all dropouts aren't even working or seeking employment of any kind; since they aren't likely to be sitting in classrooms studying for a degree (and may not even be seeking a General Educational Development certificate), most are unlikely to be involved in any productive activity.

What kind of jobs can any of these dropouts get? Well, not many. They can't get any of the positions listed by Forbes last month as the top-paying blue-collar careers. This includes elevator installers-repairmen (average annual income of $67,950), who must spend four years gaining training for a job that combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering skills; and electrical and electronics installers -- who work in power plants -- who earn an average income of $67,700 after earning an associate's degree and years of apprenticing with veterans. Save for commercial drivers (who must also attend technical school in order to drive big rigs), most of the jobs need the very kind of strong math and science skills required for high-tech white-collar gigs.

What else can't a dropout do? Well, there's welding in auto factories; gaining entry into an apprenticeship program requires strong knowledge of trigonometry (for bending metal into the right angles). Same for machine tool and die makers -- who craft the tools needed for every area of manufacturing -- who must also understand how to use computer-aided design software in their work. Since most dropouts struggled with basic reading and math while in school, it isn't as if they would get a handle on anything more complicated. The prospects are even dimmer outside of blue collar work.

Sixty-three percent of all jobs require some form of higher education (a wider array of learning than one traditionally thinks, since it includes colleges, technical schools, and even apprenticeship programs). This includes working in the auto industry, where 60 credit hours at a community college is the minimum requirement for gaining employment. Some will argue that the degree requirements are certainly just ways to screen out unqualified applicants (and note that they are waived for high school grads with years of experience). And that is the point. Save for the few who land in entertainment or bootstrap their way to entrepreneurial success, most dropouts are essentially out of luck.

For decades, federal and state officials have funded an array of job retraining programs to help get dropouts into gainful employment. In 1998, those programs were assembled under one roof through the Workforce Investment Act. Although this has made it easier for unemployed workers to seek out programs, it is unclear that this has helped make dropouts more employable.

The GED -- or "Good Enough Diploma," as comedian Chris Rock once called it -- was only marginally useful for dropouts of previous eras, as they earned less than either high school grads or collegians over time; it is even less-useful now. In June, a team led by Nobel Laureate James Heckman concluded that it has "minimal value of the certificate in terms of labor market outcomes." The most-recent effort at workforce retraining involves community colleges, the single-biggest destination for all college-bound students. But community colleges graduate just a fifth of freshmen in three years -- and most high school dropouts wouldn't even qualify to attend.

THE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS FOR DROPOUTS points out the single-biggest problem for the American economy -- and the single-biggest threat to the concept of small government most conservatives hold dear: A public education system that is hardly doing the job. Thirty-three percent of American third-graders -- and a quarter of all eighth-grade students -- read Below Basic proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Based on the high numbers of freshmen forced to take remedial math and English, it is clear that K-12 isn't doing much better with high school graduates either.

The fact that America's public schools were never really intended for actually providing an education, but for inculcating civic values (and to prevent the expansion of Catholic schools), is certainly part of the problem. But the other problems -- the low quality of instruction among America's teaching corps; the lack of high-quality school options for all but the wealthiest parents; and English and math curricula that would hardly match up to (often low) 19th-century standards -- can and should be fixed before more dropouts add stress to taxpayer's pockets.

Oddly enough, education reform is the one area where Obama may be on track. The $4.3 billion Race to the Top program has managed to spur states such as California and New York to eliminate (or modify) caps on charter schools -- the most-successful form of school choice -- and force efforts to bring private-sector performance management to evaluating the work of teachers (just 2.1 percent of them are ever dismissed currently). Although a clever form of unfunded mandate, it is at least one that can force education in the right direction. In D.C., for example, schools boss Michelle Rhee took a step in the right direction by sacking 241 teachers deemed unable to improve student achievement.

Some federal school reform money would be a lot better in the long run than another $750 million a week in federal spending that will only triple even if the Republicans take control of Congress next year.


Atheists 'could set up free schools' in Britain

Atheist state schools could be established under the Government’s education reforms, Michael Gove has said. The Education Secretary said he would be "interested" to look at proposals for non-religious schools from figures such Professor Richard Dawkins. Prof Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, said last month that he approved of the idea of setting up a "free-thinking” school.

The comments follow the publication of Coalition plans to give parents' groups, teachers and charities powers to open their own schools at taxpayers' expense.

Addressing the Commons education select committee, Mr Gove said parents opposed to faith-based schools should be properly catered for in the state education system.

"One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis,” he said. "It wouldn't be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small "l", liberal. That they exist to provide that greater degree of choice."

Around a third of the 21,000 state primaries and secondaries in England are currently faith schools. The majority are Anglican or Roman Catholic, with small numbers of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools.

By law, all other schools must provide religious education and stage a compulsory Christian assembly every day, although parents have the power to withdraw children.

Last month, Prof Dawkins, a former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, said he approved of the idea of atheist schools. “I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school,” he said. "I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. “Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded."

Mr Gove, whose two children attend primary faith schools, told the cross-party group of MPs that he "recognised that there are some people who explicitly do not want their children educated in a faith-based setting".

He said: "One of the principles behind our education reforms is to give people the maximum amount of choice so that those people, and they may not themselves necessarily have a very strong religious faith, but who believe that the ethos and values of faith-based education are right for their child, have that choice but others who want a different approach can take it as well."

Speaking afterwards, Mr Gove said: "If Prof Dawkins wants to set up a school we would be very interested to look at an application."


Privately-educated British Conservative politician says 'rich, thick kids' do better than 'poor, clever children'

He may be a bit thick himself -- as he seems to ignore the importance of home background. Families who pay for their kid's education are probably more involved in it and make sure their kid does the hard yards

'Rich thick kids' end up overtaking 'poor clever children' at school, Michael Gove said yesterday. The Education Secretary complained that success at school is still too closely linked to children's family background. Privately educated Mr Gove said a ' yawning gap' had opened up between the attainment of poorer youngsters and their wealthier peers.

But last night head teachers' leaders protested at the use of the word 'thick' by a cabinet minister. Mick Brookes, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: 'Thick is not a word that is currently in use in schools. It is demeaning to children.'

Mr Gove cited research showing that wealthy youngsters at the bottom of the ability range pull ahead of brighter but poorer children around the age of six, and the gulf continues to widen as they move through school. His warning came as the Government launched a review of educational under-achievement in England's poorest areas.

Giving evidence to MPs yesterday, Mr Gove said he had been 'very struck' by research by the Institute of Education. 'Children from wealthy backgrounds of low cognitive ability overtake children from poor backgrounds and high cognitive ability before they even arrive at school,' he said. 'So in effect, rich thick kids do better than poor clever children, and when they arrive at school the situation as they go through gets worse.'

The Institute of Education research analysed data relating to 17,000 children born in 1970. Their educational development was tested at 22 months and at intervals during their schooling. Their qualifications at 26 were also checked.

Children from affluent families who were in the bottom 25 per cent of the ability range at 22 months went on to overtake youngsters from the poorest backgrounds who started out in the top 25 per cent. They began to overtake around age six or seven, and the gap widened as they progressed through school.

Mr Gove said the Coalition's school reforms would help close the attainment gap.

Under measures which passed into law this week, state primary and secondary schools will be able to opt out of local authority control and operate as state-funded but independent academies. The policy is intended to boost academic standards by giving schools greater freedom to decide the curriculum, teachers' pay and school year.


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