Classrooms Need New Look

February 16, 1991|By WILLIAM G. DURDENand ARNE TANGHERLINI

The time has come for Maryland state legislators to stoptinkering with our system of public education and perform a major overhaul.

It is imperative that our representatives understand that the American education system suffers from serious philosophical and structural problems that must be addressed with an open, forward-thinking mind if our students hope to be socially and economically prepared for the times ahead. Bold steps are needed, and we should look to Europe for a progressive model of education.

While our educational system has the characteristic strengths of instructional flexibility, creativity and originality, we would do well to consider Germany's ''dual system'' of academics and apprenticeships. A few good, but isolated, vocational and technical schools throughout the state will not do.

Participants in the ''dual system'' study academic subjects in special schools one or two days a week and learn job-specific skills in a work environment during the rest of the week. In Germany, the ''dual system'' is applied not only to traditional craft professions but also to administrative and newly evolving technical positions. Apprentices are paid a training wage, and in exchange for a relatively inexpensive source of labor, businesses assume a direct responsibility for educating the work force.

Many Americans fear that a strong apprenticeship system would create a two-tiered society of haves and have nots. Simply stated, their logic is specious. The present system already does a splendid job of condemning a sizable portion of our nation's youth to an unemployed underclass.

In contrast, a vital apprenticeship system offers meaningful, well-guided education and productive, often lucrative, employment. Implementing a modified, American ''dual system'' of apprenticeship and part-time schooling would instill hope in those young people whose aspirations and needs are presently being ignored, regardless of their economic status.

Under this proposed reform, secondary education in Maryland would take on a new shape. Before high school, all students would receive an education in academic subjects built on mathematical, verbal, scientific, computer and artistic literacies. After completing these requirements, students would be advanced to the secondary level with a choice of continuing on an academic track or participating in an apprenticeship modeled on Germany's ''dual system.''

Provisions would also be made for students who decide to return to the academic track after serving an apprenticeship. Under the proposed reforms, no one should suffer because of youthful indecision or short-sightedness. There would always be a possibility for re-direction. The goal is to provide students with a viable alternative to high school while maintaining our commitment to flexibility.

An apprenticeship not only habituates a young person to the demands of the work place, it provides a powerful incentive for continued engagement -- wages. While many students can legitimately complain that what goes on in school has no bearing on the work they will do for the rest of their lives, an apprenticeship provides an opportunity to learn specific, marketable skills.

It is no accident that Germany, the country with the world's largest trade surplus, is poised to assume a leadership position in the emerging European Economic Community and in Eastern Europe. In order to maintain a competitive position in the national and international marketplace, Maryland needs to make a moral and financial commitment to provide its young people with the opportunity to learn the complex technical skills that industry and business demand.

Establishing an apprenticeship system on a solid liberal arts education and instilling that path with confidence, pride and financial reward for students would be a first step in this direction.

Mr. Durden is director, and Mr. Tangherlini staff assistant, of the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University.

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