MAKING THE GRADE: HOW A NEW YOUTH APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM CAN CHANGE OUR SCHOOLS AND SAVE AMERICAN JOBS. By John R. McKernan Jr. Little, Brown and Co. 200 pages. $19.95.
IN RECENT years, education reform has become a rallying cry for many of the nation's governors, including Lamar Alexander and Bill Clinton. One who recently has had some success in getting his state's school system to better address the needs of students and the changing economy is Maine's governor, John McKernan Jr. So it's instructive that he has written what amounts to his prescription for rescuing many students who are not bound for college.
As has been the case with many of his intrepid predecessors, Mr. McKernan's plan is largely a single-issue solution to a complex set of problems facing a nation that has yet to even develop uniform curriculum goals. However, Mr. McKernan's issue is a fundamental one and his state's youth apprenticeship program could serve as a much needed prototype for a national plan.
Maine is a good trial ground for such a program since over the past generation it has lost many good paying blue-collar jobs with the closing of textile plants and cuts made by other large employers there.
Most educators would agree with Mr. McKernan's analysis of the key problems: The economy has changed dramatically in recent decades, leaving unskilled people without the high-paying, post-war manufacturing jobs. Our school systems have not kept pace with this change. Failing to address the issue has been costly for America's economic and social health.
The Maine Youth Apprenticeship Program has a great deal to offer. Beginning with intensive career training and aptitude assessment in the ninth and 10th grades, it's a welcome boost for students who have the requisite academic competence and career sense to initiate an apprenticeship. During the last two years of high schools, the apprentices divide their time between school and work. Students are paid for their work. They also agree to a mandatory year of study after high school at a junior college or technical school. The result: students leave high school with strong sense of what their talents are and what fields are best for them.
Gov. McKernan, in an effort to encourage other states to follow Maine's lead, gives the details of what it took to launch the Maine Youth Apprenticeship program. This book is a valuable contribution to a field which, despite all the talk it engenders, has received little study.
Unfortunately, his trailblazing efforts are a little bit like that of a hypothetical pioneer, who has given his followers a brilliant map of the trip from Denver to San Francisco while forgetting that the wagon party has yet to cross the Mississippi River. For many secondary school students in this country, an apprenticeship program for a well-paying job would be a fantasy because they haven't mastered basic academic skills.
Real educational reform must begin with a mandate for quality preschool education for all, followed by an elementary education driven by a national curriculum, specifying rigorous classroom work and specific achievement standards. Only when these conditions exist will there be a body of students large enough to make apprenticeship programs such as Mr. McKernan's a reality worth planning for.
Following are some of his key points for schools wanting to develop apprenticeship programs:
* Schools should drop traditional vocational education and general course instruction in favor of specific apprenticeships, especially those that expose students to modern technologies. Further, these apprenticeships should provide for a period of training lasting several years, including a post-secondary year at a community or technical college.
* Apprenticeship programs will attract far more student applicants than businesses willing to train students. Consequently, government should make business participation attractive by offering tax incentives or subsidies.
* Apprenticeship students should be given increasing responsibilities and corresponding pay raises commensurate with their responsibilities.
* It is essential that students completing these apprenticeships should come away from the experience with a nationally recognized certification, showing that they have been trained in a specific field.
In addition to being on the cutting edge of the field's rhetoric, Mr. McKernan also speaks with the savvy of a person who has had to hammer out the details of a real program. For example, he stresses the critical need for support from school administrators and labor unions in developing and implementing apprenticeship programs. This support is best won, he writes, by building assurances into the plans that apprentices will demonstrate basic academic competence and that they won't be trained to displace existing workers. Not surprisingly, Mr. McKernan found that school and union officials became enthusiastic partners in the program after they felt secure and appreciated.
Craig B. Schulze is assistant principal of Harford Heights Elementary School in Baltimore City.