Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More on apprenticeships from Dana Goldstein

I've written before about the decline of apprenticeships in the United States and what it means for disadvantaged youth. Dana Goldstein, one of my favorite education bloggers, has a short post up today called "Youth Unemployment and the Apprenticeship Gap," with links to more in-depth reporting. Here's an interesting quote:
[I]n addition to overall sluggish job creation, one of the problems is that American employers tend to avoid job training and seek workers who already have the exact experience they're looking for. A Boeing executive pretty much sums up this world view: "To expect business to bring graduates up to speed…that's too much to ask."
God forbid multinational corporations like Boeing should be asked to shoulder any responsibility for job training in exchange for the massive tax subsidies they receive.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Many ways to influence policy

My goal in writing about youth participation in decision-making has always been to encourage the involvement of young people, especially disadvantaged youth, in public policy. My theory of change is that if we provide young people with training and create opportunities for them to work with adult decision-makers, such as school board and city council members, they will learn how to exert their own power and advocate for the needs of their communities.

Last weekend, however, I was reminded that we don't always need to create formal programs for young people to have an influence on policy. Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, offered a commentary about the growing support for gay marriage among politicians. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who co-sponsored a law to prevent same-sex marriage in 1998 when he was in the House of Representatives, now supports it because his son is gay. President Obama has said that his position on same-sex marriage is "evolving" because his daughters have friends with same-sex parents. In 2009 Dick Cheney came out in support of same-sex marriage because his daughter Mary has been in a committed same-sex relationship for many years.

While the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is still on the books, Portman's change of heart brings us one step closer to a change in that policy. It also shows us that even without formal structures such as youth advisory councils, young people can and do influence adults who are close to them in important ways. Personal relationships are powerful.

One way we can help young people develop confidence in their own ability to influence powerful people is to remind them of their influence among the decision-makers they already know--their parents--and encourage them to pay attention to what works and what doesn't work when they are attempting to exert that influence.

By reminding young people that they have power, we help them learn to use it effectively. We also remind ourselves to listen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I came across a LinkedIn post last week from Bill Drayton, a former MacArthur Fellow and founder of Ashoka, an amazing organization that supports social entrepreneurs around the world, including young entrepreneurs through its Youth Venture program. In the post, Drayton explains that when he was a child he wasn't a good student, but he liked to create things, such as a school newspaper. He sometimes missed class because of these projects, which worried his mother. He was not always where he was "supposed to be."

Drayton's school principal, however, advised his mother to trust him: "Don't even show him that you're anxious."

Can anyone imagine a principal saying that to a parent today? Even without the fear of being sued if the child got hurt after the principal said it was OK for him not to be in school, we simply don't trust young people to take ownership of their own learning. Drayton had to organize fellow students, make sure articles were written and the paper edited, and he had to get it out to readers beyond his own school. He didn't learn how to do this in the classroom. In fact, he had to miss class in order to learn it!

Drayton's mother, like any mother, was uncomfortable allowing him to not follow the rules. But it is only in allowing young people the freedom to experiment that they develop the ability to choose between alternative courses of action, solve problems and learn from their mistakes. These are critical civic competencies, and they only come when we begin to trust young people.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The real challenge to youth civic participation, Part 1

It's been ten months! Guess it's time for another post. 
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When we in the U.S. speak of civic education we usually focus on preparing young people to participate. The assumption is that if we provide young people with the right knowledge and skills, they will go out and participate.

There are some problems with this assumption, most of which have to do with applying skills and knowledge in the real world. For example:
  1. Schools and community-based youth programs don’t generally spend much time on local government and helping students understand how to influence local policy, such as decisions made by the school board, and they don't really encourage young people to get involved or provide clear direction on how to do so.
  2. Although we try to teach young people skills we believe are universally useful (e.g., persuasive writing, public speaking, conducting research, etc.), we rarely teach them how to combine these skills in a civic context, such as identifying a local problem, researching the causes and potential solutions, building support, and offering recommendations to the city council.
  3. Schools don't teach young people about collective action—working with others to solve real problems.
Clearly we need to do a better job of preparing young people to participate in politics and civic affairs, and many groups and individuals are working on this. But there's a bigger problem.

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Resource: Selected international good practices in youth participation at the local level

I just posted a new resource on the Leading Now website. It's a list of sixteen local youth participation projects in Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France. The document was published by the International Youth Service of the Federal Republic of Germany. It's a good sampling of the variety of ways localities can engage youth. The document also provides some brief context on some of these initiatives that might be helpful to others seeking to support youth participation.

Of course, it helps that in each of these countries there has been state-level support for youth participation. In the case of Finland and the Netherlands, in fact, youth participation is required by law. And since all five nations have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are bound to support child and youth participation. Alas, the United States is one of only two nations in the world (the other is Somalia) that have not ratified the UNCRC.

Here's a link to the document, called Selected international good practices in youth participation at the local level. You might also want to check out some of the many other resources on the Leading Now website, including case studies, research and tool kits.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On apprenticeships

Before there were schools, there were apprenticeships. Young people learned a trade from a journeyman, and once these young people attained a certain level of mastery they were able to make a living in that trade. Apprenticeships still exist, of course, but the majority of young people in the U.S. receive a formal education by attending traditional schools.

Apprenticeships, as the primary means of educating young people, were fairly inefficient when compared with the model of schooling we use today. Working professionals had to invest quite a lot of time teaching and supervising a small number of apprentices (although they did benefit from the free labor provided by the apprentices). With the more efficient public school model, a relatively small number of teachers, support staff and administrators can educate nearly every child in the country, while the rest of us are able to focus on our jobs. In addition, the K-12 system is designed in such a way that by the time students complete high school they have a much broader base of knowledge than apprentices who only learned one trade, theoretically enabling high school graduates to choose any career path.

Despite their inefficiency, however, apprenticeships did provide one thing that schools are often less successful in fostering: deep relationships between young people and adults. Apprentices and masters spent so much time together that they got to know each other very well. It’s not hard to imagine that even after apprentices left their masters, the relationships probably continued. Because of the number of students they see every year, teachers are unlikely to forge lasting relationships with more than a few children.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Performance-based learning and youth civic engagement

In recent years there has been a movement in K-12 education in the U.S. toward what is known, variously, as “performance-based learning,” “competency-based learning” and “proficiency-based learning.” What these three terms all describe is an educational approach that values outcomes rather than inputs.

If you work in K-12 education you have undoubtedly heard the term “factory model.” This refers to the fact that American schools use essentially the same approach to instruction and learning that they did during the Industrial Revolution. Students are assigned to grades based on their ages rather than what they know. They spend most of their time in classrooms with some thirty same-aged peers while one teacher transmits his or her knowledge to them. Students advance through the system by accumulating credits, or Carnegie units, which they earn for completing required courses. All students without some sort of disability are expected to learn at the same pace.

Public K-12 education is primarily the responsibility of states and local school districts. Most states maintain policies mandating that students complete a certain number of hours to receive credit for courses. These rules are known as “seat-time” policies.

Seat-time and Carnegie units are inputs. They prescribe what students must do, not what they learn. Of course, most states have academic standards that prescribe what students should learn at each grade level, along with the relevant learning objectives. But most state standards also prescribe a sequence of learning based on age. Seat-time rules and Carnegie units reinforce a rigid approach to learning that does not allow for differences in student abilities and interests. This results in many students who do not “fit” the system either being passed along while falling further and further behind, or simply dropping out.

An educational approach tailored to individual students’ needs, one that does not force students to proceed in the same way and at the same pace, would also help reduce inequality and facilitate the development of more engaged citizens. Many students learn better through hands-on activities either in school or in the community. Some might prefer to spend their time in a traditional classroom. Others might do better with online instruction. Most would probably benefit from all three.