Many Americans have lamented the state of public education. Few have proposed reforms as radical as those in Oregon, whose legislature has endorsed a plan to install European-style apprenticeships and job training for all students not headed to college. All students will have to show competence in mathematics, science and other academic areas by the 10th grade, then choose between pre-college studies or any of several vocational, professional or business curricula. Primary schools are to be ungraded from kindergarten through third grade, with students grouped by ability instead of age.
Educators promoted these changes. The National Center on Education and the Economy offers model professional and technical curricula. The W. T. Grant Foundation's landmark "Forgotten Half" reports on non-college youth have demanded such changes for years. Still, many educators criticize tying school curricula to apprenticeships and forcing hard choices between only two alternatives, fearing "tracking" and stigmatizing students.
Those are reasonable caveats. Yet school-business "partnerships" are reshaping school curricula already. At Baltimore's Lake Clifton High School, bankers update courses preparing young people for work in commercial and financial institutions. Johns Hopkins personnel help Dunbar High School teachers prepare a new generation of prospective medical technicians, nurses and other health-care workers. Nationally, the Labor Department a year ago announced a new effort to involve technological businesses in restructuring the trade-school curriculum. The European model on which Oregon's plan is based already produces highly skilled technical workers for such firms as Phillips, Mercedes and Airbus Industries.
U.S. corporations are spending $30 billion a year on formalized job training and are being pushed to spend even more by organizations such as the American Society for Training Development, whose exhaustive analyses point to ever-increasing needs for "upskilling" a work force whose basic preparation disappoints many employers.
Oregon may not have hit on the best funding plan for the radical restructuring of its schools. Its "pay as you go," phased-in financing does little to prevent succeeding legislatures from halting progress partway through, while the increasing costs in later years may erode support. Moreover, the plan begs for fine-tuning to prevent tracking. Still, Oregon has a plan to do what everyone else keeps saying is needed. It will be a proving ground for innovative ways to position America's newest generation of citizens and workers to compete effectively in the global marketplace.