We often hear that our education system is in decline, falling behind the rest of the world. One reason, I think, is that we're still using ideas that were formed not to meet the challenges of this century, but to cope with the circumstances of the last one - a linear narrative that teaches subjects in a vacuum with limited relevance to the real world. We teach to the test. We're obsessed not just with going to college but certain sorts of college. We demean blue-collar work.
But a shift is underway in California with a commitment to "Linked Learning," vocational programs that provide a work-based infrastructure relevant to students' studies while setting them on a career path.
The Legislature last year allocated $250 million of the $55 billion education budget to expand high school tech programs and, more important, fund agencies designed to link those schools with business partners. That creates a career path to high-need and high-growth economic sectors like health care, green energy and information technology.
Kicking in this year, the program has long been a goal for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, but he cautions that it isn't career tracking like the traditional vocational training model. "The old vocational system has a tendency to limit choice," Steinberg tells me.
"By combining academic rigor and career application, you give kids multiple pathways that maintain the option of college but prepares those not going to college with the skills and the background necessary to get a high-wage job."
"The point here is creating an opportunity for a seamless transition," says Christopher Cabaldon, West Sacramento's mayor and executive director of the Linked Learning Alliance, the nonprofit umbrella organization for this blended concept.
Schools like Elk Grove's Clean Energy Academy and Sacramento's Health Professions High School do this, but Cabaldon tells me academies with strong business partnerships "are the exception rather than the rule."
"Schools and districts aren't set up to work with employers," Dave Rattray with the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce tells me. "A single teacher or district representative might go above and beyond to develop something with one person at a company, but on a larger scale we don't really invest in the capacity within school districts, schools and companies to do that."
Intermediary groups - a chamber or business organization, nonprofits, a district or county office - can now be a one-stop shopping bridge linking schools and employers on a regionwide level. Schools won't have to contact countless employers to find the ones offering internships and apprentice programs, and companies won't have to go to 1,000 schools to find out which ones are training students in a given field.
"We've all got full-time jobs," says Bill Kelly, managing director of Education and Public for SunPower, a San Jose-based solar energy company. "It's hard for a company like ours, and school districts and teachers, to put both parties together."
"Steinberg's program provides resources that stimulate these regional collaborations," Rattray says. "When you talk to employers, there's really a reservoir of good will, interest and desire."
"I see this as a strategy to reduce the dropout problem," Steinberg says. "Kids drop out because they fall behind and because subjects don't have relevance."
More than 100,000 California students drop out each year, according to educators.
Well, instead of teaching subjects in the abstract, can we teach, say, mathematics and computers to aspiring auto mechanics relative to the repair of today's complex car engines without sacrificing standards? In this state, doesn't learning Spanish make you more marketable to companies looking to serve more customers?
"That's an example of making rigor relevant," Steinberg says, "and the really good programs will provide that."
Colleges are adjusting, too.
"A decade ago," Cabaldon explains, "there were 600 voc-ed classes across the state that UC would take for admission eligibility. Now it's over 12,000."
That's a healthy and necessary paradigm shift. We can't meet the future with a system designed to address the economic circumstances of the past.
Steinberg calls linked learning "a movement at the beginning of its evolution." Let's hope so. Ideas like this, simple in concept, too often get lost in petty squabbles - unions, charter schools, merit pay. We're so enraptured by our own wants, we forget this is about what children will need in the future, a future most of us won't see. But our kids will. Our job is to help them make something of it.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.