Lesson from Europe

Strategies of reform for U.S composites education derive much from programs already extant in Europe.


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Many countries employ rigorous vocational training for young students, say the authors of Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. This February 2011 report, prepared as part of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at the U.S.-based Harvard Graduate School of Education (Cambridge, Mass.), lays out a strategy of reform for U.S. schools that would include lessons learned from Europe. According to that report, in northern European countries, 40 to 70 percent of young students eschew university classes and opt for an educational program after grade 9 or 10 that typically combines classroom and workplace training over the next three years. Upper secondary vocational education (or VET, as it is generally known) varies significantly in structure from country to country, but there are two basic models.

The first, usually referred to as apprenticeship, has students spend three or four days per week in paid employer-organized training at the workplace, with the other day or two in related academic work in the classroom. Germany has the oldest and best-known apprenticeship system, which offers programs that lead to recognized “qualifications” (the rough equivalent of a diploma or certificate) in about 350 different occupations. Switzerland also has a very highly regarded apprenticeship system. In Germany and Switzerland, roughly 25 percent of all employers participate in work-and-learning apprentice-type programs.

A second group of countries has opted for a model in which vocational education is mostly provided in school-based programs, although all programs incorporate at least some workplace-based learning. These countries typically introduce students to a broad cluster of occupations (e.g., health care or IT) before narrowing the focus of training in the third year. This culminates in a diploma or certificate, or qualification, enabling entry to a wide range of occupations, including traditional trades.

The Pathways to Prosperity report also cites a new European Union policy that would guarantee any youth a job, an apprenticeship or another “education option” up to the age of 25, within six months of leaving school. European employers embrace the approach, now deeply embedded in the culture, because it ensures a well-trained workforce.