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From school to life

Professor Jurg K. Siegenthaler. American University

In the United States, as in Switzerland, the school system and its suitability to the adult world is a matter of constant concern.

This content was published on March 1, 2007 - 08:10

Are young people being properly prepared for jobs -and fulfillment - in the future?

A comprehensive overview would encompass pre-school, elementary, secondary, and higher education.

All stages merit close attention, but I will focus here on the secondary level, which includes the crucial step toward occupational choices and, hopefully, a successful career.

The modern US public school system encompasses 12 years of compulsory education, the last four in high school, which is also understood by most students and parents as the threshold to two or four years of college.

In contrast, Switzerland's base is nine years of obligatory schooling followed by a differentiated system of apprenticeships and occupational training for most, and college for only a minority of young people.

While the uniform American system seems impressive, it has come under scrutiny, especially in the face of continuing strong urbanization, decline of many rural areas, a very heterogeneous population, and massive shifts in the job market.

Consider the startling fact that today, in some economically weak urban settings, only 40 or 50 per cent of pupils may complete high school; the national average is 67 per cent completion.

The drop-outs, in turn, face a job market where a high-school diploma is needed for almost all jobs. They are thus relegated to permanently underpaid employment and are at greater risk of falling victim to crime or drug abuse - a considerable social cost.

Even those students completing high school worry: will they find and can they afford the right college? Will they do well and complete a bachelor's degree? Will those who do not choose college education have any of the skills in demand in the job market?

Testing the system

Let us look at recent American attempts at school reform. For two decades, federal government initiatives have tried one kind of reform across the board: force the schools to improve by establishing frequent testing in English and mathematics. The states then have been mandated to spend money to bring up the scores of under-performing schools.

After four years of the latest legislation in this mold, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has met with scant success. Only about 35 per cent of twelfth-graders tested in 2005 scored proficient or better in reading - the lowest percentage since the test was launched in 1992.

Testing, of course, has its merits. In Switzerland too, school reform has accelerated, influenced in recent years by Europe-wide test results that showed, in part, a less than stellar performance of the Swiss system.

The answer was to seek to harmonize the different cantonal systems. There had to be more standardized curricula among the 26 cantonal school systems, not least because families moved from place to place. But research also confirmed that the atmosphere in the classroom and the quality of instruction had a major role in improving reading and mathematics results. And most importantly, reforms were not to alter the multi-level, academic vs. occupational choice of paths toward the labor market.

Exposure to the real world

In the US, it is precisely that differentiation that has to be tackled. In the past five years or so, several states have come up with new secondary school models that encompass smaller schools and place greater emphasis on career and technical education.

In these innovative systems, "career academies," schools-within-high schools, offer greater relevance of subjects, better instruction, and more attention to individual student needs. Note the similarities to the Swiss approach: smaller schools to begin with, early exposure to the occupational real world, and solid teacher quality.

To round out the picture, let me also point out some promising improvements before and after secondary school on both sides of the Atlantic. Surprisingly, the conservative state of Oklahoma has institutionalized pre-school education starting at age four and has found that this dramatically improves later student performance and even job preparedness.

And finally a look at post-secondary choices: Switzerland has over the past decades made it easier to move between apprenticeships, baccalaureate, technical universities and universities, which now allows late-bloomers or young people wishing to change to redirect their career paths.

In the United States, the often unheralded gems of post-secondary education have long been the community colleges: open, affordable, constantly updated centers of learning for adults who wish or need to pursue other career options. They have helped to realize at least part of the promise high school has left unfulfilled.

Jurg Siegenthaler

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of swissinfo.

Biography

Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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