Stay in high school, and participate in its reinvention to meet your needs | Opinion

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By Stephen Herzenberg

I don’t usually cite researchers at the conservative Manhattan Institute favorably, but I’m doing that here to highlight opportunities for bipartisan problem solving that exist in Pennsylvania via reinventing the end of high school for students not planning to go to four-year college.

Too many students today drop out because they don’t see the point of staying in school — more than 4,000 17-year-old Pennsylvanians each year. Gov. Tom Wolf wants them to stay in school. He has proposed raising the dropout age from 17 to 18 because students without a diploma end up with lower earnings and have greater difficulty navigating the 21st-century economy.

That makes sense — but here’s the powerful closing argument: Wolf and the Legislature have launched a reinvention of grades 11-14 (high school plus two years of postsecondary education) so that potential dropouts, and many others, do see the point of staying in school.

Manhattan Institute researcher Oren Cass made the case for this reinvention in “How the Other Half Learns,” a chapter in Cass’ book “The Once and Future Worker.

Cass highlights that high school focuses on preparing students for college even though those who will graduate from four-year schools represent less than half of young people nationally (much less in Pennsylvania).

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That college focus has gone along with the declining status of vocational education and an erosion in its connections to family-sustaining jobs.

Recently, however, the stars have aligned behind a reinvigoration of voc-ed, now rechristened as career and technical education (CTE).

With low unemployment and retiring baby boomers, the business lobby for “HELP!” from the educational system has grown stronger. The rising cost of college has made more middle-class parents open to non-traditional pathways, including apprenticeships that deliver two years of postsecondary academic credit for free, even as students earn a paycheck.

Affordable computer-controlled equipment, such as 3-D printers, has also made working with your hands, as well as head, cool again. It has given rise to the maker movement and to a proliferation of “makerspaces” in schools and libraries — think 21st-century shop class — and to a rediscovery among educators of the power of learning by doing. (Check out Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.)

Another star aligning has been Wolf’s leadership. While our PhD-holding governor recognizes the value of four-year college, his career in business gave him a gut appreciation that much education and training has little connection to businesses and the economy. His business background also gave the governor good instincts about establishing the missing link — and some first-hand experience doing it.

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As York College board chair, he oversaw the creation of new engineering programs which require participation in three “co-op programs” with local businesses to earn a degree.

Wolf’s background has made him a huge fan of the “teachers in the workplace” program and of apprenticeship, which he committed to doubling in Pennsylvania by 2025.

On his watch, a growing number of pre-apprenticeships are embedded in high-school curricula, feeding into apprenticeship programs that offer both college credit and a good-paying career. Last year, the Legislature provided $20 million for the PAsmart program to scale up pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship, and to strengthen career education. This year, the Legislature is expected to authorize an additional $10 million via a hike in long-frozen CTE formula funding.

In workforce development evidence of return-on-investment is hard to find but apprenticeships are a positive outlier. Mathematica Policy Research estimates that apprenticeship delivers an increase of $28 in taxes for each dollar of public investment — and $35 in Pennsylvania.

This payoff partly reflects the value of labor-management construction apprenticeships, paid for mostly with private funds. But it is also buttressed by a large body of international research. Integrating classroom and work-based learning with connections to employers offering good jobs can increase skills, opportunity, and job creation.

Recognizing the bipartisan potential, Wolf enlisted the heads of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in his efforts to transform grades 11-14.

This strategy is just getting started. One huge opportunity is creating apprenticeships and other postsecondary education with deep connections to businesses in rural Pennsylvania counties that now have no community college. To support this, up to $250 million could be leveraged from federal (Pell) grants, saving Pennsylvania taxpayers.

But to benefit from the extension of the commonwealth’s strategy to grades 13 and 14, high school students first need to finish grade 12. They need to stay in school.

Stephen Herzenberg is an economist and the executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a progressive think tank in Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s commentary page. 

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