Sen. Fran Millar

This is a thought provoking article written by Dr. Gene Bottoms, Senior Vice President for Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). While you may not agree with all the points, there certainly are lessons to be learned.

What America Can Learn From the Swiss Education System

In recent years, the United States has let the mantra “college for all” serve as the rallying call of our education system. In Switzerland, however, the rallying call is “a credible credential for all.”

There seems to be a disconnect in American education. At least half or more of our students who enter grade nine fail to earn a college degree, certificate or advanced or industry credential in a 21st-century career field by age 25. They are “left behind,” thrown into the job market with little practical experience or skills to earn a living wage.

At the invitation of the Council of Chief State School Officers, I spent a week in Switzerland learning about the Swiss dual vocational training program. Our group included educators, policy makers, government experts and others concerned about the fate of U.S. schools. We shared one concern — the belief that our education system must reset its priorities to prepare students both for credentials leading to good paying jobs and for postsecondary studies.

Credible credential: certification exams and associate and bachelor’s degrees in critical career fields

United States and Switzerland — Contrasting Nations

Switzerland boasts one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the industrialized world — 3.2 percent in 2014 — and the world’s highest average per capita income. There is a strong and vital middle class, without the extremes of poverty and wealth that plague American society. This is the result of an education system that nurtures its students, helps them find careers and prepares them to become productive, participating citizens while keeping their options open for a range of postsecondary learning opportunities.

Our countries are similar in that roughly a third of the population earn a university degree. In Switzerland, the remaining two-thirds opt for the vocational education and training (VET) system. They start with nine years of school, which, due to longer school years, is the equivalent of 10 years in the United States. Then VET participants select a three-year apprenticeship program. They sign a contract with an employer, as do their parents. It’s not just a job, though they are paid. Depending on the trade, VET participants spend one to three days each week in classrooms and labs learning theory; during the remaining days, they put what they’ve learned into practice in the workplace under the watchful eyes of mentors.

After the three years, Swiss students have more choices. About 12 percent to 15 percent on the VET track go into a university of applied studies, although they may opt for a catch-up period to enter an academic university. Bridges throughout the process allow students to move in and out horizontally to acquire the skills they need. As students mature, they follow their own paths, acquiring the credentials they need to meet their career goals.

Switzerland is a small, relatively homogeneous country. For many reasons, it would be difficult to replicate the Swiss approach in the United States but their education system does offer some lessons for consideration.

A Model Worth Emulating

1) The Swiss system produces confident, qualified workers. During three of the years we call high school, Swiss students are practicing a craft, directly applying knowledge from the classroom to the workplace. They emulate role models who demonstrate how to relate to customers and perform a range of workplace assignments. The result: workers prepared to act and make decisions. In contrast, many American youth have no structure in their lives, no goals and no sense of accomplishment.

2) Swiss students learn soft skills. They are socialized in the art of conversation and learn early how human interactions determine outcomes. How do you deal with a difficult customer or a difficult supervisor? No matter which career direction students choose to follow, they will have built solid interpersonal skills preparing them to function effectively throughout their lives.

3) A commitment to personal responsibility results from this socialization. By making their own choices and acquiring a strong work ethic, Swiss students are invested in their own progress. The training process is open-ended allowing students to prepare for a credential while also preparing for college.

4) Students in Switzerland are nurtured. Business, trades and the government see them as the country’s future. Swiss education features a flexible curriculum that adjusts to changes in the marketplace. The entire country takes on responsibility for helping each young adult find a niche. Everyone has a place, a sense of belonging. Through apprenticeship programs, students add value to their employers and the labor market, and this human capital brings enhanced wealth to the nation.

5) Work is respected. Everyone finds a place that fits his or her interests and aptitudes. All occupations are needed as part of a thriving society. Youth take their place in an economy that equally treasures manufacturing, the service industries and the professions. This mindset guarantees a strong middle class. Several generations ago, America’s rising middle class led to unprecedented growth and a consumer-oriented society. But as the chasm between rich and poor grows greater, we see more of the workforce — particularly younger workers — being left behind.

6) The Swiss system focuses on career development early. In the middle grades, students engage in job shadowing and short-term internships, and they explore alternative pathways and gain familiarity with their own interests and aptitudes. They gain sufficient knowledge to frame a career, certification and a goal while still keeping all options open. 

Practices the U.S. Can Model

So what are the lessons for our country? How can we restructure our education system to turn out confident, credentialed workers with a passion for their calling and respect for their neighbors and community?

It won’t be easy. But we must start now to bring together schools, colleges and employers around the challenge. We can integrate in-school and work-site learning for high school students. We can begin career development at early ages, letting students job-shadow and hold short-term internships. We can link industry with youth opportunity, creating vocational clubs that actually lead toward structured relationships.

Working with community colleges and employers, school districts can create grade 11-14 dual pathways with our own versions of a learn-and-earn system that provides students with a credible credential and the foundational literacy and math skills for continued learning in the workplace and in college.

What we need is a commitment across all sectors of our economy to foster our youth with real work opportunities that keep them on the path to a healthy middle class.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.


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