June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Commentary // 3COM1

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Education Reform as Public Policy: A Role for Extension

Education has become a top priority on the national legislative agenda. Of particular concern is the growing disparity in achievement between students of low income and high income status. New laws passed by Congress have established the trend in public policy to change the education system by involving the local community. This is where Extension and 4-H in particular can have an important role. We have the expertise and community connections to facilitate productive dialogue between education, business, parents, and community organizations. Establishing such a collaborative effort can provide all students with the opportunity to succeed in the next century.

Gloria Kraft
County 4-H Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Mt. Holly, New Jersey
Internet address: kraft@aesop.rutgers.edu

Over the past decade there has been a growing public policy debate over the purpose of public education. Several landmark reports indicated that schools not only failed to prepare young people for jobs, but also failed to ensure an adequate standard of literacy. In 1990, President Bush and the nation's governors adopted six national educational goals. This agreement set the precedent for a federal-state partnership for reforming the nation's educational system.

Two important laws were passed by Congress in 1994 to help states carry out this redesign of the educational system. They were the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the School-to-Work (S-T-W) Opportunities Act. The Goals 2000 Act set challenging academic standards and called for development of occupational skill standards by business and industry. The S-T-W law supported development of transition systems from secondary to post-secondary education and the job market. It called for a new learning strategy which would integrate classroom and work-based learning. Both laws emphasized the need for all students to achieve higher standards. Moneys are being appropriated to states to create partnerships between employers, schools, parents, and community organizations for designing school-to-work systems.

This presents a new opportunity for 4-H youth development to contribute and even assume a leading role in building community partnerships. Unfortunately, 4-H may not be recognized as a key player in the education reform arena. Typically, 4-H has been viewed by educators as a worthy organization which keeps kids busy and out of trouble when they're not in school. Youth development professionals have typically viewed formal education as bureaucratic and not always responsive to the needs of youth. The two have operated in different worlds on separate tracks.

Finding Common Ground

With the advent of educational reform, particularly with school-to-work rising to top priority status in public policy efforts, the time is right to develop a clear rationale for partnership between formal (school) and non-formal education sectors (Cooperative Extension 4-H). The history and tradition of 4-H and the Extension system as a whole is grounded in the same principles that govern the educational reform movement today. The learning system in 4-H has always been based on a belief that all youth will succeed and reach high standards. This has been accomplished through a community based support system (partnership) of parents and adult volunteer leaders. The 4-H learning activities have historically been experiential in nature (work based) and made relevant to economic and social needs. Clearly, 4-H professionals have the expertise and the core competencies needed to move the national education agenda forward. How do we begin the dialogue with S-T-W educators?

The National 4-H Council recognized the need to establish a common language that could help all partners communicate their goals and frustrations. The council developed the National 4-H Workforce Preparation Model which depicts a life-long learning process for development of workforce skills and competencies. This model delineates the type of activity appropriate for each age level. Curriculum as well as technical support have been developed at the National 4-H Center for Workforce Preparation. Coalition building has been recognized by the Council as being of primary importance in all workforce preparation programs. Training has been provided and a resource guide published to assist 4-H youth development professionals in developing community coalitions.

The Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service system also recognized the trends sweeping the country and in June 1997 established the Workforce Preparation National Initiative as a system-wide priority. The goal of the initiative is to enable youth and adults to enter and reenter the workforce through education and training throughout their lives. Strategies for achieving this mission include using technology for distance education as well as networking. Developing collaborative efforts is seen as the focus of this call to action.

The Nature of the Dialogue

How can we articulate the common ground between the school-to-work educators and the 4-H youth development professionals? If our common goal is to prepare young people for successful and productive lives, then let's share our ideas and research based knowledge on the most effective ways to achieve that outcome. In addition to the 4-H workforce preparation model, the 4-H Life Skills and the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) competencies provide a significant foundation for building a school-to-work framework. The need for these competencies has been documented and accepted widely by business and industry. Focusing on competencies and developmental needs of youth leads to several questions.

What are the knowledge, attitudes, competencies, and behaviors young people must acquire?
What kinds of experiences provide these skills?
What type of support structure is needed?
What are the places in the community which provide support and resources for young people?

Answering these questions will open the discussion to a broad array of topics and issues. Disagreements and conflicts may arise. A facilitator is needed to keep things on track and moving toward the common goal. It is a time consuming process which requires the commitment of each partner and also requires an effective leader who may or may not be the facilitator. While the educators and the youth development professionals are key partners for establishing the framework, business partners as well as community based organizations are needed to implement a plan of action.

Overcoming Barriers to Successful Collaborative Effort

The most difficult barrier to effective collaboration is lack of motivation by the partners. It is important to focus the dialogue up front on the questions "What's in it for me?" and "Why am I here?". This discussion clarifies the fears, hopes, and dreams of the partners.

A second inhibitor is the attempt to set lofty goals without the resources or community support to achieve them. There is a delicate balance needed between realism and idealism. A series of small steps is more likely to lead to success over time than one great and ambitious push.

Conflicts between partners can sabotage the process very quickly. It is necessary for the partners to establish by consensus the ground rules for operating. This includes written statements about decorum, shared participation, and a system for conflict resolution. The most difficult conflicts are usually those involving distribution of money or other resources. Clear priorities set by consensus of all partners could minimize such conflicts.

Applying the Principles

The author has facilitated a county-wide school-to-work partnership that is in its third year. The original goal of the partnership was to develop a proposal for state funding of school-to-work programs which would be implemented by the partners. A total of $415,000 has been awarded by the state over three years. More than twice that amount has been contributed by the partners as in-kind support. The partners include 42 school districts and 33 businesses and community based organizations. Together they have formed the School-to-Work Consortium which employs a full-time project director for the day-to-day implementation of programs.

The priority goals set by the consortium partners are as follows:

  1. Every school district provides computer technology and internet access for students
  2. Student portfolio programs will be offered at elementary, middle, and high schools.
  3. Mentors from the business community will be recruited and trained to assist students in work based experience.
  4. Junior Achievement, 4-H, and other community based programs will be offered during class time in cooperation with classroom teachers.
  5. . Parents will be recruited to assist classroom teachers in delivering career awareness activities, shadowing, mentoring, and work based experiences for youth.

The consortium expects that a new system integrating real world experience with classroom instruction will evolve as these new programs are adopted and sustained.

The opportunity to facilitate this partnership came as a result of securing a position on the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) for the local county. These county boards have been vested with the authority to set policy as well as choose providers for state and federal appropriations. With the passage of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, twelve different funding streams will flow into one block grant through state governments to the local boards (WIB). This most recent Act mandates a Youth Council be established as a part of every WIB. This offers 4-H professionals another opportunity to have a voice and lead the way.

In summary, economic and social trends have brought educational reform to the forefront as a public policy issue. As Extension, and particularly 4-H youth development professionals, we have a role and a responsibility to contribute our knowledge and expertise. Because of our historical purpose as well as our community connections we have a natural link to the school-to-work national agenda. Partnership is mandated as the door to success and we can offer the key to creating collaborative efforts in our local communities. We are uniquely suited to the task. Together with educational partners, parents, businesses and community organizations we can design an integrated education system which will provide all youth the opportunity to prosper in the 21st century.