Young men are more likely to drop out of high school and are less likely to aspire to college than their female peers. Young men who are poor, live in a city, and are black or Latino are at even higher risk of unemployment and unplanned teen fatherhood than their peers in other demographics. As men’s earnings have stagnated, marriage has declined. It’s a vicious cycle: Being unmarried weakens men’s commitment to the work force, but a stagnation in earnings is contributing to the decline in marriage.
Robert Lerman—an economist at American University and fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research center in Washington, D.C.—has a solution. He believes bringing apprentice-based learning to America’s schools would both raise earnings and give young men the skills they need to be good husbands and fathers. Put boys in a real-world situation outside the classroom, with skilled adults as mentors, Lerman says, and students have a chance to engage in on-the-job training in a wide range of fields from baking to boat-building, farming to architecture, public health to civil engineering. This is learning in context and it’s what young men (and women) crave: It feels immediate and real. It is not isolated or abstract; it is refreshingly relevant, and it is taking place in real time, in real space, and among adults who take young people seriously. Youth apprenticeship has an immediacy that engages students who have trouble paying attention in class; instead, they are being given the time and the means to develop genuine mastery in a given field. At the very same time, they are cultivating skills—such as how to communicate effectively, problem-solve, work in teams, and maintain a positive attitude—that help them be reliable partners to their spouses and present, stable fathers to their children.
“If we teach everything entirely in a classroom context, we’re not going to be as effective—even when it comes to academics,” Lerman tells me. “The reality is that people learn best—whether it’s cognitive or technical skills or even how to get along with others—in context.”
Skill-based learning has fallen out of favor in the past few decades. Once popular, career-oriented courses have been phased out since the 1980s in favor of academic courses aimed at preparing students for the knowledge economy. For instance, shop classes – once a mainstay in most American high schools – are being drastically eliminated in California schools (after an already-sharp decline) in favor of courses that will prepare all students for university. A good education is increasingly defined as a college education: think President Obama’s national goals for college to be affordable, accessible, and attainable for all, and for America to have the “highest number of college graduates in the world” by 2020.
Though well intentioned, the shift away from skill-based learning has not served all students well, especially those most at risk of dropping out of high school: poor, urban, minority boys who have a history of not thriving in school and consequently self-identify as poor learners. Although our high-school graduation rate used to rank number one among OECD nations, it’s now among the lowest.
The idea of college for all, Lerman tells me, is why it’s uncommon today for schools to offer specific career-oriented courses comprehensive enough to allow students to attain full competence. And a college-preparation focused curriculum that doesn’t incorporate innovative learning strategies is misguided, leading disaffected youth to become bored with seemingly irrelevant coursework in high school. In one survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost half of high school dropouts surveyed say that they had left school because their classes felt boring and irrelevant.
Research on adolescent development shows that an apprenticeship model, which typically consists of a working partnership between a local business or civic organization, and a school, meets many developmental needs of adolescents. During this stage of life, young people crave feelings of usefulness, responsibility, and respect, and they long to be part of the adult world. Many young people best attain these feelings when immersed in that adult world, working with older mentors who respect and regard them as human beings who are capable of learning and progressing. They thrive when they are expected to carry their own weight and doing work that feels immediate and genuine. They become more mature and responsible through the actual work they do in their apprenticeship, learning to communicate effectively with coworkers, bosses, and clients.
Robert Halpern, a professor of education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, whose research focuses on after-school programs for poor children and their families, argues that the best schooling for adolescent developmental needs goes beyond the classroom. During a 30-month investigation of one afterschool apprenticeship program, After School Matters in Chicago, Halpern found that participating youth, who attend the program a mere three afternoons a week for one school year, became more flexible thinkers and undertook tasks with more care. The youngsters learned to persevere and understand the value of working through problems. They became more self-responsible and more patient. Notably, their public behavior changed; they became “more mature, more appropriately assertive,” Halpern explains in his book The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence. These are all skills that serve young people well when they enter the workforce, and when they start families of their own.