High-school students in Switzerland take many different tracks to finish their diplomas, including apprenticeships at local businesses — a model that is being studied for Washington.
Does the Swiss apprenticeship model offer a better way to teach students technical skills in Washington?
Gov. Jay Inslee thinks so. Last November, Inslee led a delegation to Europe to study the Swiss apprenticeship and technical training program. Among the participants was Maud Daudon, who chairs the Washington Student Achievement Council — a policymaking state council for higher education.
Daudon, the outgoing president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, has been charged with writing a 10-year plan to bring more apprenticeships and technical training to this state. In this interview, she talks about why she was so impressed with the Swiss system, and what it can teach us.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Q: What is the state of apprenticeships and career education in Washington right now?
Daudon: There’s a lot going on. We’ve had a long legacy of apprenticeships — there are about 5,000 now, and there’s a strong desire to see that number get bigger. There are many initiatives around career-connected learning. There is a long legacy through the Core Plus program (which teaches basic manufacturing skills along with material science and applied math) that has been in place for probably a decade or so. Another one is Apprenti, an intensive apprenticeship course on software coding — their success rate is almost 100 percent on placing students into companies, and they’re getting great traction.
Q: What did you learn about apprenticeships and career tracks in Switzerland?
A: There are a number of pathways students have in high school to explore what their future might be. They can choose an academic path, or they can choose a career path. There’s absolutely no stigma (around choosing one or the other). Senior-level leaders in the country would say to us, “I came through career side” or “I came through the academic side.” There’s no sense that these are anything but equivalent, strong, legitimate ways to accomplish an educational life. In Switzerland, we saw over and over the map for their education system, which showed the multiple pathways.
There are many things that really run in our favor, and one is that (state Superintendent of Public Instruction) Chris Reykdal is well down the path of thinking along these lines already, and has been very creative about how K-12 can work with the community-college system.
Q: This country has a history of placing low-income and minority students into vocational tracks, and putting affluent and white students into college-prep tracks. How do you keep that from happening again?
A: I think that is a big fear (but) I think there is some movement here. This is as much about getting students to completion … as it is about any particular way to get there. If you look at the system today, 30 percent of students actually go all the way through to complete a four-year college degree, and we need 70 percent to get some form of postsecondary credential, just to support our economy. We have very little to lose by opening up new pathways.
One of my favorite moments in Switzerland was when I was talking to a student who said, “I wasn’t necessarily all that enthralled with sitting in a classroom all day. I came and I did this (hands-on work), I now understand why my geometry class was important, and now I want to take advanced calculus.” I see this as not a system where you’re on this path or that path. It’s a very permeable, intertwined, laced set of lanes.
And the second thing I loved in my visit to Switzerland is when I asked about the high-school dropout rate and the Swiss looked at me and said, “What do you mean?” and I said, “How many students don’t complete high school?” And they said, “Everybody completes high school. Why wouldn’t they complete high school? There are so many ways to complete high school.”
Students are less patient than they used to be, to sit in a classroom for four years and pay a lot of money (for college). They want to know what is this leading to, and will this lead to a lifelong system where I can actually support my family.
The third thing I see … is that lifelong learning is going to be an absolute requirement for everybody. This is a way to start down this path at a young age. The future of work is very much relevant to this conversation.
Q: When my son was in high school, he randomly signed up for a technical class on pre-engineering/drafting, and it turned out to be the best class he ever took because of the hands-on aspect. Now he’s in college, majoring in plastics engineering.
A: That’s true for so many students … In Switzerland, it’s such a great model. They take the last two years of high school and one year afterward to do an apprenticeship. It’s two days of academics, three days of work, then (in the final year) four days of work and one day of academics. The first 18 months they (the employers) are training like crazy, and they’re investing in these students, and in the last 18 months they see value back to the community …
What I witnessed in these workplaces is you had four or five caring adults around every single kid. What you also witnessed was a sense of personal responsibility. Students said, “At school I could show up, I could not show up, it didn’t make a lot of difference. In the workplace, I have to show up. I’m part of a team.” That lesson is a life skill you can’t necessarily teach.
Q: What advice would you give to a high-school parent right now, before this system is in place?
A: Be open-minded about your student’s interests and pursuit of their interests and the forms it takes. Help us understand what the challenges and barriers might be as a parent. We’ll have a Facebook page (by early March), we’ll have an email address. We’re going to do a lot of outreach with parents. (The initiative is called Career Connect Washington.)