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Historical Perspective, Key Concepts and a search for Middle Ground
Fundamental shifts in economic and work market realities and dynamics - an opportunity for WBL 3
Employment Crisis - particularly the high levels of unemployment among youth 3
Education - Call for improvement and "modernization" 7
Underachievement, dropout rates and school failure - a structural problem 11
Fundamental shifts in economic and work market realities and dynamics - an opportunity for WBL
The tectonic shifts during the last three decades that have radically altered economies of the developed world and resulted in unprecedented changes in perspectives can be fully appreciated only if the issue is studied in its entirety from three separate vantage points of:
Expectation from Education
Structural Problems resulting in underachievement, dropout rates and school failure
One will perhaps then be able to realize in graphic detail the irreversible impact these changes have left on the thought process and expectations of citizens of these countries.
Employment Crisis - particularly the high levels of unemployment among youth
The world economy is passing through a phenomenon called 'globalization'. The effects of globalization have been far-reaching, and a radical transformation of the economic landscape of the world seems to be underway. The very structure of the global economy has been changed as a result of offshoring/outsourcing and the emerging new international division of labor, flexible manufacturing, and the increased significance of the services sector so much so that by the year 2020 according to some projections the actual output of goods and services in the rapidly growing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) may collectively be larger than the combined output of the G-6 countries (U.S.A., Japan, Germany, U.K., France, and Italy) who currently dominate the world economy. (Wilson & Purushothaman, 2003) Globalization is also leading to changes in income and wealth distribution both within and between different countries. (Castells, 2000) Finally, globalization has also thrown up many important environmental consequences as well. (Barnett, 2004)
Scholars have been able to identify a few clear trends that have emerged out of this great churning of globalization where post-industrialism, post-Fordism, and the accelerating new international division of labor, are causing fundamental changes in the nature and structure of the overall global economy.
Put simply, the notion of post-industrialism suggest that we might be in the process of leaving behind a world mostly shaped by forces coming out of the 18th century industrial revolution, and gradually moving in the direction of a new world characterized by ever-increasing focus on knowledge and information in economic activities, growing relative importance of the services sector (as compared to the manufacturing sector) in the overall economy, and the coming of the so-called information society. (Bell, 1973)
Fordism (or Fordist manufacture) is a term commonly used to refer to the system of mass production that emerged as a result of the industrial revolution and Tayloristic scientific management. The Fordist system of mass production is largely characterized by its reliance upon economies of scale, fairly strict division of labor, and large investments in relatively inflexible plant and equipment. In contrast to the Fordist system of manufacturing, post-Fordism is distinguished by its emphasis on flexible manufacturing and flexible work arrangements, and a switch from mass production (economies of scale) to batch production (economies of scope). Post-industrialist and post-Fordist trends represent important features of globalization that are effecting significant changes in the nature and structure of the world economy. (Aglietta, 1979)
The new international division of labor (NIDL) as a concept draws attention toward certain changes in the currently evolving global economy that have set it apart from the old global economic system characterized by the so-called 'classical' international division of labor (CIDL). Under CIDL, the less-industrialized developing countries (countries of the so-called global 'South') primarily served as providers of raw materials for the industrialized countries (countries of the so-called global 'North'), and global manufacturing was mostly concentrated in the 'North'. Under NIDL, however, several countries of the 'South' are also becoming important sites for manufacturing. In this regard, China has lately emerged as a key Third World manufacturing location for the global economy. Somewhat analogous to China's role in global manufacturing, India is now often seen as an important location for many service-related activities for global economy. To a considerable degree, the emerging NIDL may be seen as a product of the offshoring of manufacturing and outsourcing of services undertaken by businesses operating in the industrialized countries of the 'North'. In addition, however, NIDL also represents an emergent outcome resulting from the autonomous economic development activities initiated by several countries in the 'South'. (Frobel, Heinrichs, & Drey, 1980)
Businesses around the world are facing a new set of challenges on account of globalization. Business firms have increased access to a world-wide market, with the result that the prospective customer base of companies has been radically enlarged. This is not an issue of only increased size of marketplace but also of the rapidly growing purchasing power of the expanding middle class in several countries outside the advanced industrial economies. Globalization also implies that firms now have access to world-wide sources of not only raw materials, but also capital, technology, human resources and production facilities/locations. This implies that, as a matter of routine, globalization leaves business firms with no choice as regards the need to develop and institutionalize organizational processes, structures and mechanisms that facilitate strategic planning at the global level. (Parker, 2003)
Increased pace of globalization also implies increased competition between business firms. This has happened because of primarily two reasons. First of all, with the large-scale commercialization and declining cost of advanced digital technologies, many more companies are now able to reap the benefits of these technologies, and thereby put pressure on the profitability of rival firms. Moreover, partly as a result of these selfsame technological developments, new business innovations are also much more susceptible to quicker competitive imitation. Hence businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the competitive edge gained through existing product and/or process innovations that differentiate them from their rival firms. Developments such as these have considerably added to the intensification of competition in several industries. Succeeding in this world of ever-intensifying competition requires developing capabilities for agile management as well as continual innovation through a number of means, including increasing customization to fit the evolving needs of individual customers, growing partnership and information sharing with suppliers, strategic alliances designed to facilitate entry into new market niches, developing core competencies that are not principally dependent on technologies that can be easily commercialized, and leveraging the firm's current knowledge to develop new knowledge-based products and services. (Farrell, 2005)
Leonard in his book 'Post Modern Welfare' discusses the all pervading impact of globalization from the perspective of welfare, prosperity and well-being of citizens of this rapidly changing world. The new "ruthless" economy that globalization has given rise to has created a scenario where Western Governments can no longer speak with conviction about rising standards of living and economic betterment as an automatic corollary of continuous industrialization and innovation. Instead these Governments urge their citizens to accept the fact that competitive life is nasty and brutish and each and every economy is engaged in a gruesome struggle for economic survival. In this life-and-death battle, old ideas of universality, full employment and economic equitability are dead-weights that need to be discarded at the earliest. The basic economic issue of debt-servicing, especially if it exceeds the rate of growth of economy, has assumed serious and, in all probability, unmanageable proportions.
The situation has become really acute as the logic of capitalist development has undergone serious alteration, especially with the emergence of several powerful non-Western capitalist players as Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. One also cannot overlook China's increasing commitment to capitalist forms of enterprise. The entire phenomenon of globalization has been further accentuated by the collapse of state socialist societies in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. (Leonard, 1997)
This has led to an unprecedented dip in levels of employment in EU countries as the rate of unemployment among young people under 25 years of age rose to 21.4% in November 2009 from 16.6% it was only a twelve months earlier. According to figures published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, 22.899 million men and women were unemployed in November 2009. This was a straight jump of 4.978 million from similar figures a year ago. Elaborating further, Eurostat stated among the Member States, the lowest unemployment rates were recorded in the Netherlands (3.9%) and Austria (5.5%), and the highest rates in Latvia (22.3%) and Spain (19.4%). Also, while the unemployment rate for males rose from 7.2% to 9.7% in the EU27, the female unemployment rate increased from 7.8% to 9.2% in that region. (Eurostat Press Office, 2010)
Education - Call for improvement and "modernization"
An obvious corollary to the prevailing situation is a fresh review of the education system prevailing in EU countries as the relationship between two of the basic institutions in any society - education and work has been inseparable since the middle of eighteenth century. Indeed, this is true not only for EU countries but for all developed western societies and this was amply demonstrated through surveys conducted by Alexander Astin of the University of California at Los Angeles for the last four decades. Astin has observed a student population that has grown more materialistic and with an increasingly instrumental view of schooling as the means to achieve that materialism. Astin's survey for the academic year 2000/01 covering more than 250,000 students at 434 four-year colleges and universities threw up a rather startling fact that if American students do not attend college only to enhance their ultimate earning power, that is certainly the chief reason that they go. (Astin, 2000)
Most notable about the aspirations of college freshmen, though, is how they have changed through the decades. While never indifferent to the economic value of college, earlier generations of freshmen differed markedly in their willingness to endorse values of community, family and personal development. In recent times, college freshmen increasingly see the linkage between education and work as the maximization of their prospects for social mobility. Though such a linkage might at first glance seem striking, but on a further and more sedate reflection one tends to find it difficult to understand why students would respond any differently, and it is certainly difficult to blame them for adopting such an instrumental approach to their education. Schooling, after all, becomes the last line of defense against downward mobility as much as a basis for upward mobility. (Thurow, 1975)
The relationships between education and unemployment merit a little more discussion. Osterman studied the barriers to working and holding a job during an economic boom period in the Boston area. He found that even after statistically controlling for a broad range of other factors, high school dropouts had less commitment and attachment to labor force than did high school graduates. The simple lack of a high school diploma was a serious barrier to youths' prospects of getting out of poverty. This, of course, does not mean that providing high school dropouts with diplomas will suddenly provide adequate opportunities for them. It does mean, however, that when jobs are scarce, the least educated have the least access to them. The disparities across educational levels tend to get even wider during cyclical downturns in the economy, and if there is recession like phase, the difference in economic ability between the educated and the uneducated become really acute. (Osterman, 1993)
This means that as unemployment rises, it hits the less educated the most. Using Dutch data, Vans Ours and Ridder argued that this can result both from the lower likelihood that less educated workers will be hired in a loose labor market (one that favors employers) and from a higher likelihood that they will be laid off. The available evidence suggests that on balance the less educated are more disadvantaged at the point of hire than at the point of layoff. Either way, the lack of educational credentials emerges as a serious barrier to job stability. (Van Ours & Ridder, 1995)
Thus, the relationship between education and economic prosperity is so inalienably etched in common psyche that Americans (or for that matter, residents of any country of the industrialized and developed Western hemisphere) attend school and send their children there largely because of the economic benefits they see emerging from this activity. They have constructed (if not exactly designed) an elaborate postsecondary system of educational institutions. Generations of social policy makers have assumed and acted as if the key to escaping poverty, achieving social mobility and even enhancing international competitiveness is ever-expanding education.
With widespread unemployment plaguing most economies, a clamor, quite expectedly, arose about 'improving' and 'modernization' of education system as it had apparently failed to provide the master key to automatic economic prosperity and stability in trying times. This has also led to another disturbing phenomenon; that of rising rates of school dropouts. Young men are no longer confident that a school education would be a sufficient guarantee for a stable job and are increasingly dropping out of high school as they perceive going to school is wasting precious time that might be utilized in a better fashion if they could somehow squeeze themselves into a workplace. Political leaders and those who wield power have been trying to 'improve' the prevailing education system by attempting to provide students with education and training that they perceive would better equip these young persons (by making them more employable, that is) in facing the steadily worsening job markets.
In 1983, in the United States, the National Commission on Excellence in Education presented its report, 'A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform'. In a language that was often as embarrassingly flowery as it was evocative, the Commission warned in its opening paragraph of the vulnerability of America's "once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation" (page 5). Despite occasional comments about the need for education to foster the "intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people" (page 7), the tone of the report was almost reminiscent of the Cold War in its attention to international economic competition and the need for Americans to achieve a level and quality of schooling that will secure their mobility and prosperity in the workplace. Almost a decade later, the reports with probably the most far-reaching impact were written by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. (Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991, 1992a, 1992b) Soon to be identified simply as SCANS, these reports provided a reasonably careful conceptual base for later federal and state incentives for educational and training reform.
The authors of SCANS reports set themselves the goal of clarifying precisely what skills workers needed to succeed in the new economy and how schools might go about teaching these. SCANS defined a "three-part foundations" of skills. These are basic skills (basically the three R's consisting of "reading, performing arithmetic and mathematical operations, listening and speaking), thinking skills (thinking creatively, making decisions, solving problems, visualizing, reasoning and knowing how to learn) and personal qualities (taking responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity/honesty). In addition to these basic skills, SCANS also defined five work competencies that were:
The ability to identify, plan and allocate such resources as time, money, materials, facilities and human resources;
The ability to work with others as a team member, teacher, leader, negotiator;
The ability to acquire, evaluate, organize, maintain, interpret and use information, also to be able to use computers to process information;
The ability to understand, monitor, correct, and, improve systems and other complex inter-relationships, and;
The ability to select, apply and maintain a variety of technologies.
The authors of these reports were careful to point out that these skills and competencies are 'generic'. By this, they meant they are distinct from 'technical' or 'local' knowledge. The importance of this is that the inculcation of these skills cannot be left to employers, but devolves naturally to educational institutions.
Similar documents are available from probably every post-industrial nation and also from those that are not post-industrial as well. One example can be offered from Great Britain. In 2001, The National Skills Task Force from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment released a report entitled 'Opportunity and Skills in the Knowledge-Driven Economy'. Though the language of this report is not as strident as reports generated by US authors, the diagnosis is almost the same as it states prosperity depends on the widespread dissemination of high levels of skills for which schooling and training systems need to be overhauled so as to make them capable of providing the skills that are necessary to survive in a world that is becoming more and more competitive and hostile.
Underachievement, dropout rates and school failure - a structural problem
There is surely no doubt that schooling system has to be examined in minute detail and proper reforms implemented so as to ensure education and employment start complementing each other to usher in continued economic stability and prosperity of citizens. But all reforms, however well-intentioned they might be, will fail to have any impact if the current high school dropout rate of nearly 33% in developed industrialized countries is not arrested forthwith. It is imperative that one attempts to examine the issue of high school dropouts in greater detail to unravel the causes and factors that are mainly responsible for this malaise.
Probably the most cited work on this topic is a small book written by James Conant wherein he described the problems faced by schools firstly in obtaining students and secondly, and that is surely the most worrying aspect of this issue, in being able to retain them right through till the obtain the school leaving diploma. (Conant, 1961) He realized that this lack of high school education among youth residing in slums is indeed a 'social dynamite' of sorts that is bound to 'explode' at some point in future causing extreme distress and tension to the social fabric of a country. The problem, in fact, was not restricted to only slums; it overflowed the narrow confines of slums and permeated into the countryside especially of Southern United States thereby acquiring worrisome proportions.
As education and availability of employment opportunities are inextricably intertwined in every economy, whether industrialized or not, it is an automatic conclusion that those with lesser education will be denied gainful employment opportunities and this unemployed mass (it keeps increasing with time) will surely create all forms of social, economic and administrative problems for the government of any country. Economic exclusion, in particular, is something that every government would surely love to do without and high school dropout rates must come down for this malady to remain within manageable proportions.
In the United States, high school dropout rate peaked during 1970s and remained stuck at its high perch for about two decades before climbing down slightly only in 1990s possibly due to vigorous implementation of widespread reforms to high school education system. Still it was perilously high at 50% in US slums. This statistic presents a very uncomfortable scenario especially when one realizes that half of all the students enrolled in schools leave without completing four years of education even after reformation of the high school sector were pursued with full enthusiasm by powers that matter. (Barton, 2005)
Though there is a general increase in dropout rate across entire United States of America, there is marked difference in dropout rates among different ethnic groups with 28% of Whites, 49% Blacks, 48% Hispanics, 46% American Indians and 30% Asians not completing high school education by leaving schools midway through the four year long course. These figures do present an interesting case but till date no credible study linking ethnicity and dropout rates has been done. (Greene, 2002) However, one tends to be tempted to infer economic well being and completion of schooling might have some connection after all.
Extensive research has indicated that dropping out of school is the result of a combination of several factors that can be broadly categorised into those that relate to individual students and those that relate to their families. Factors related to individual students as falling behind the class, not enjoying school, need to get back to work, disciplinary problems, frequently changing schools etc. play a major role in determining their attitude and attachment to schools and go a long way in determining dropout rates. Factors related to their families as low family income, single parent, less educated parents etc. also very often determine their duration as students in schools. It can safely be assumed that students from less affluent and less educated families are handicapped right from the onset of their schooling as they enter the classroom less prepared than their more aflluent counterparts that come from more educated families. This inherent disparity causes the less privileged students to consistently fall behind their privileged classmates and result in an apathy towards the school. However, one should not forgrt that the entire act of dropping out of school is not a sudden decision; it gradually takes shape over a long time so much so that leaving school midway through the course seems to be the only plausible and logical course of action to the student when they finally decide to drop out. (United States General Accounting Office, 2002)
It is only natural that efforts are underway to reduce the dropout rates as far as possible and while accepting the basic fact that there cannot be a single panacea to fight this malady, some probable remedies have been put forward in the form of:
The Talent Development High School
Communities in Schools
The Quantum Opportunities Program
However, the exact impact that these programs have had on reducing dropout rates has not been studied with academic rigor. Thus, while these attempts should not be overlooked, any attempt to cover them with glory would also not serve any purpose.
Member states of European Union have also been wide awake to the problem of social exclusion and admit that though Economics is one of the central manifestations of such exclusion it is more of a symptom than a cause. At an individual level, it is the level of training and education acquired by an individual that determines their earning potential and as an obvious corollary it is assumed that the lesser educated individuals stand a correspondingly lesser chance of improving their economic lot and are therefore more at risk to face social exclusion. This risk is directly proportional to the overall economic health of a country; the more robust an economy, the greater is the chance of finding employment and vice versa. Thus, completing school education, at least, remains at the core of the fight to reduce levels of social exclusion.
A study by J. Gordon reveals the highly disconcerting fact that slightly more than 10% of young people aged 15 and 16, or some 550,000 from a population of five million, leave the school system without any qualification. (Gordon, 1990) Before trying to unravel the causes for this appalling state of affairs, it is worth the while to take into cognizance that the structure of schooling system varies widely from country to country. These differences center around whether or not;
Automatic promotion to a higher class at the end of an academic year
Option available for choosing favored stream of study right from the lower secondary level
Certification at the end of course dependant on successful completion of term end examination
Though there is a general opinion among 'old school' educationists that repeating a year has favorable impact on educational attainment, more and more countries are veering round to the option of automatic promotion. It would be worthwhile to mention here that while France, Scotland, Spain, England and Wales, Greece, Italy and Portugal provide career counseling and guidance only after students have reached the age of 15-16; Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark prefer to follow a unified a common curriculum right through the primary and first level of secondary education. Federal Republic of Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and Austria, however, ensure students choose their preferred steam of study right from the beginning of secondary education. (Crahay & Delhaxhe, 1993)
Whatever may be the chosen structure of an education system, one should not lose sight of the basic objective - to reduce incidence of school dropouts. This again is crucially dependant on the mores followed by teachers during the process of evaluation. It is an established norm among most teachers to follow a comparative method of assessment where a particular student is judged against the average performance of a class. Thus, a student in a class where most pupils are of average caliber might get good marks while when placed in a class comprising of brighter students, that same student might obtain poor grades. This is a rather dubious method where a particular student is judged not exclusively on the basis of their own merit but also on the average merit of the class they belong to. The issue gains menacing proportions when one juxtaposes the fact that one of the most significant determinants of school dropout rates is disinterest among students in continuing their studies when faced with continuing failure in classrooms.
According to Geneva sociologist P. Perrenoud, such a comparative evaluation technique leads to a 'culture of excellence' where only those that remain in the top bracket are deemed to be deserving and are hence offered more opportunities for economic development after completing school. This meritocratic approach to education often misleads teachers into believing they are the chosen ones to foster excellence in society and thus focus their entire attention towards the brighter students while ignoring the lesser ones. Such a discriminatory attitude often aggravates the already smoldering disinterest about school education that plagues the students who tend to fall behind from the rest of the class. (Perrenoud, 1984)
This, in a sense, frustrates the basic objective of retaining, to the maximum extent possible, all those that had enrolled, right through the entire four-year period of high school education. So, those who are concerned about rising dropout rates in high schools are of the opinion schools should not transform into centers of excellence. They should instead concentrate on stimulating the greatest number of pupils to learn as much as possible. Moreover, any assessment procedure should have two aspects to make it more objective and centered on only the student without pitting them against the backdrop of average performance of the class:
A system of feedback from students regarding what has been learned vis-à-vis the declared objectives of the course
A system of modifying and suitably readjusting teaching so that it corresponds to and is more focused on the skills that are supposed to be mastered during the course
It requires special mention at this juncture that while for rest of the world school failure is synonymous to failure of a student in school, in Portugal, school failure is regarded as a failure of the education system rather than failure of an individual student. This country has implemented several measures to combat steadily rising dropout rates in schools. These can be broadly categorized into:
Educational Supports and Complements
Preparation of alternative syllabuses for groups with differing learning capabilities
Elaborate teaching assistance during the whole year after school hours
Intense coaching during summer vacations
Social Assistance by Schools
Subsidized meals at school canteens
Subsidized, or in certain specific instances, complete waiver of school fees
Free, or highly subsidized, transportation to and from school
Free provision of milk as a food supplement for junior students
Subsidized boarding facilities for economically weaker students
Complete medical assistance in accidents occurring inside school premises during working hours
Portuguese government is also fully aware of the requirement of special educational assistance to those students that are 'differently abled' and the necessity of integrating these special students to mainstream schools as early as possible to ensure they are not left behind. Mainstream schools that accommodate these differently abled students should have specially qualified teachers who would be receptive to the special needs of these students. For those students that have learning difficulties that cannot be tackled even by specially qualified teachers in mainstream schools, there are special schools that are run by associations which operate under direct supervision of Ministry of Education. (Gonçalves, 1998)