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Conservative Education Reform Should Emphasize Relationships, Institutions, and Vocation

Editor’s note: For a longer discussion of this topic, read Bruno Manno’s essay, “A Social-Capital Approach to Education Reform,” in the new issue of National Affairs.

A social capital approach to school reform focused on developing habits of mind and habits of association in young people is a basis for conservatives to lead on K-12 reform. It also offers conservatives a way to create new political coalitions with diverse advocates who believe expanding opportunity for young people includes developing their social capital.

Today, this approach to K-12 institutional reform is manifest in career pathway models—programs connecting students and schools with employers and work.

This social capital approach to K-12 schools affirms three fundamental conservative value propositions for educating young people. First, relationships and networks are key to accessing opportunity. Second, local initiative, voluntary association, and mediating institutions are keys means to catalyzing institutional reform and solving pressing problems. Third, an important aspect of preparing for adult life, work, and citizenship includes cultivating an occupational identify and vocational self.

What follows describes six pathway program models and summarizes key elements of successful pathways programs, illustrating how conservative principles are relevant to and a basis for leading on K-12 reform.

Social Capital Partnership Models

School district, charter school, and University: Wiseburn School District in Los Angeles County and its partner Da Vinci Charter School have over one hundred business and nonprofit partners. These involve internships, mentorships, workshops, boot camps, and consultancies, including student mental health and counseling services. Students can pursue associate or bachelor’s degree programs through UCLA Extension and El Camino College or College for America.

Charter school and University: Boston’s Match Public Charter School, in partnership with Duet and Southern New Hampshire University, assists students with college completion and career placement, including coaching, mentoring, and accredited associate and bachelor’s degrees. The program has comprehensive career services like job searches and support through the hiring process for up to two years after graduation.

Public-private: The Atlanta business community, Fulton County Schools, and Junior Achievement created 3-D Education, a public-private partnership. This project-based program includes a six-week case study beginning in eleventh-grade pairing students with coaches in work settings. Students choose workforce pathways that include business and technology; entrepreneurship; marketing and management; and financial services.

City-wide: In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce NOLA works with open-enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid internships for seniors. This is followed by 90 hours of work placement in a career pathway where opportunities include biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and architecture and water management. It also has a family program educating parents about the career pathways program.

Catholic schools and corporate: Cristo Rey is a network of thirty-five Catholic high schools in twenty-two states that integrates four years of academics with work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program. This separate non-profit placement service works with nonprofits and private enterprise to place students five days a month in an entry-level job with over 3,400 partners. Students—forty percent not Catholic and 98 percent minority—earn 60 percent of tuition through employment, with the balance paid through school fundraising and a modest family contribution.

Private enterprise: In Indianapolis, Kenzie Academy is a venture-funded technology and apprenticeship program for students, including high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and those with master’s degrees seeking new occupational opportunities. Students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, a consulting affiliate. To make the $24,000-a-year program accessible, students have income-share agreements delaying tuition payment until they have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie partners with Butler University so students can receive a certificate from both organizations.

Successful Program Elements

The Pathways to Prosperity Network, an alliance of more than 60 U.S. regional pathway programs, has identified four aspects of successful pathways programs.

First, programs are structured and credentialed. They have a sequenced academic curriculum, requirements aligned with labor-market needs, and a timeline guiding participants through the program. Young people leave the program with training and a career credential.

Second, programs have written agreements between participating parties describing roles and responsibilities, including a program budget. The program partners—schools, other educational and community institutions, government agencies, etc.—have a management and governance structure with the prestige to access influential individuals needed for program success.

Third, programs introduce participants to work and careers early—often in middle school—and include activities like speakers and field trips. In high school, this involves work placement, including mentorships, internships, and actual work. Work-based learning is integrated with classroom instruction and a motivational strategy challenging young people to understand career labor-market demands. Developmental psychologist Robert Halperin calls this developing a young person’s “vocational self.”

Finally, employers, associations, and other mediating institutions play a role in program design and management. Employers and affiliated associations assist in defining program standards, skills, and competencies participants need to obtain a certificate and employment. They also provide paid internships and apprenticeships and assist in assessing workforce readiness. Other intermediaries help with convening, organizing, and planning functions, in addition to work-placement navigation and social-support services for participants and their families. Examples of intermediaries include community foundations, community colleges, chambers of commerce, private-industry councils, the Salvation Army, and United Way.

Leading on K-12 Reform

A renewed education reform movement based on social capital is a basis for conservatives to lead a new K-12 reform political coalition. The career pathway programs described here exemplify how this approach can produce institutional reform through innovative program models supported by a coalition of different community groups.

This social capital approach provides young people with new habits of mind and association. It energizes local institutions and community effort to support young people in their education. Finally, it develops in young people an occupational identify and vocational self. This places them on a trajectory to economic and social well-being and informed citizenship, needed for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.

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Bruno Manno

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for K-12 education at the Walton Family Foundation. The views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the Foundation.

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