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OP-ED: U.S. needs to modernize its schools


If you have school-age children like we do, you've probably heard the following question after a particularly challenging homework assignment or classroom project:

When am I going to use this in the real world?

Every parent understands that what kids learn in the classroom will help them in later life. But sometimes it's hard — even for us as the nation's secretaries of labor and education — to explain how abstract concepts relate to practical applications. Why? For one thing, we have a 21st century economy, but much of our K-12 education system remains stuck in the 20th century. What kids learn at school isn't always aligned with the skills they'll need as adult professionals.

To prepare all students for the 21st century workforce, we must do a better job of teaching job-ready skills and equipping the next generation to thrive in the global economy.

As the columnist Tom Friedman points out, 21st century workers need the knowledge, flexibility and ingenuity to thrive in jobs that haven't even been invented yet. That requires creativity and foresight of our nation's schools. Students should have a solid foundation in the basics, but they also need technical know-how to match the technology they'll inevitably work with. And they need employability skills — like critical thinking, collaboration and communication.

Some high schools are rising to the challenge. In addition to core classes, they're offering instruction in robotics, computer programming, even nanotechnology. These courses are developed in collaboration with local employers who understand that working with schools will benefit their communities and their bottom lines.

Some communities are taking this to the next level, creating formal partnerships among industry, community colleges and the K-12 system.

In Brooklyn, Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) is a unique arrangement among IBM, the City University of New York, and the New York City Department of Education. This six-year high school allows students to graduate with a high school diploma, an associate's degree and the industry experience they need to compete for high-demand jobs. They also have "first in line" preference for employment with IBM. It's precisely the kind of innovative approach needed to compete in the 21st century economy.

This model has been replicated successfully across the country; today, about 40 schools nationwide are partnering with more than 70 private-sector employers in various industries. Last summer, we traveled together to Toledo Technical Academy in Ohio and were blown away by the state-of-the-art skills of its robotics team.

We want to help take this model to scale. Last year, the Obama administration invested $107 million in Youth CareerConnect grants to support similar efforts nationwide. The Toledo Public Schools won funds to scale up their efforts even further.

In the decades ahead, middle-class jobs will require more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree. That's why President Barack Obama has called for free community college for all responsible students. With more than f5 million job vacancies in the United States right now, our training programs must align with employer needs, and the nation's community college system is the obvious place to turn. In the future, we must provide students with a strong academic foundation that links classroom activities with real-world issues and careers.

Students can no longer sit down after graduation and apply for jobs from the classified section. They need career training long before they receive their diplomas. The K-14 model does exactly that. With technical education, experience in the workplace, and mentors in their chosen field, these young people gain a solid career footing and a chance to punch their ticket to the middle class. They have no doubt that what they're learning is relevant to the workplace and that those skills will help them succeed in the real world.

— Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. secretary of labor (www.dol.gov), and Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education (www.ed.gov). They wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.