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1994: The Big Picture

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P R E S I D E N T ' S   P A G E

Swiss Education: A Model that Works

In my never-ending effort to discover evidence that parental accountability in education is the key to success, I took a trip to Switzerland. (Don't worry-it wasn't paid for by HSLDA.) I went on an excursion sponsored by the American Swiss Foundation to develop better friendship and understanding between young leaders from both nations. The organizer of the conference graciously waived the age limit and let me come anyway.

The Swiss gave us careful and interesting explanations about the economy, religion, the military, and education. The Americans yelled at each other about politics. Both sides learned a lot.

The first presentation of the week on education was a debate between a representative of the New York City Federation of Teachers and me. After listening to our presentation of American education, one young Swiss leader said that it sounded like we were describing something from another planet. And after learning about the Swiss system of education, he may be right.

The Swiss believe that education is the very key to their success. Time after time when the top business leaders of their country addressed our group they told us: "Switzerland is a country without many natural resources. The reason that our per capita income is the highest of any nation in the world is that our people are highly educated and we believe in hard work."

In 1990, sixty percent of American high school graduates enrolled in college. In Switzerland, approximately twenty-two percent enroll in college. We have nearly three times the number enrolled in college, yet they are number one in the world in income because of their highly educated work force! And to top it off, a similarly small percentage ever enroll in high school. They have virtually no high school dropouts because only those who have earned the right to attend high school for the purpose of college preparation ever attend in the first place.

So what do they do?

You're going to love the answer. Apprenticeship. And not just blue-collar apprenticeship, there are multiple opportunities for white-collar apprenticeship as well. Many of the top management of banking, insurance, and manufacturing companies never attended either high school or college-they were apprenticed.

Apprenticeship generally starts around age 16. It usually is a three-year course of instruction which customarily includes about half the time in on-the-job training and the other half in formal instruction.

To make this program work so well for so many of their young people, something very right must be happening in their education system which is roughly equivalent to our grades K-9. Reading, writing, mathematics, basic science, history, and two languages are taught and mastered.

So why does their system work better than ours? There are very few bureaucrats supervising the educational system.

So who holds the teachers accountable? The parents do. For parents, along with other local residents, have the right to vote on the teachers in their neighborhood schools.

The high-level education official who explained this system to me indicated that very few teachers are ever voted out of office. The mere possibility that parents can exercise the power to say "no" to the renewal of a teacher's contract is a sufficient lesson in who is really in charge to make the system work reasonably well.

I am not suggesting that if America pursued the idea of voting on teachers that we should put all our children back into the public schools. But I am suggesting two things: Once again we have evidence that where parents retain ultimate authority for the education of their children the system works very well. Second, America would do well to pursue greater and greater opportunities for apprenticeship.

I'd be happy to go back to Switzerland and take on a more thorough study of their apprenticeship system so I could promote it to American companies. Home schoolers could supply any number of sixteen-year-olds who have the intellectual development and personal maturity to excel in such a system. (A note for the humor impaired: A tongue-in-cheek comment is about to follow.) If someone wanted to sponsor the junket, I think that the ski industry would be a great place to start my investigation. (I have to give these disclaimers because bureaucrats monitor our materials for "evidence," but if I use three and four syllable words it's over their heads anyway.)

— Mike Farris