Executive Perspective

Informed by Sicilian and Maltese Educators


America is in the midst of transforming our systems of education. Faced with increased global competition and a persistent achievement gap at home, the Obama administration is looking to move beyond No Child Left Behind.

In our search for solutions, we should consider those education systems in the world that can provide us with good ideas on how to resolve some of the challenges we face. This fall, a group of American educators went to Sicily and Malta looking for answers. Over 36 years, the International Invitational Seminar on Schooling has enabled educators to visit school programs abroad. On this trip we witnessed programs that could be potential models for changes American education leaders are trying to make.

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

Targeting Vocations
Reducing the dropout rate and increasing high school completion are major goals. I was recently in Jackson, Miss., speaking to a large gathering of the state’s superintendents. After my remarks I was approached by a gentleman who thanked me for being there but then took me to task. He indicated he had been a superintendent for many years but was now retired. For years he had fought to provide his minority students with equal educational opportunities. Apparently, back in the day, there was an attempt to place minority students in vocational programs as opposed to placing them in the more challenging academic track.

I had stated in my remarks that one-third of our students who drop out each year and fail to graduate from high school could be helped by career and technical programs that might motivate many students to stay in school and graduate.

This was not the first time I had heard this concern expressed, and I suspect it may be one of the reasons why vocational education has fallen out of grace in recent years. However, by insisting every student should be in a college preparatory program, we are ignoring reality and doing nothing to provide the thousands of students who drop out with the relevant education they want and the ability to learn a marketable skill while they are still in school.

On the tiny island of Malta, young men and women are afforded the opportunity to learn a skill, a trade or a profession at government expense. The Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology offers an impressive number of programs at no cost to the students who are also paid a stipend to attend the program. The students have the opportunity to matriculate for a number of levels, ranging from assistant craftsman to advanced technician, or proceed to the university for a bachelor of arts degree. There was a time when minority students were tracked into vocational programs, but career and technical academies today require their graduates to meet the same academic benchmarks as other students receiving a high school diploma, while providing them with marketable skills right out of high school. Malta’s program is a considerable financial investment, but one that pays huge dividends in the form of a well-educated and well-trained workforce.

Education Welfare
AASA has focused on the concept of educating the total child. We believe external factors significantly affect a child’s ability to learn. Child care, early childhood education, health services, housing, parental involvement and parent education are all factors that can greatly contribute to the persistent achievement gap that plagues our schools.

While in Catania, Sicily, we visited a school in one of the poorest sections of the city. The school is proof that poverty is the factor that adversely affects achievement, not ethnicity or race. The children were mostly white and few were immigrants, but all were poor and suffered from being uneducated, socially maladjusted and inclined toward criminal activity.

The school, referred to as an educational welfare center, is operated by the Cirino La Rosa Foundation. The center is an excellent model of an entire community coming together to help disadvantaged children. Municipal and welfare agencies, businesses, community groups and foundations, and faith-based groups (in Italy, the Catholic Church) jointly provide for the needs of students. Even local high school and college students get into the act in a program called Guardian Angels. The students volunteer to mentor a child at the school. One Guardian Angel spoke passionately about her experience, pointing to the tremendous fulfillment she received from working with her mentee. Admittedly, these community efforts do not always succeed, but more often than not their attempts pay off as students graduate and many go on to colleges, universities or technical academies.

Next month, in Phoenix, Ariz., AASA is holding the 2010 National Conference on Education. We have an impressive array of speakers that will address many topics, including the education of the total child and the need to improve high school completion rates. We are honored to have Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joining us, along with best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and CNBC’s Mika Brzezinski.

If you have not yet registered for the Feb. 11-13 conference, please do so. We look forward to continuing our conversation with you in Phoenix.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org