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Month: November 2014

Doing what comes naturally… sometimes.

I watched a great American Football game on TV the other night between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. It was close, into the fourth quarter and the Giants had the ball. The two teams lined up on about the 50 yard mark. A snap pass back through the legs to the Giants quarterback and the forwards got into their dance of obstructing tackling and generally giving the running backs a chance to get up the field to receive the ball while at the same time making space for the quarterback to throw.

Hawking had run up the right hand touch and was approaching the in-goal area. He looked back over his shoulder to see the ball approaching high, it was going to go over his head. By now he was square on to the ball facing back up the field. He threw himself high into the air and backwards. His outstretched arm was out behind him and with impeccable judgment he caught the ball, blind, with three finger tips, crashed on his back to the ground and claimed a touchdown.

It was a miracle play that was to be replayed over and over and which will make highlights packages for years to come. The commentators voiced what everyone had thought. “How had he done that?” “Have you ever seen such a touchdown?” etc. etc.

But the real revelation came in the post-match interview with the coach and of course that play got plenty of mention. “How had he done that?” the host repeated to be told by the coach “You know, at the end of each practice, when everyone else has gone off the field, Hawking stays out there and practises just that.”

It struck me that there is a lesson here for us. Just the day before I had a conversation with Professor Mike Kirst at Stanford about the evaluation and assessment of career path activity and he outlined the problems that they were facing in assessing and evaluating the soft skills, the employability skills etc, in career path programmes.

The issue is that these skills are not really learned but rather are internalized over time just like the instinctive skills that led to Hawking’s touchdown. Moments of brilliance do not simply happen once, they come from practice that make the skills part of our being. Top sports coaches understand this.

Do institutions that are focused on career path activity actually practice the very skills that employers are asking for? Employers are clear in stating what they want. How might providers respond?

Employers say:                  “I want them to turn up every day!”

What attention do providers pay to attendance? What records are kept and how is such important behaviour reported? What happens when lectures and tutorials are skipped? Tolerance is not serving students well who expect to be employed in settings that have zero tolerance.

Employers say:                  “I want them to be on time!

What attention is paid to punctuality? To starting on time? Working until the end of the session? We need to show that time is a resource which needs to be used fully and well.

Employers say:                  “They have to complete tasks and in a timely way?”

Do we insist on this? Do we emphasise the importance of deadlines? Do we reward the behaviours that we want?

Employers say:                  “They have to have the technical skills to do the job.”

This is an easy one for providers because if the courses are current and are regularly refreshed, taught in industry standard facilities with the rigour of the work place, then having the credential should attest to this. This is the bread and butter work of the institution.

Employers say:                  “They have to be free of drugs and alcohol issues.”

Again, this is an easy one for providers since most institutions insist on just that. But do we make it clear just why we have a zero tolerance for it. Do we have a zero tolerance in our institutions.

Employers say:                  “They have to be appropriately presented, dressed appropriately, no garish disfiguring tattoos and piercings.”

Well, would it be a step too far to suggest that business students should dress appropriately for the business world while they are students? Students who study auto engineering, those in food and beverage, those who chef and many others do.  But do we have established standards for those who work in “ordinary” clothes?

And honesty, reliability, working in teams, resilience and a whole lot more.

You see, if training institutions practised these soft skills so that they became instinctive, a guarantee could be given to employers that graduates had these attributes. Over time it would be known that graduates from such an institution were worth taking on because they had a set of learned behaviours expected of professionals in the field and which will be seen by the employer as the mark of a new employee who is likely to be worth investing in..

And this would solve the issue of testing and assessing and evaluating the soft skills.

One final suggestion. If it is important that many occupations require those entering to have a driver’s licence why are institutions largely silent on the matter and why cannot a very early indication be made to students that over the one, two, or three years of the course they would do well to get one.

For that matter, are the requisite soft skills packaged and explained as something that employers are looking for?



Getting education and training to work

San Francisco

Just returned to San Francisco from the ACTE Conference in Nashville. I will come clean and admit that I found time to catch up with country music and, believe me, it is wall-to-wall. I am still humming “Kiss an angel good morning!”  after having heard Charley Pride at the Grand ‘Ole Opry last night.

But what are the key messages I take from the very professional conference attended by 3,000 career and technical education teachers from both secondary and postsecondary providers? Well, it is one overwhelmingly clear message. We are talking in New Zealand a lot about progression to employment but are spending a much less focused energy on making it happen when compared to the US or perhaps I should say, best practice in the US – it is a huge country and the best is as good as it gets and the worst doesn’t bear thinking about.

I was astonished by the extent to which the high schools of the USA are developing relationships with employers and the quality of the articulation of this to the actual progression to employment at the point of qualification completion and employment entry from postsecondary programmes at community colleges and colleges (i.e. ITPs and other tertiary providers in NZ terms).

Simply knowing employers, being able to call on their support and regarding them as a friends of the institution just doesn’t cut it! What is called for is a deep and enduring relationship that requires both an effort at development, a bigger effort in maintaining, and a genuine partnership in the contributions of both the provider and the employer in the successful induction of the novice into the career.

This requires a number of features that characterise successful relationships between providers and employers: 

  •          serious engagement of the employers in course development and implementation; 
  •          involvement of employers and their enterprises in the delivery of the programme in a manner that enhances the relationship and simply doesn’t place pressure on the employer from a resource point of view (people, equipment and time); 
  •          a willingness of employers to engage in internships / work experiences of different  kinds and capstone projects because it is good for them rather than it being only good for the provider – in other words it is a relationship that adds value to the activity of both partners; 
  •          a privileged  position that sees the partner-employers having first cut at getting the best graduates; 
  •          a shared commitment to developing in Career and Technical Education (when are we going to grow up and use this international description in NZ?) a clear pathway from training to employment, from learning to jobs and between those who prepare workers and those who employ them.

All of this requires a different way of working. It will require providers to become smart and nimble, to be professional and current in the provision not just in terms of the educational institution but in terms of the industry itself. Above all it calls for real partnership between the trainers and the employers.

Sometime I get the impression that in tertiary education we think it is about us. Bugtit never is. It is about the students, their families, the employers, their shareholders and employees. The providers simply engage the parties in assisting a student along the pathways from the point where they have reached prior to enrolment to the final and fulfilling position of being employed in a great job, a job they want to do alongside people who respect them and value their contribution.

It is a special responsibility that educators have. Are we up to it because we have the policy settings in New Zealand but the US is stealing a march on us in their work with employers and in a much harsher environment.


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And the winner is…. !

Nashville TN

“ I want to tell you that you are greatly under-rated!” he said to a resounding round of cheering and clapping. You can’t go wrong when you say that you say to a group of educators.

So began US Secretary of Labor, Thomas E. Perez, in addressing the Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE) Awards Dinner in Nashville TN last night.  A crowd of 1,000 educators gathered to acknowledge the sector leaders in quality in a range of categories. Interestingly, also included were an ACTE Business Leader of the Year, an ACTE Business of the Year, and an ACTE Champion of the Year Awards. It was great to see that the awards acknowledged that partnerships and support outside of the sector were critical to the successes.

The Secretary of Labor apologised for the way in which governments (both state and federal) had turned away from career and technical education in the false belief that the American Dream could only be achieved if every child was headed towards college (university). Now, he argued, the effort put into career and technical education was central to economic prosperity and he underlined the critical importance of a skilled workforce.

As usually happens in such speeches, he dwelt on the amazing record of the Obama administration in creating jobs and used this to segue into the theme that despite this, too many young people lacked the skills to fill the positions. There was a need, he challenged the audience, for educators to “re-invent yourselves”. This would require a “dramatic re-design of how people are prepared with the skills to succeed in the future.”

He outlined his view that there would be three clear factors in this: it would be demand-driven, there would have to be multiple pathways and any success must be scalable. I gave a one-person silent cheer to this. I like demand driven, I adore multiple pathways and I am totally puzzled at the push-back in New Zealand on pathways that have been shown to succeed in achieving just such a set of goals.

He then spoke of what seems to be a uniquely American view that it is really the middle classes that are the victims. He described the middle classes as facing an “existential crisis.” No it could be that “existential” has an American meaning just as “momentarily” has. But I really do not know what he means. The portraying of the middle class as the victim in the changes of the last forty years and in the performance of the education systems is too cute for words. But then he provided the clue. The ‘multiple pathways’ he wanted were to be “multiple pathways to the middle classes”.

The citation for his award as ACTE Champion of the Year for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor of Austin, Texas, spoke of ”industry / education partnerships” and the importance of high school students having “hands-on experience” and “experiential learning” that would lead to career exploration and an improvement in “employability skills”. A particular project with which he was associated was one in which students after “two years of coursework are offered paid internships during their senior (i.e. final) year.” He has placed high value on the students’ developing employability skills and noted the value of work experiences in achieving these. He had led the City of Austin in working with the Austin Independent School District in achieving this.

New Zealand should find ways of acknowledging excellence in such partnerships. This had been an excellent evening and to achieve this in such a vast country should encourage us to think that we could do this easily in such a small country as ours. I have a plan in mind!


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Objets trouvés

San Francisco

Protest still alive and well at UC Berkeley #1

I stumbled across a student protest meeting on the campus at UC Berkeley on my way to meet with colleagues. They seemed to be responding with great enthusiasm to an articulate speaker who was making an argument that capitalism was dead. The focus of the protest was about the designs of the university to use six acres that they owned for an old folks home but in the meantime students had occupied the land for community gardens. My mind went back to the famous occupation of the UC Berkeley land in Telegraph Ave in the 1960s. I went off to the Freedom of Speech Café that commemorates the events of those halcyon days of protest at UC Berkeley for a coffee.

Protest still alive and well at UC Berkeley #2

Chalk notices are scrawled on the pavements calling for students to gather at Sproul Hall, 2.00pm Tuesday to protest the raising of tuition fees by $US 3,000.

Who doesn’t pay tuition fees at some of the universities?

Students who meet the entry requirements,  are selected for the University of California system and whose family income is less that $US 40,000 pa, do not pay tuition fees. This is covered by what is a called a Pell Grant and 33% of UC Berkeley first year students are covered by this. At Stanford the threshold for qualifying for full asistance is $US 100,000.

Famous in New Zealand and the US

I searched for mention of New Zealand but, honestly, the only mention of our country was Lydia Ko and her performance in some golf tournament. She was, the media suggested, a person to watch. I took comfort from the fact that I had written about this just a couple of weeks ago. Eat your hearts out All Blacks!

The Bus is brought to you by the letters F and S

I adore the fleets of Sesame Street school buses that toddle around the town taking students to and from school and to and from such amazing places as the Exploratium on the waterfront area of San Francisco. I do regret the fact that they no longer have signage that confidently identifies them as a “School Bus”.  Stating this clearly on the side was a great help to young readers. They are now styled as “First Student”. It is a sentiment I relate to but is it yet a reality?

North Beach sinking into respectability

The development around San Francisco seems breathtakingly fast. And the gloss seems to be going off Vesuvius, the favourite drinking hole for Dylan Thomas, and the next door book shop, Unity Books, that Lawrence Ferlinghetti established and the whole little micro-district that saw Jack Kerouac and his entourage produce all that stuff in the 1950s. And this within spitting distance of the church in which Joe Di Maggio married Marilyn Monroe. But who cares? Are some things not sacred? That is being replaced by respectable!

The Imperial Approach to Metrics

I am amused by the weather reports on TV that report the rainfall as 1.3”. Is this the metrimperial system?

Identifying Career Direction

There are some very smart projects taking place that assist students to develop a view of career. One which appeals is the CA Career Café. Students snack on experiences that introduce them to possible careers and a web site assists them to develop and refine their thoughts. As they approach the exit zone then internships play an important role in shaping the detail of their choices. It is student driven. What is impressive is the connections to employers who embrace the scheme not only with opportunities for such internships but also in supporting the programmes as students move through school and college. There are lessons in all this.

The Rectangular Hands

You could be forgiven for wondering if Californians are mutating and losing their fingers. The you realize that their arms end in rectangular blocks simply because they are clutching mobile phone incessantly. In the evening faces of pedestrians are illuminated by the soft glow of the screens. Couples sit in restaurants gazing closely at their phones. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were texting each other. For a hundred years our phones were as close as the cord was long.  Now the phone is liberated to pursue us wherever we go. I think it’s called progress.


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NZ Yesterday, USA Today


San Francisco

Arrived in the US in time for the autumnal snows by the look of it.

But the very first newspaper I pick up devotes half of its front page with an articled headlined with “More high schools turn out hire-ready skilled workers”.

Noting that over the last three decades schools had dropped vocational education programmes with the result that only a very few schools had retained a capability to teach vocational skills leaving increasing numbers of students in a situation where the pathways to employment had been, if not obliterated then at very best been made obscure.

Project Lead the Way was established to create high school engineering and technology curricula. It is reported that one programme it established for manufacturing is now taught in 800 high schools. (This sounds like a lot of schools but remember that the US is a big place!)

These new courses are not a re-run of the old but rather ones that reflect the modern environment. A spokesperson for the manufacturing industry’s training organization says that “manufacturing is dogged by an outdated image that it is very physical, labour-intensive, you’re working with your hands, you’re getting dirty and there’s no career path….. Actually you are working with computers and robots that are doing what you used to do by hand. That requires a skill set in maths and science above what was required a generation ago.”

I wonder how much of our progress in New Zealand is hampered by such outdated views of the world of work?

And it seems that industry is keen to be involved. Siemens needed 1,500 employees for a new turbine and generator plant in Kentucky. It worked with the local community college to design the programme and then when graduates (with at least diploma level qualifications) finished their course they were hired at a starting wage of $US55k per annum.

Volkswagen did a similar thing in Tennessee with a programme to prepare students to repair and maintain the robots that are so important to Volkswagen manufacturing process. It built its own academy next to the factory and then had the local community college deliver the training. This is a high stakes programme that costs the company $US1m per student over three years. They describe it as a bargain since they then have workers with high-level skills. Typically the graduates of these programmes have at least an Associate degree.

Another programme that is gaining momentum is the community-college-apprenticeship model promoted by President Obama. This is gaining ground across the states and invariably involves industry and many high-profile companies.

There seems little doubt that vocational education and training (VET) is making a comeback in the USA just as it seems to be in New Zealand.

What are points to note in this? Well at this point they seems to be:

·         that the initiatives seems to be closely associated with employers and industry partners;

·         that they involve high schools / community colleges and those industries working in partnership;

·         that there is no shyness about preparing students to work in the kinds of jobs that are available locally;

·         that the picture is one of students performing well, getting qualifications and entering the workforce into well-paid jobs.

There are lessons in this for New Zealand. While we tenaciously hang on to the notion of the value of a generalized education for all, many students will continue to have low educational outcomes. While regional New Zealand fails to specifically prepare students to work in local industries, youth unemployment will continue to be a factor in the regions.

One of the industry leaders involved in these developments is enthusiastic. As the programmes spread and increase he sees emerging “a path to America’s new middle class.”

And all this on Day 1!


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And coming in at number five!


The New Zealand Government spends $13.3 billion a year on education and of that $130m is directed towards reflecting the increased needs of some communities when it comes to education.

Despite the relatively small size of this decile funding pool, the media is trying hard to get a beat-up going even before the actual impact of the recalculations are known. “Deciles” were introduced into our system to achieve one thing, provide a mechanism that would allow additional funding to be directed towards areas of greater need.  It is a relatively sophisticated approach that takes into account the multiple factors that compound to create educational disadvantage.

Deciles were not introduced to allow schools to have bragging rights.

Deciles were not introduced to make it easier for real estate agents to talk up house prices in some areas.

Deciles were not introduced to make possible the absurd level if daily flight that occurs (especially in Auckland) as parents drive their SUVs across and around the city to deliver the little ones at a “better school”.

But the most elegant aspect of the decile rating system is that it is based neither on untested assumptions nor on blind prejudices. It is simply a picture of the slice of the specific members of the community who attend a specific school.

So there is no need for the bleating that has started already about “losing” funding. Funding is what you get, no more no less. Schools get funding also on the number of students, the age and experience of the staff, the property needs and so on. The decile funding lags a little behind over the actual period during which a school’s demography changes to produce an increase in the decile rating. Such a school has probably been over-funded during the period when this change has taken place. On the other hand, a school that experiences a decrease in decile rating has had to get by on a little less than that they will have when their situation is accurately reflected in the rating.

The decile ratings were introduced for noble reasons. But have they fulfilled these? Probably not.

We still struggle with student achievement levels that only creep upward and certainly the gaps that still exist between schools, suggests that the decile tool has had little impact. No wonder, when 90% of the funding to schools is delivered with blatant disregard for decile ratings. If there is an issue with decile funding it is that it is too small a proportion of the education spend.

The answer would be to attach funding levels not to schools neatly lined up in ten groups, but to individual students. It would not be difficult to attach a dollar value to the provision that needs to be made for each and every student and the complexity of doing so would be lessened by the ability to engage technology to achieve it.

This would be a powerful lever to lift the schools that have to face up to the hard yards of underachieving students, that have high levels of transient student swirl, that have widespread language issues and so on. The provision of adequate services and assistance boils down to having the funding to provide it.

If the task of having an individual education plan for each student is too large a task, then have some lines below which all students have a plan. Start with next year’s intake at Year 1 and build up the development over the following years. At that point, decile ratings might be a thing of the past.

The media make an automatic link between decile ratings and white flight that has reached seriously troubling proportions. Aucklanders dream each day during the school terms of the bliss of less cluttered roads that will arrive when the school holidays are on. It is marked to such an extent that seriously tolling roads at higher levels during the school delivery / drop-off / retrieve periods of the day might have to be considered. And what are they fleeing from? The very same communities in which they live? Their neighbours? It is all symptomatic of a social issue that is not talked about.


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