National Edition

How apprenticeships can empower fathers and strengthen marriages

By Christine Gross-Loh, TheAtlantic.com

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 6:00 a.m. MST

Bringing apprentice-based learning to America's schools could both raise earnings and give young men the skills they need to be good husbands and fathers.

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families. You can also read part one, part two or part three of the series.

Young men are more likely to drop out of high school and are less likely to aspire to college than their female peers. Young men who are poor, live in a city and are black or Latino are at even higher risk of unemployment and unplanned teen fatherhood than their peers in other demographics. As men’s earnings have stagnated, marriage has declined. It’s a vicious cycle: Being unmarried weakens men’s commitment to the workforce, but stagnation in earnings is contributing to the decline in marriage.

Robert Lerman — an economist at American University and fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research center in Washington, D.C. — has a solution. He believes bringing apprentice-based learning to America’s schools would both raise earnings and give young men the skills they need to be good husbands and fathers. Put boys in a real-world situation outside the classroom with skilled adults as mentors, Lerman says, and students have a chance to engage in on-the-job training in a wide range of fields from baking to boat-building, farming to architecture, public health to civil engineering.

This is learning in context, and it’s what young men (and women) crave: It feels immediate and real. It is not isolated or abstract; it is refreshingly relevant, and it is taking place in real time, in real space, and among adults who take young people seriously. Youth apprenticeship has an immediacy that engages students who have trouble paying attention in class by giving them the time and the means to develop genuine mastery in a given field. At the same time, they are cultivating skills — such as how to communicate effectively, problem-solve, work in teams and maintain a positive attitude — that help them become reliable partners to their future spouses and present, stable fathers to their future children.

“If we teach everything entirely in a classroom context, we’re not going to be as effective — even when it comes to academics,” Lerman says. “The reality is that people learn best — whether it’s cognitive or technical skills or even how to get along with others — in context.”

Skill-based learning has fallen out of favor in the past few decades. Once popular, career-oriented courses have been phased out since the 1980s in favor of academic courses aimed at preparing students for the knowledge economy. For instance, shop classes — once a mainstay in most American high schools — are being eliminated in California schools in favor of courses that prepare students for university. A good education is increasingly defined as a college education: think President Obama’s national goals for college to be affordable, accessible and attainable for all, and for America to have the “highest number of college graduates in the world” by 2020.

Though well intentioned, the shift away from skill-based learning has not served all students well, especially those most at risk of dropping out of high school: poor, urban, minority boys who have a history of not thriving in school and consequently self-identify as poor learners. Although our high-school graduation rate used to rank number one among OECD nations, it’s now among the lowest.

The idea of college for all, Lerman says, is the reason it’s uncommon today for schools to offer specific career-oriented courses comprehensive enough to allow students to attain full competence. And a college-preparation-focused curriculum that doesn’t incorporate innovative learning strategies is misguided, leading disaffected youths to become bored with seemingly irrelevant coursework in high school. In one survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost half of high school dropouts surveyed say they left school because their classes felt boring and irrelevant.

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