Tuesday, May 05, 2009

(How) Does the Leaving Cert. Prepare You For The Labour Market?

At the ESRI Labour Market Conference last week, Philip O'Connell discussed how the educational profile of unemployed males has evolved such that the biggest increases (between 2006 and 2008) in unemployment for males occur for those with Leaving Certificate and PLC qualifications. In the recent New York Times interview with Obama (that Colm mentioned), the U.S. President states that "I think the big challenge that we’ve got on education is making sure that from kindergarten or prekindergarten through your 14th or 15th year of school, or 16th year of school, or 20th year of school, that you are actually learning the kinds of skills that make you competitive and productive in a modern, technological economy." So are graduates of Ireland's Leaving Cerificate (Leaving Cert.) and PLC programmes getting the skills they need for the modern economy? There is also the vocational Leaving Cert. and Applied Leaving Cert. to bear in mind - see link here.

As the majority of students take the conventional Leaving Cert., and what I have to suggest may benefit all students, I will orientate my comments on Leaving Cert. curriculum-reform to the conventional programme. It should be noted that Senior Cycle education (i.e. Transition Year and Leaving Cert. programmes) is currently the subject of a major review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), including curriculum re-structuring and re-balancing. One example is that the NCCA has developed a draft syllabus for a new subject in the area of social and political education, called Politics and Society. This could be an engaging optional subject for many Leaving Cert. students.

In the review of senior cycle education, there is a particular focus on the role of ICT in the review of subjects and the development of short courses. It is proposed that some of the short courses developed will have a significant ICT focus, for example: "Media Communications Technology". Curriculum, Assessment and ICT in the Irish Context: A Discussion Paper sets forth the NCCA vision for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in curriculum and assessment in Irish primary and post-primary schools. "This document was developed to stimulate discussion and deliberation regarding the potential of ICT to support and extend the curriculum development and assessment work of the NCCA."

The comments I make below bear in mind exisiting developments in Senior Cycle curriculum strategy and are largely motivated to address the question - (how) does the Leaving Cert. prepare students for the labour market? This includes concerns about:
(i) those whose education stops at Leaving Cert.
(ii) those whose higher education options are restricted by Leaving Cert. subject choices
(iii) those who enter higher education but subsequently drop out and find they have to mostly use what they learned in their Leaving Cert.
(iv) those who might consider returning to higher education as a mature student

Some motivation for addressing these concerns is provided by Obama in the recent NYT interview: "My grandmother never got a college degree. She went to high school... She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t...we’ve got to — in our education-reform agenda — we’ve got to focus not just on increasing graduation rates, but we’ve also got to make what’s learned in the high-school and college experience more robust and more effective..."

The main suggestion that I want to propose is to re-orientate the Leaving Cert. curriculum to have four compulsory subjects: English, Maths, Applied Maths (geared towards information technology) and the “Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life” (CBEL was discussed on the blog before - here). Having four compulsory subjects at Leaving Cert. (geared towards the needs of the economy) is suggested because (a) the economy is suffering a massive unemployment shock, and (b) there are many potential problems with subject choice at Leaving Cert., including the possibilities that:

- there is only partial information available until the student enters the college course of their choice (in other words, they may not know what they would really like to do)
- students may choose “high points” courses simply because they are “high points” courses (and not true preferences)
- another problem is exemplified by the applicant who decides to look only at courses within a certain points-band. For example, let us say that a student anticipates getting 340 points. He or she will scour the lists of last year's cut-off points, picking courses that "cost" 340 points or thereabouts, almost regardless of the content of the course

An article from Science describes the CBEL initiative as a potential solution to preference misalignmnet - at least in the specific subject domain of science. The article describes how some American universities have been trying to match science students to their interests. The course called “The Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life” (CBEL) was developed using students’ interests in everyday life as the starting point for instruction. Of course, the American higher education system is largely non-specialised at entry to under-graduate level (see more on this here), which allows for initiatives such as CBEL post high-school. But why not have something similar for Leaving Cert. in Ireland, which builds on what students learned in the Junior Cert.? This would keep students exposed to science after the Junior Cert. (if they are not doing any science subjects as options).

One question arises which is obvious enough: "Where do we have time to fit in CBEL during 5th and 6th year?". This may be bring us onto some very difficult questions about the economic returns to certain courses of education at Leaving Cert. While Irish language is important for heritage (and knock-on effects on tourism), do we not get enough of that benefit by schooling students in the Irish language up until Junior Cert.? Why not have students take CBEL instead of Irish for Leaving Cert.? Those who want to study Irish at third-level (and I can see the need for this) could enter third-level courses that pick up where Junior Cert. Irish left off.

The fourth compulsory subject that I suggest is the Applied Mathematics course, geared strongly towards information technology. I suggest that this could be taken at Higher or Ordinary Level, but the hope would be that more students would take it at Higher Level compared to the existing (abstract) course on Maths. Take-up of the exisiting Maths course at Higher Level is extremely low, so it may be more realistic to accept that some students will continue to take the abstract Maths course at Ordinary Level (where they will still get a Maths work-out). But that they will persist with Higher Level in a new "applied" Maths course with real-world focus. This course could be useful for securing IT employment (especially for those whose education stops at Leaving Cert.) or for securing entry onto IT courses in higher education (and critically, performing well on those courses).

So the situation I suggest would be as follows - students have to take Maths, Applied Maths, CBEL and English. And then they would choose three additional courses. Looking at Leaving Cert. subject choice between 1997 and 2005 (based on anslysis I conducted on the blog before), we know that most students choose Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology for their optional subjects. The following are the most popular subjects, in order. (I should point out that after Accounting, the numbers taking any subject are quite low):

1. Geography
2. Business Studies
3. French
4. Biology
5. Home Econ.
6. History
7. Art
8. Construction
9. Physics
10. Chemistry
11. German
12. Accounting

I should also point out that there is a sizeable fall of about 50% in the numbers taking any subject after Home Economics. We can see that the top four (Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology) include one of Hist/Geog, one "Business" subject, one language and one science subject. I think that having (only) three of these "broad choices" alongside Maths, Applied Maths, CBEL and English would be a very rounded preparation before doing anything after second-level. And this might also be a better preparation for entering the labour market, which is what this argument is all about.

My hunch is that Geography, Business Studies, French, Biology and Home Econ are being chosen because they are easier exams to score more points from. I suspect that French is being chosen to get into NUI colleges, but that Home Econ would be a higher preference if the NUI language rule did not exist. Under the scope of my suggested curriculum-reform, Leaving Cert. students can still choose a language given that they have three optional choices. It could also be argued that having four (instead of three) compulsory choices might be fairer, in that it could be viewed as a more level playing-field.


Peter Carney said...

Educational curriculum - it really doesn't get more fundamental than this and yet its easy to get the impression that its not taken seriously, especially if action and reform is any indication of serious attention and consideration.

The standard curriculum needs major reform. From the proposed preschooling to senior second level, with renewed emphasis on the former to align resources with the irrefutable psychobiological evidence of the natural course of human learning and development that is well reflected and economically reinforced in the 'Heckman curve'. Current educational resource allocation in Ireland does an excellent job of inverting this wisdom (empirically validated wisdom) with averaging spending in childhood less than half that in adulthood. This needs greater attention. It is understandable that an overnight shift of resources would be untenable and undesirable but the change needs to be set in motion and could be achieved smoothly over one generation without disadvantage to any current cohort. Indications of this may be evident in the new preschool funding that was recently announced but thinking about the structure and nature of this type of school seems to have gone amiss -- ideally it would be more than a state-sponsored child-minding service. It has massive potential.

In terms of secondary education, yes, curriculum-reform is required. new and refreshed subjects and subject matter is welcome and the extent to which these can reach and relate to the 21st century child in a meaningful way the better for child, teacher, and country. An essential feature that I would encourage is choice - especially at the senior level. Martin indicated this also but I would go further. More choice overall and within subjects, ie, we need to move toward a system that allows the senior student to chose their own course and avoid forcing subjects on students to the point of despondency -- they are young adults and wasted educational resources serve no good purpose, compulsory or otherwise. With recognition of the essential role both English and Mathematics play in all subject learning, special emphasis might remain in place but choice could be facilitated within these subjects with streams eg., pragmatism or vocation and academic or classical. In terms of encouraging subjects that are presently considered vital to our prospective economy -- there are other ways. In particular knowledge from the field of behavioural economics might inform this course of action.

If, as a country, we could make education fulfill its purpose there's every reason to be hopeful about the future.

Martin Ryan said...

Peter, on curriculum-reform in secondary education, I sympathise with your emphasis on free choice. However, so much of subject choice revolves around maximising points, I wonder is it a free choice at all?