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A young female teacher in a brightly decorated elementary classroom writes on a whiteboard, as the young students, sitting on the floor, pay close attention.

Teddy (Teerasak Anantanon) via RawPixel

Over the past two years, I have had the unique experience of scaling support for a statewide registered teacher-apprenticeship program while also parenting three college-aged sons. The declining appeal of postsecondary education, especially among young men, is evident at my dinner table, in my office, and in my dreams (literally). Every week, there are new articles about the shifting landscape of higher education, skepticism about return on investment, and the need for universities to change their ways. Outside the campus, we contend with an increasingly unengaged workforce and—relevant to my profession—understaffed K-12 schools.

Scaling a statewide apprenticeship program for the preparation of teachers has meant that I am consistently hearing from four stakeholder groups—K-12 school district leaders, college and university leaders, aspiring young educators, and local workforce development leaders. Tennessee currently has more registered teacher apprentices than any other state thanks to generous funding from the Tennessee Department of Education and partnerships with 11 Tennessee colleges and universities. A theme has emerged from my professional life, one that echoes the dinner table conversations happening in my personal life: Society needs systematic work-to-learn pathways in addition to the current learn-to-work ecosystem. This is not an either/or. What we need is a systematic expansion of effort.

For generations, formal education has been designed so that we learn to work. People go to school, acquire knowledge and skills, and then apply for jobs where that knowledge and skill can be applied. People learn so that they can work. This model motivated generations of individuals to become teachers, engineers, nurses, business leaders, and accountants during the twentieth century. However, the learn-to-work model has been losing its appeal for decades. Consider the possibility that this steep decline is not because any particular generation or segment of the population is addicted to social media, lazy or fragile. Consider instead that it is because our system of education (cradle-to-grave) is producing exactly what it was designed to produce. It was not designed to appeal to every person. It was not designed to serve every segment of the population. It was designed to rank and sort.

I grew up in an agricultural community where my dad farmed potatoes. After the potato harvest, equipment is used to grade the potatoes and sort them by size for various purposes. Restaurants want grade-A jumbo potatoes to be served as a side with your steak. French fry factories and fast-food restaurants have fryers optimized for certain sizes of fries, so farmers sort their crops to meet each consumer’s needs. No growth is wasted. Regardless of its size, shape, grade or variety, every potato has value.

It is a crude comparison, but just as a piece of farm equipment is designed to sort potatoes, school systems are designed to sort people. The ability to read, write and calculate became primary characteristics upon which to sort talent, and those who perform well on standardized tests are at a distinct advantage. Our sorting equipment has not kept pace with the 21st-century needs of today’s industries.

Employers have been signaling for half a century that they need more finely tuned methods of selecting employees. College degrees (and before that, high school diplomas) have been a useful proxy for finding talent, but a college degree is a blunt instrument for an employer—like using field binoculars to find a ladybug. In their search for better methods of developing a strong workforce, employers are increasingly abandoning the college degree proxy and taking ownership for their own workforce development. They are offering education as a benefit to employees so that workers gain an education while in the workplace. They are eliminating the bachelor’s degree requirement for some positions when they find better methods of finding or creating the necessary talent. They are developing and implementing their own robust training programs, complete with industry-recognized credentials that are portable from one employer to another.

Learners are noticing.

The learn-to-work model is in decline, and in its place, the work-to-learn model is growing. Enrollment in U.S. apprenticeship programs has increased 102 percent in the last ten years. Apprenticeships in the education and healthcare sectors have increased 175 percent, to 91,805 apprentices preparing for these professions nationwide.

In my own experience recruiting aspiring apprentices to become teachers in Tennessee, our recruiting efforts are only limited by the extent to which we have funding and/or seats available. Our data suggest that the persistent narrative that “no one wants to be a teacher” is false—88 percent of Tennessee’s educators indicate that they are satisfied with being a teacher. The Tennessee Grow Your Own Teacher Apprenticeship program had more than 1,000 interested applicants after six months of availability with $0 spent on marketing efforts. The program enrolled 600 teacher apprentices in the first year.

Work-to-learn models engage learners of all ages who struggle with a traditional educational system that is highly dependent on didactic instruction, standardized testing and inflexible course times and locations. Selectivity is promoted as a strong practice in higher education because it protects learners from spending tuition dollars on a program for which they do not have the fundamental skills to be successful. Selectivity is one method of ranking and sorting and, for certain programs, it may be entirely necessary. However, many learn-to-work models are hyper-fixated on one segment of the population and ambivalent toward those who do not thrive in that model. To put it more bluntly, everyone in higher education is fighting to attract the top 20 percent of test takers and those with 4.0 GPAs, and few seem concerned about providing what other learners might need.

We need learners of all ages to become motivated, engaged and thriving members of the workforce and community. For some, their pathway will be a learn-to-work pathway. It involves traditional academic experiences followed by the desired career. For others, that pathway will be a work-to-learn pathway. It involves an apprenticeship or workplace-based education that makes use of the learner’s current level of readiness, evaluates their aptitude for more, and then provides meaningful developmental experiences to grow and level-up.

There is a strong theoretical model—John M. Keller’s ARCS model—to underpin an expanded interest in working to learn. According to the ARCS model, learners need attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction to motivate them to persist to completion. All of these elements are threatened in today’s learn-to-work environments. An endless stream of curated online content is competing for the attention of every learner. The relevance of high school and college coursework is highly questionable in a world where countless content creators have become millionaires through their YouTube channels and live-streamed video game play. Standardized testing threatens confidence at every stage of the learning process, and consider how unsatisfying it is to finish an expensive college course only to find that it doesn’t count toward your new major, doesn’t transfer to your new institution or is mostly duplicated content from a previous course you took (all real examples from my dinner table by the way).

At some point in adolescence, many learners drift off into their own worlds of apathy, disengagement and anxiety. Many of them are young men, and for them, a work-to-learn model might be just the solution they need. What if every profession had an option for an apprenticeship degree, a competency-based pathway, or, as the University System of Georgia calls it, a Nexus degree? Consider all of the elements of Keller’s ARCS model that are addressed with a work-to-learn approach.

In a work-to-learn model, the traditional college sequence is flipped. Instead of starting with general education coursework or survey courses, the working learner is actively engaged in practicing the skills they are interested in acquiring. A workplace supervisor often helps him make connections between the coursework and the job. The learner’s attention is piqued. The learning is relevant. The learner gains confidence, and seeing their influence in the workplace (and paycheck) is satisfying. All of the ARCS model elements are easily achieved.

What if every college degree could be accessed in both a learn-to-work and a work-to-learn model? What if learners could choose and then switch from one to the other without losing credits, money or time? How many disengaged and disenfranchised learners would jump at the chance to finish a degree using a work-to-learn model if their existing knowledge and skills could count toward their credential? These questions and many more deserve our careful attention as institutions of higher education create systems that serve another 100 years of society’s learning needs.

Erin Crisp, Ed.D., is executive director of the University of Tennessee System’s Tennessee Grow Your Own Center, a statewide intermediary leveraging the apprenticeship model to build an educator workforce development pipeline.

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