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Betsy DeVos: America Can Learn a Lot From Swiss Apprenticeships

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said there are a host of things about the Swiss apprenticeship system that America could emulate. But she doesn't the federal government should be necessarily spearhead any initiative  on this issue.  

"I don't' think it would be successful if we tried to put together a national or federal model and then said go and adopt this everywhere," DeVos said in a call with reporters from Switzerland. "In fact, I'm positive that would not pan out well."

But DeVos sees a lot to admire about the Swiss system. That includes the sheer number of students participating at some point in their academic career—about two-thirds according to the secretary. And it covers industries  ranging from finance to healthcare. She also praised that the Swiss allow students to transfer from apprenticeship programs to higher education. (DeVos did not say this, but college tuition is much more affordable in Switzerland than it is in the U.S.)

In Switzerland, employers work with educators to develop training programs, with common standards, curriculum, and assessments. High school students get access to work-based learning experiences, complete with mentors, and extensive career counseling. (For more, check out my colleague Steve Sawchuk's on-site look at the Swiss system.)

"The federal government's role is really to put just a stamp of approval on what can be done at the local level," said DeVos. ""It's very instructive and there's a lot we can take away from what they have refined here."

DeVos wasn't specific about what federal resources, if any, might be brought to bear to expand the Swiss model in the U.S. But she noted that in Switzerland, business and industry kicks in about 60 percent of the cost, she said, with the Swiss equivalent of states chipping in 30 percent, and the Swiss federal government provides the remaining 10 percent. That's not radically different, she said, from school funding models in the U.S.

DeVos did not call for replicating the Swiss system in the U.S. But doing so would be a "monumental lift," said Alisha Hyslop, the director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education.

"I think it would most definitely take leadership at the federal level," she said. "Employers would have to completely restructure the way they interface with students. ... Here one of the challenges to work-based learning has been not enough places for students to access those opportunities. There's not just the scale in the U.S currently. ... It would definitely need to be a big jump."

DeVos acknowledged as much in a post on the Education Department's Homeroom Blog.

"It's true that education in the United States isn't exactly the same as it is in Switzerland, and that U.S. companies don't have the same experience in delivering apprenticeships as Swiss companies. But there's still much that we can learn from the Swiss model," she wrote. "It's our hope that Swiss companies operating in the U.S. will help lead the way by setting the best examples for other U.S. businesses to participate in apprenticeships."

DeVos is in Switzerland as part of a three-country tour, to investigate career and technical education and school choice in Europe. Next, she'll be heading to the Netherlands, and finally to the United Kingdom. You can read more about her trip here.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations hearing to review the fiscal year 2019 funding request and budget justification for the U.S. Department of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 5. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

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