Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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More relevant to the "real world"
Making desegregation work
Enabling the blind to tune in
Q&A with Benjamin Ginsberg

Illustration by Charles Beyl
More relevant to the "real world"

James Matthews is pursuing a computer engineering degree at Virginia Union University. Dante Brown is taking Microsoft Office classes at a local technology school. Danielle Harris is enrolled in a two-year part-time nursing program. Many of their former classmates from Northern High School in Baltimore dropped out. One difference: these three students tackled career-oriented projects while still in school.

A new educational approach developed at Hopkins's Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) hopes to help students and new workers find careers by giving them the sort of workplace savvy employers are looking for. Known as the Career Transcript System, the program encourages the teaching of communication and problem-solving skills. Teachers and employers then evaluate students or workers, adding comments to a "lifelong record of learning" that workers can show prospective employers. The dossier, for example, would indicate how well a candidate allocates time, joins in team work, grasps math, or speaks publicly, among other qualities. In welfare-to-work transitions, a focus on learning job skills can help people without strong resumes or school transcripts show employers what they can do.

Arnold Packer, a senior fellow at IPS and executive director of the U.S. Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, launched the Career Transcript System at Baltimore area high schools, community colleges, and elsewhere a year and a half ago. "What you learned in school often isn't what you need to know when you get to work," Packer says.

It remains unclear how widespread career transcripts might become. But 70 companies nationwide, including Host Marriott Corporation, have hired workers using the format. Packer says 500 people with career transcripts have found jobs, mostly entry level positions in the service industry and other areas. And hundreds of Baltimore City students are tapping into career-relevant education via the program.

At Northern High, for instance, a group of students tested Packer's concept through the Baltimore Learning Community, a program that links academic subjects to future careers. As ninth-graders, they created a marketing plan for a tour of Baltimore, and in 10th grade they did a business plan for a retail store. Their teachers evaluated their performance using career transcripts.

"Of 23 students we started out with in ninth grade, 22 graduated," Packer says, noting that half the students in the school's regular curriculum dropped out by 11th grade. Many of the 23 students also did internships, and several are enrolled in colleges or trade schools.

Packer says it's logical to make school relevant to real life. "I want to change the math class," he says, "so that it's not about your cat being twice as old as your turtle. It's about creating a budget for a ball team or a newspaper." --Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Making desegregation work

When the city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, set out to better integrate low-income white and Laotian Hmong immigrant students with more well-off white students, Hopkins researcher Stephen Plank took a front-row seat on the action. After spending months in LaCrosse's fourth-grade classrooms, he concluded that teaching style has a "profound impact" on making such desegregation work. His findings are part of his recent book, Finding One's Place: Teaching Styles and Peer Relations in Diverse Classrooms (Teacher's College Press, 2000).

Teachers who took a more traditional approach--using lectures and whole-class instruction, setting high standards, and singling out two or three high achievers--ended up with highly stratified classes, says Plank, a researcher at the Center for Social Organization of Schools: "Some students became labeled by themselves and their classmates as failures or outsiders, labels that didn't change much over the year."

By contrast, other teachers encouraged interaction between students, frequently dividing them into small groups, and drawing out their different home and life experiences. These teachers didn't hold up top achievers as "stars." The result, says Plank: Their students enjoyed much more social interaction between different groups. This approach, he believes, reveals "enough detail about students' personalities, interests, and abilities so that students see each other as individuals." --Sue De Pasquale

Pfanstiehl at home with husband, Cody.
Enabling the blind to tune in

Margaret Pfanstiehl ('60) learned to harmonize by ear as a music major at Peabody Conservatory, logging hundreds of hours of practice in the pursuit of a better voice.

Sound would become her life. Within a decade of her graduation, retinitis pigmentosa had left her legally blind. By the mid-1970s, she had founded a nonprofit radio reading service, the Metropolitan Washington Ear, for others who could not see. Later, she added audio descriptions for live theater, museum exhibits, and IMAX films.

Today, her voice--and those of hundreds of others--has opened image-laden worlds to some of the 12 million Americans who are legally blind or visually impaired. In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed rules making "video description" mandatory in television programming by 2002--about four prime-time hours per week per channel. The rules will affect the major networks, as well as larger cable and satellite providers in the top 25 television markets.

Video description in television operates much like closed captioning for deaf or hearing-impaired people. Instead of viewing a line of dialogue along the bottom of the screen, blind subscribers, who have a separate audio channel that runs in sync with programs, can hear trained readers describe body language, action, facial expressions, costumes, and settings. Descriptions are inserted in quiet moments between dialogue.

"Someone who can't see doesn't know the next scene is in a back alley, rather than a living room," Pfanstiehl says. "And in television or movies, there are often long silences. Sometimes they'll just show the villain at the end, and blind people will have to call their neighbors to find out who did it."

For the past six years, Pfanstiehl and a coalition of 17 other groups, including the American Council of the Blind, lobbied Congress to mandate the descriptions in order to make television more accessible to the blind. She has won several community service awards, including an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1990 for her pioneering efforts.

Some Public Broadcasting Service programs have carried video description for the past decade, after Pfanstiehl partnered with WGBH, a Boston area public television station, to help create the service.

The next hurdle, says Pfanstiehl, will be making the Internet more accessible to blind users. "If you are shut off from print and computers and television, that is an enormous loss." --JCS

Q&A with Benjamin Ginsberg

A few weeks before the national elections, the Magazine checked in with Benjamin Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and director of the Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government, to learn how he'd viewed the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign.

How would you sum up this election season?
This is an election characterized by relatively few salient issues and little interest on the part of voters. The country is at peace, the economy seems reasonably strong, and the scandal-mongering of the last few years seems to have died down. Both candidates have talked about similar issues and have taken positions that are discernably different only to academics and reporters, not to the public. What we have here is Wal-Mart campaigning against Kmart. Each is offering similar products at similar prices. I would predict relatively low levels of voter turnout and little excitement, and a narrow Democratic victory.

Does it take conditions nobody wants--conflict abroad, a bad economy, scandal--to get people to vote?
Historically, voter turnout is associated with high levels of conflict. But in recent decades, we've had high levels of conflict and low levels of voter turnout, in part because negative campaigning has turned off a lot of voters, and in part because getting voters to the polls requires political mobilization and effort on the part of parties and candidates. But most efforts on the part of Democrats and Republicans are aimed at bringing their existing voters in. New voters are such an unknown, that's dangerous terrain. A typical member of Congress gets 60 percent of the vote, with maybe a third of potential voters turning out. That means he or she has a safe seat but support from only 20 percent of the electorate. Who knows what that other 80 percent would do?

The major third parties this election have been howling that the system is rigged.
Of course the system is rigged. This is a system controlled by two parties. Why would they open the arena to third parties? The campaign finance system is rigged, the winner-take-all way we count the votes is rigged, the debates are rigged. That's life. Those in power set the rules to keep themselves in power. How could it be otherwise? --Interview by Dale Keiger