From School to Life Through Competency Based Learning


The following is a composite story of students in Los Angeles, Detroit, Flint, and other cities who improved their work and college readiness through an intensive program called “Fast Break”.

Juan Martinez and Celeste Johnson were very concerned about their future. Both of these young adults were living at home with their low-income families. Although Juan had graduated high school six months before, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. His minimum-wage job was barely keeping him in spending money, and saving enough to go to college was a farfetched dream.

Celeste, 24, was a high school drop out; she was functionally illiterate, reading at a fourth-grade level, with fifth-grade math skills. She lacked self-confidence and was in need of remedial help.

Juan and Celeste decided to apply to FAST BREAK, a computer-assisted employment training program. Entry requirements included:

* Pass reading and math tests at least at the eighth-grade level (or Level 3 of WorkKeys)
 * Commit to eight-hour days for eight weeks
 * Work or go to school upon graduating

Juan and Celeste liked the idea of a short program that led to a job paying more than minimum wage and were enthused about using computers several hours a day. They both looked forward to classes with lots of individual attention and interaction between classmates.

Juan passed the entry exam. He was surprised to learn that half of high school graduates who took the test did not pass. Celeste, a dropout, twice failed the test despite having gone to an adult school to improve her skills. To accommodate Celeste and others who could not meet the entry skill standards, the city council provided funds for “Step Up”, a program that uses courseware in combination with one-to-one and small-group tutoring to raise math and reading scores to the levels required by FAST BREAK. Celeste enrolled immediately.


The first day Juan reported to FAST BREAK, he knew he was in for an unusual experience. After signing in, an instructor immediately showed him how to logon to a computer with his own password. “No waiting,” he thought. “That’s good.” Then the normally shy Juan joined a small group, and he introduced another group member to the entire class. He said to himself, “The class just started a few minutes ago, and already I had to stand up and talk in front of everyone. I guess I’m going to have to get over my shyness in a hurry.”

The program director explained, that to graduate from the program, students must achieve at least tenth-grade math and reading proficiencies (roughly Level 4/5 of WorkKeys), demonstrate exemplary attendance and punctuality, master essential computer skills, develop a portfolio of their best work, give a speech on their career plan, demonstrate satisfactory cooperation and interpersonal relations, and remain drug-free. If they were going to college after the program, they would have to apply prior to completing the program. If they were going into the job market, they would need to conduct two interviews with occupational incumbents in their career choice area and incorporate what they learned into their career speech. Juan’s head was spinning, “How am I going to be able to do all this?”

Before the first day was over, Juan was introduced to the computers operating system, started his courseware math and reading lessons, and participated in an interesting discussion that followed a video on the new world of work confronting young people. Juan observed he learned more in a day at FAST BREAK than in a couple of weeks of high school.


As Juan progressed through the program, he experienced the growing self-confidence that comes from achieving new skills, speaking before groups, learning how to find and use information to solve work-related problems, and how to work effectively with others. He appreciated the workplace environment where students and staff helped one another and treated one another with respect. He was impressed with the multiple opportunities to practice the principles of the high-performance workplace: hard work, high expectations, continual improvement, daily practice of fundamentals, teamwork, personal responsibility and discipline, reward for excellence and effort, and the importance of the customer.

Juan and his classmates often remarked that they wished they had this program in high school. Much of it was the same content they had in their high school English, math, science and social studies classes, yet they understood much more because FAST BREAK integrated the subjects and used courseware to help teach and reinforce the most important elements. They also liked the team approach of the instructors, and that students had to master basic levels before being allowed to progress to more difficult levels. Some dropouts found they had little difficulty passing GED tests after graduating FAST TRACK. Other students used the program as a head start on college, particularly in math since the instructors and courseware could take them through college geometry and algebra.

Juan also liked the voluntary Saturday workshops on occupational safety (including CPR), dressing and grooming for success, and Internet search skills and etiquette.

Another popular activity was the catered “power lunch” with a well-known business leader from the community. The students themselves organized the event. Students had to dress up (the instructor loaned Juan a tie and taught him how to tie it). The honored guest led a meal time discussion on what it takes to succeed in business. Juan long remembered the stimulating discussion, and the fact that he never had a meal with so many forks.


Technology helped students get the most out of every day. No one took attendance, logging on took care of that. Computer courseware helped push students to their limits. The web-based network and management system (e.g. Core Skills Mastery, KeyTrain, Apex, NovaNet, PLATO, etc.) enabled staff to track individual progress and work productively with students having widely different abilities and learning rates. The staff routinely invited students to use the management system to review their progress; the students liked the continual feedback from staff.

A typical lesson integrated academics with computer applications. For example, students would read a work problem requiring a numerical solution, then use a calculator and spreadsheet software to calculate and verify the answer. Finally, using a word processor, results were written up in the form of a memo or letter. Five-person student teams would then come up with a stronger letter, drawing on the initial products of the team members.

Students could access web-based job banks to identify prospective local employers and obtain career information from state and national systems that described various jobs and the places students could go for postsecondary training. They could find out about labor market demand, wages, job duties and entry requirements for virtually any occupation in any county in any state. Juan, who decided to become a graphic artist, had to defend his career plan as part of a final oral examination, conducted like a job interview by all the staff and students. He appreciated their positive reviews of his well-organized PowerPoint presentation that included graphs showing state and local job trends in his field of interest.

Juan developed his resume, again using a word processor. He also made and reviewed videotapes of mock interviews, which helped him gain poise, self-confidence and a sense of humor when in front of others.

Juan graduated. No longer shy, his writing, interpersonal skills and portfolio that featured creatively illustrated PowerPoint presentations helped him land an entry-level job at a graphic arts company.


“What impresses me most about these FAST BREAK graduates,” said one corporate director of human resources “is how much they care about their jobs. They are eager and responsible; learn fast, and know the value of loyalty. They don’t leave you for a quarter more per hour somewhere else, because they realize their earnings can grow here if they work hard and produce.”

“Since coming over from FAST BREAK,” the owner of a printing company observed, “Rebecca Sanchez jumped right in and cheerfully has accepted new assignments. We are impressed with how well she retains information when she has to acquire new skills.”

The supervisor of more than a dozen graduates at a home improvement and hardware store said, “They work hard, have good work habits and learn computer skills quickly. They are making a definite contribution to the growth of this division.”

The, provost of a nearby community college, said “We want more of your graduates. More than 85 percent are passing their placement exams on the first try so they can use tuition to pay for college credit classes instead of the noncredit remedial classes that most of our freshmen must take.”


FAST BREAK established an evening program that allowed unsuccessful applicants like Celeste to augment her skills in areas she was lacking. They used the same courseware available to regular day students. With the help of a specialist in “brain-based” information processing styles and Lindamood-Bell remedial reading materials, Celeste worked her way through the computer modules, and for every grade level she moved up in math or reading, she was rewarded with opportunities to learn word processing and spreadsheet skills.

Within three months, Celeste raised her scores from fifth-grade to eighth-grade levels. She spent two more months in FAST BREAK and graduated with tenth-grade levels of proficiency. She found a job and now carries herself as a confident, poised young woman.


The enormity of this crisis of competence calls for immediate action. Through intelligent application of technology and principles of a high performance workplace, we can get better results and overcome the growing irrelevance of public education and training to our Nation’s businesses.

Who can benefit from a program like Fast Break? Any group needing better skills and/or work habits to enter college or career-track employment:

  • High school students
  • Out-of-school young adults (high school graduates or dropouts)
  • College freshmen needing remedial education
  • Welfare recipients needing better skills + work habits
  • Ex-offenders
  • Displaced workers/homemakers re-entering job market
  • Incumbent workers desiring advance from basic level
  • Recent immigrants needing skills and orientation to U.S. system of work and education

Which institutions could adapt this program to their needs? Answer:
 high schools, community colleges, employment and training agencies, prisons and jails, community-based organizations.

Business coalitions could establish Fast Break in industrial parks and shopping centers to develop a pool of job ready employees and help groom their current entry-level employees for positions with greater responsibility.

Multi-national companies and their suppliers in developing countries could establish Fast Break centers to ensure a steady supply of entry-level employees with the skills and work habits to help them compete in the global economy.

So, are we sufficiently content to continue sleeping through this crisis of competence, or are we prepared to break from the factory model of education that focuses on deficit removal. Will we try instead an approach that conforms to the way people really are and would actually help them compete in the global economy?

Barry E. Stern, Ph.D. is principal of a consulting firm that specializes in high school transformation, workforce development and industry-education partnerships. His clients have included agencies in several states and U.S. foreign aid missions. Previously, he was Director of Planning and Research at Macomb Community College, Director of Policy and Planning for the Michigan Department of Career Development, and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, where he administered the $1.4 billion federal program in career-technical and adult education and was an early and effective advocate of career academies and school-to-work programs. His career has also spanned school and hospital administration, administration of employment-training programs, high school and college teaching, and public policy research and evaluation for the U.S. Secretaries of Labor and Education. The Governor of California appointed Dr. Stern to the State Job Training Coordinating Council. He has 85 published articles and editorials on technological education, school-to-work transition, school reform, worker retraining, skill and performance standards, educational and career information systems, and adult education. His Ph.D. is from Stanford University in Education and International Development; M.S. University of Illinois, Urbana; B.S. Springfield College, MA.

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