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True Reform or Tired Retread?

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School-to-work programs are the most recent reforms to hit the education system, and, with the appeal of novelty, they have entered the lists of changes to be implemented over the next few years. The big question is whether the changes will make much difference to schools and students, or whether in 10 years' time they will have vanished, swept aside by different priorities.

To these programs' partisans, including me, "school to work'' offers a better chance for improving high schools than any other area of reform. The school-based component requires the integration of academic and vocational education and creates bridges between secondary and postsecondary education. A work-based component provides opportunities for learning different capacities (including motivation and discipline) than schools can teach. And linkages or "connecting activities'' insure that both components are consistent.

But to others, the noise around school-to-work programs may seem baffling. None of the elements is particularly new. Efforts to integrate academic and vocational education and tech-prep programs are already taking place in vocational education; and the work-based components seem like a re-labeling of work-experience and co-op programs. The last wave of occupationally related innovation just 20 years ago--with career education and work-experience programs--resulted in very little. What's to prevent school-to-work programs from following the same cycle of proposal, enthusiasm, and collapse?

In fact, even now there are early warning signals. The strength of the school-to-work vision--the combination of several supporting reforms--is itself a weakness, since reformers can stress one component to the exclusion of others. And so many proponents of school-to-work have taken different directions, each with a vision that cannot possibly endure:

  • Advocates of "youth apprenticeship'' continue to elaborate descriptions of what the work component ought to look like. But developing work-based components without reforming high schools probably cannot work. Quite apart from the problem of whether there can be enough high-quality work placements, school-to-work programs fit poorly with the conventional high school dominated by the college-prep track. A work-based component without changes in high schools can only become a rebirth of independent work-experience programs.
  • Others have placed great faith in external assessments--"certificates of initial mastery'' and industry skills standards--to force reform. But relying on external assessment mechanisms is a difficult road; the most recent example--state assessments initiated during the 1980's--failed to reshape high schools significantly. External pressures for change without the capacity of teachers and administrators to change is pointless and will only add to the paralysis of high schools.
  • Educators themselves are unclear about the role of school-to-work programs. Only a dwindling number in vocational education have participated in the integration of academic and vocational education and tech-prep initiatives. Most academic educators have been preoccupied with other reforms--subject-specific changes in math and English, for example, or "restructuring'' (whatever that is), or following the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools or some other piper--that have little to do with occupational preparation. Without a vision of a more occupationally oriented high school, two unattractive outcomes are likely. One is that schools will generate school-to-work programs for "at risk'' kids, or for the "non-college-bound''--immediately dooming such programs to second-class status. Alternatively, a "three track'' approach might emerge, with a college-bound track for perhaps 20 percent to 25 percent of students; a high-qualityschool-to-work track for another 20 percent to 25 percent; and an amorphous curriculum for the remaining 50 percent to 60 percent, the continuation of the justly maligned general track.

The most likely development, without a clear vision of how high schools should change, is that the great interest in work-based learning and the lack of interest among educators in occupationally oriented education will create the worst of all worlds. Work-experience programs will provide some work opportunities for at-risk students, in high schools that remain dominated by the college-bound track, utterly failing to reshape the high school in any important way.

What steps are necessary to avoid this kind of stale reinvention of work-based programs? There are seven questions that school-to-work programs must confront:

1. How should high schools change in school-to-work programs? In my view, the various efforts now under way to establish career academies, schools with several career clusters or majors, and magnet high schools with occupational focuses exemplify the changes that are appropriate. These efforts all make the integration of academic and vocational matters easier, by bringing academic and vocational teachers together around a common purpose. By providing an occupational focus, they make transparent the occupational purpose of high school and facilitate the connection to work-based learning. Such efforts are also consistent with calls to develop "focus schools'' with clearer missions, with the interest in more contextualized instruction, and with support for smaller schools to reduce the anonymity of the large comprehensive high school.

In these efforts, it is crucial to acknowledge the cycling of reforms in education. The efforts to install work-experience programs and career education just 20 years ago were utter failures, after all, and any occupational focus in high schools has been suspect ever since the early years of the century. Past efforts have been castigated for reinforcing tracking and for lowering standards, particularly when they focus on lower-skilled positions (as conventional vocational education has). But current efforts have the potential for avoiding the traps of both equity and quality (or "standards''). The emphasis on including all students, not just at-risk students, provides a way to avoid the inequities often associated with occupational programs. The focus on broad clusters of related occupations--including the highest-skilled occupations and related high-level academic competencies--avoids both watering down content and tracking students away from the highest-status positions. And efforts to integrate academic and vocational content need not be narrowly utilitarian or vocational: They present opportunities to include the literature of work, historical perspectives on technology and society, and social studies examining the important public issues surrounding technology, occupational changes, and related economic questions--all ways of linking school-to-work programs with the moral and political purposes of schooling. As John Dewey said in Democracy and Education, "Education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method.'' That is, occupations can provide a focus or context to make more effective the teaching of any of the disciplines included within the high school.

2. What is the vision for the work-based component? Much has been written about the work-based component of school-to-work programs--particularly the need for high-quality placements with real educative potential--as well as about the difficulties of finding enough such positions. There is little need to rehash these arguments. However, the broader question that school-to-work legislation implies is: What are the responsibilities of employers in the reconstruction of American education, beyond providing work placements of decent quality? Anything the schools do to improve competencies can be undermined by employers--as happens when employers ignore school performance in their hiring decisions, or when they structure some jobs to require few skills, or rely on large numbers of temporary employees without possibilities for advancement. The larger debate is one about the country's human resources, and that implies greater responsibilities on the part of employers in demanding and rewarding high skills, as well as on the part of schools in supplying them.

3. What are the necessary "connecting activities'' linking the school-based and the work-based components? Adequate linkages are necessary to prevent school-to-work programs from degenerating into independent work-experience programs, with work disconnected from schooling. Of course, school-to-work programs will require coordinators, to recruit and monitor the quality of work placements and to provide a liaison between the school and employers. And some of the responsibilities for linkage will fall on employers.

But many linkage mechanisms will be the responsibility of schools. The possibilities include improved career guidance--not, one hopes, the "interest inventories'' and passive information-transfer typical of most counseling, but something more activity-based, better integrated into the curriculum, and shared among a wider variety of teachers and counselors. Related linkage mechanisms might include practice-oriented sessions for students about looking for employment and choosing among work placements; preparation for starting work, so that students have reasonable expectations and appropriate behavior; and seminars for students to discuss their employment and its relationship to school-based learning. Some of these are novel and require that high schools rethink their connections to outside organizations.

4. What students will be included in school-to-work programs? The federal legislation declares that school-to-work shall include all students. But this provision is not simply an issue of eligibility; it is a question of what the school components of school-to-work programs will look like. If they are developed around relatively low-level occupations, then college-bound students simply won't enroll. If, instead, they are pitched at high-tech occupations and require substantial math and science, then low-achieving students will not qualify unless they are provided more academic support and time. School-to-work programs provide opportunities to de-track the high school, but this cannot be done without careful attention to the design of programs, to their content, to the pedagogies used, and to the support services developed for different students.

5. What is the appropriate role for nonschool programs? The school-to-work legislation allows funds to be spent in programs for school dropouts, and by community-based organizations outside the schools. Since some of the initial funding for programs comes from the Job Training Partnership Act, the involvement of local private-industry councils and their state counterparts is necessary.

The question of nonschool programs involves what fraction of resources should be spent on in-school students and the reform of high schools, rather than on school dropouts and programs for out-of-school youths. In my reading, the school-to-work legislation is principally an effort to reform high schools, and so the majority of funds--say 75 percent to 80 percent--should be spent on school-based programs, though no doubt others will disagree.

Beyond the division of the spoils, the question is what kinds of programs should be devised for nonschool youths? Just as the school-to-work program should be an attempt to reform high schools, so, too, should it be an opportunity to devise more effective programs outside the schools--particularly because existing J.T.P.A. programs have been found to have negative effects for young people. The school-to-work legislation provides a model found in a very few J.T.P.A.-funded programs--for example, the Center for Employment Training in San Jose, Calif., and the Young Adult Learning Academy in New York City--which teach academic (or remedial) competencies integrated with job-skills training and which also provide related employment or work experiences. Experiments with such doubly integrated programs might provide the basis for another round of more effective youth programs.

6. What role should assessments play? Assessments include skills standards and certificates of initial mastery. A few problems will be central to school-to-work programs. One is that the increasing number of assessments may force schools into a crossfire of competing goals. A second is that two contradictory developments are now battling for dominance: one that views assessments as mechanisms to force compliance with external standards, and another that views assessments as information mechanisms to allow educators to improve their programs without external coercion.

A third problem is the uncertainty that exists over whether the skills standards and certificates of initial mastery will be used in hiring decisions. Without their use by employers in hiring, the assessments will be both coercive to schools and irrelevant to students. And finally, there is the timing question: If new forms of assessment will take some time to develop, what should school-to-work programs do in the meantime?

The new conventional wisdom is that appropriate (or "authentic'') assessments can encourage exactly the right kind of "teaching to the test.'' This assumes that there can be consensus on the right test, as might be possible in a national educational system. But the school-to-work legislation envisions variation among states and localities, and consensus about skills cannot exist among employers unless we move to a German-style system of occupational standards regulated by government. Since we won't soon remake either our economic or our educational system along these lines, some modesty is necessary in determining what assessments can accomplish.

7. What governance mechanism is appropriate for school-to-work programs? The school-to-work legislation envisions a novel governance mechanism: State agencies collaborate in the development of a coherent program, seeking waivers as necessary from federal legislation and combining federal and state funding in ways that create coherent programs. What remains unclear are the details in which the success or failure of school-to-work programs--and other education and training programs that might follow their lead--will reside: the specific powers of a state planning effort, which agency (if any) should be the leader, how restrictive or coercive state policies will be, and other questions.

My ordering of these questions is not accidental. It reflects my interpretation of the current school-to-work legislation: That it is primarily a school-reform effort where the vision of school change must develop before other elements, lest it be merely another add-on to unreformed high schools. The work-based components are important, but they cannot be effective in the absence of school reform. My ordering reflects a relatively modest role for assessments, given the difficulties in developing and implementing them. And by placing the governance question last instead of first, I mean that questions of vision and purpose ought to drive governance instead of having political alignments drive the development of school-to-work programs.

The possibilities for school-to-work programs are enormous. They can offer new learning opportunities for young people and stimulate the reform of high schools, including their reconnection to the world outside of school. They can raise larger questions, about the responsibilities of employers and programs for out-of-school youths, that usually get ignored. But they might also end up as work-experience programs for a few at-risk students, or as reforms that generate allegiance only as long as federal dollars last--both implying a life expectancy of about five years. The path to true reform is infinitely more attractive--and also much more work.

W. Norton Grubb is a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley and is the site director for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. The views expressed here are his own. An expanded version of this essay will appear in a National Governors' Association report, "The Leadership Challenge: Accommodating Different Perspectives Toward School-to-Work Transition in the United States,'' to be released in September.

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