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Trashing School-to-Work

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Why polarizing rhetoric may deprive us of a promising pathway to reform

At a recent reunion, a former college classmate with whom I had long ago lost touch smiled benignly while another old friend described her journey from union organizer to real estate agent. But when I reported that my job involved me in school-to-work activities, he recoiled in horror. He told me in no uncertain terms that school-to-work opens the door to corporate control of the schools and the narrowing of education to the preparation of worker drones, who question nothing about their place in society or their rights as democratic citizens.

Several weeks later, I opened The New York Times to find an attack on school-to-work playing on fears of a different kind of control. An Op-Ed by Lynne V. Cheney, the former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, presents school-to-work programs as a form of centralized planning that robs some young people of the chance to choose a career and diverts many more from placing their focus where it belongs--on their academic studies. This is a theme sounded repeatedly in mounting conservative attacks on school-to-work. "School to Work: Is Government Micromanaging the Lives of Our Children?" is the rhetorical question posed by the conservative Heritage Foundation on a leaflet inviting liberals and conservatives alike to come hear "the truth" about how school-to-work "requires students to participate in vocational training," forcing them to "choose a career pathway by 8th grade."

Although disagreeing about which "cabal" to blame, critics from both the left and the right seem to view the crisis in our high schools in terms of conspiracies to control our children and to lower the standards for academic work. This is a simplistic and misleading view that diverts attention from the very real problems that schools have to address in order to prepare our young people for an increasingly complex world. Even the most well-intentioned efforts to improve student performance will fail without sufficient attention to two particularly critical problems: student disengagement from the traditional academic curriculum and the disconnection of young people from adults. When communities embrace school-to-career strategies, it is precisely out of a desire to focus on these realities of life in high school.

In a 1994 survey, nearly 40 percent of more than 20,000 high school students questioned admitted they were "just going through the motions" in school, a quantification of a phenomenon noted by numerous educators who have written detailed accounts of life in high school. At the same time, the nature of conventional schooling ensures that young people are isolated from the adult world, doing tasks that are dissociated from the life and work of the community in which they live. Seeing virtually no connection between the subject matters of school and the uses of knowledge in the real world, many teenagers simply decide that school is irrelevant.

Critics from both the left and the right seem to view the crisis in our high schools in terms of conspiracies to control our children and to lower the standards for academic work.

Unlike in the last century, when young people participated in the farming, small businesses, and trades of their families and neighbors, the work of adults has become largely invisible to young people. Although many students work in the hours after school, these are often "youth jobs," like flipping hamburgers or bagging groceries. There are few if any opportunities to be mentored by an adult at the workplace, or to be taken seriously in an enterprise worthy of adult concern. As a consequence, the road to adulthood is far from clear. Young people lack the structures and supports to negotiate the path to further education, employment, or, most likely, a combination of the two.

These twin problems of isolation and disengagement are especially debilitating in urban schools and neighborhoods, where students are most likely to face drill-and-practice methods of teaching and have the least access into an adult world of supports and opportunities. Not surprisingly, support for school-to-work is especially strong in major urban school districts, such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Oakland, Calif. Research in these school systems reveals that school-to-work functions as effective dropout prevention, results in students taking more college-prerequisite courses, and ultimately in higher percentages of students going to college than their peers in the "regular" program. Paradoxically, school-to-work has become "better college prep than college prep," as my colleague Robert Riordan wryly puts it.

A close look at these initiatives reveals that they usually involve strategies directed at creating a more personalized learning environment in which students tackle an ambitious academic program made more relevant by its connection to community and workplace learning. For example, students and teachers might stay together over two, three, or sometimes four years in a small learning community with a broad career focus such as health, travel and tourism, finance, or teaching. Students take core academic subjects within these clusters--usually called pathways or academies--with teachers trying whenever possible to link what they are teaching to the ways knowledge is used in the "real world." Students also have opportunities to engage in structured work and learning experiences outside of school, through connecting with mentors in the field, doing "job shadows" and, eventually, entering internships in the summer between the junior and senior years, or for several months during their senior years.

Not surprisingly, students in such programs often identify the internship, and their connection to adult mentors outside of school, as providing them with their most meaningful--and rigorous--learning experiences. Consider, for example, the words of a senior in upstate New York, who was working on a senior project as part of his youth apprenticeship organized by the Cornell Youth and Work Project: "Normally, in English class and projects, I can whip through them and get them done in a week." This is not the case, he reports, for his senior-internship project: "I am working on [it] every day in school. I spend my lunch time in the library ... always working on it."

Teaching for understanding and fostering students' ability to use school-taught knowledge in nonschool settings requires contextualized and applied approaches.

Questioning why students should have to wait until the last year of high school to have this kind of experience, Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met), a new, state-funded public high school in Providence, R.I. Starting in 9th grade, students work with teachers and their parents to construct individual learning plans, centered around internships and projects based on adult roles, careers, and issues they want to explore. The result, according to one 9th grader I interviewed: "I'm not learning what I thought I'd be learning. I'm learning adult things, like how to act, important words to use, correct English and all that. They try to teach you that in other schools, but then again they just slip down and let you do anything you want. I think I learn more here, because they give you more experiences to learn off of than just learning in the classroom."

Programs such as these have rejected the misconception that the school-to-work philosophy is simply about "getting jobs for kids" or "doing something for the non-college-bound." Rather, school-to-work encompasses a set of key practices that define a more contextualized approach to curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy and an easier transition to the adult world of learning and work--for all students. Jobs for the Future, where I work, asks schools and districts to include the following practices in their school-to-career efforts:

  • Using real-world contexts to teach rigorous academics, with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills and essential habits of mind;
  • Expanding academic instruction to include problem-solving and other cross-cutting competencies vital both to further study and future careers;
  • Extending learning beyond the classroom through work internships, field-based investigations, and community projects, and providing adult mentors and coaches for these experiences; and
  • Emphasizing high-quality student products through regular exhibitions, portfolios, and other assessments informed by real-world standards.

Support for such practices lies not just in the rhetoric of school-to-work advocates but in a decade of research on the nature of intelligence and of learning. Teaching for understanding and fostering students' ability to use school-taught knowledge in nonschool settings requires contextualized and applied approaches. Such practices define a school where learning is both rigorous and applied.

Over the past century of American education, the term "applied" has become synonymous with watered-down academics, offered to reluctant or resistant students as a substitute for the college-preparatory curriculum, and "academic rigor" has become equated with the coverage of discrete subject matters, as measured in standardized tests. But, as John Dewey pointed out in the early years of this century, the most powerful learning comes from combining the intellectual and the practical. In using knowledge, or "intellectualizing" practical activities, students develop deep understanding of important concepts and ideas.


Adria Steinberg is a program director at the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, a national, nonprofit organization working to strengthen the transitions and linkages between work and learning. She is the author of Real Learning, Real Work, published last year by Routledge.

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