Education Commentary

School-to-Work for the College-Bound

By Thomas Bailey — October 29, 1997 8 min read

Thomas Bailey is a professor of economics and the director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He serves on the board of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. Donna Merritt is a research associate at the institute.

When Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994, many viewed it as an educational strategy for students who intended to go straight to work upon high school graduation--the “non-college-bound.” The school-to-work emphasis earned great enthusiasm, as long as it was for “someone else’s child.” Since most parents want their children to go to college, however, few students really fit that category.

Nothing in the educational philosophy of the school-to-work movement suggests that it serves only students who plan to work immediately after high school. School-to-work programs focus on active learning, exploration of career possibilities and interests, and guided experiences outside the classroom. These are principles that can frame an effective education for college as well as for work. Many students headed for elite colleges, in fact, can benefit from the school-to-work approach.

Last year, the Westchester Education Coalition in New York asked us to do research on the ramifications of introducing school-to-work approaches into Westchester County schools. Because Westchester is an upscale suburban area where kids are expected to go to college, we began by looking for school-to-work programs elsewhere that served high academic achievers, held their interest, and made them marketable to colleges.

We found plenty of positive evidence that school-to-work programs could provide college-bound students with exciting and useful educational experiences. Schools in New York state, Maryland, Massachusetts, and elsewhere gave us examples of academically successful students who were leaving the classroom--sometimes giving up a portion of their extracurricular activities--to spend parts of their days in the workplace. Programs such as these, however, remain few and far between; they are the “pockets of excellence” that often get studied and cited. Because of this, no one would suggest that schools cut back on Advanced Placement classes or replace the study of, say, poetry with workplace training. On the other hand, seeing school-to-work programs simply as job preparation deprives students of important learning experiences.

Christine Overtoom, a career-development specialist for a school-to-work partnership near Chicago, has pointed out that recent research on how the brain works endorses school-to-work educational strategies. It has indicated, for example, that the best learning environments are experiential--a cornerstone of the school-to-work philosophy. “When our shining stars memorize facts for tests, is that real learning?” Ms. Overtoom asks. “Real learning comes when they walk out of the classroom and can do something with the facts.”

School-to-work programs can offer at least five benefits that will prove as important to the college-bound as to non-college-bound students:

First, such programs help students clarify their personal goals and determine the purpose behind their going to college in the first place. This is important because many college students leave school long before they graduate. A 1996 study by the ACT admissions-testing program found that more than one-third of college freshmen drop out after their first year. Among those entering the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I schools in 1988, only 57 percent had graduated six years later.

When treated as adults and given responsibility, students learn a self-confidence that purely academic studies don’t always offer.

Second, the school-to-work approach can broaden and inform students’ choices. For example, it allows them to explore broad job clusters. “If you think you want to be a doctor,” Christine Overtoom tells students, “let’s look at the total career cluster for the field of medicine.” Students who drop out of college temporarily (or even permanently) can find jobs more easily if they have some workplace skills.

Third, school-to-work programs offer psychological and developmental benefits. When treated as adults and given responsibility, students learn a self-confidence that purely academic studies don’t always offer. They also benefit by being linked with the broader community outside the school.

Fourth, such programs can boost students’ earning power. College students working their way through school can often earn higher wages if they’ve had some work-based learning. That means they can work fewer hours, leaving more time for academics. If work-based training relates to the student’s studies, the benefits rise. Some employers will even help finance an undergraduate or graduate education.

Fifth, the school-to-work approach reinforces academic instruction. The use of hands-on opportunities to enhance learning is central to most current reform efforts. What better opportunity to link the classroom with the outside world than through work-related experiences?

Unfortunately, most parents, teachers, and administrators aren’t fully aware of these benefits. The nonprofit public-policy group Public Agenda conducted focus groups in Westchester County in 1995 and found that parents and teachers alike believed school-to-work programs would divert students from academic learning, college preparation, and extracurricular activities. “It’s great for some kids, but not the college-bound,” was one teacher’s succinct observation.

This perception will probably remain until research focuses less on anecdotal information about school-to-work successes and produces more definitive evaluations. A handful of studies of New York City’s career magnet schools and career academies show promising results. Findings from national and state evaluations of activities funded by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act will be reported over the next few years.

Meanwhile, part of the school-to-work movement’s problem may be that too many adults think school ought to be exactly as they experienced it. As J.D. Hoye, the director of the National School-to-Work Office, puts it, people want classrooms to be “museums of their past.”

But some innovative high schools already have made the changes necessary to expose their most talented students to the school-to-work educational experience. Some have even designed programs explicitly for the college-bound. Many of these schools have competitive admissions and offer internships that require research projects and formal presentations. The internships keep students interested in school in their last two years, when academic enthusiasm often fades.

Teachers tell us that these programs have ignited interest in students who are disaffected by standard academics. They also say that participation in internships has helped college-bound students stand out in the crowd of applicants.

It’s time that reformers viewed school-to-work as an integral part of the nation’s broader reform movement.

Charles Jett, a Wheaton, Ill., consultant, tells the story of a curriculum he developed to give high school students the chance to do field studies. Students had six weeks to set up their own school-to-work internships at community service organizations. The program they developed eventually was adopted by the whole school. And one of the student architects of that program ended up with a full scholarship to college. Says Mr. Jett: “Her parents attribute the scholarship directly to the field study. It attracted the college’s attention.”

Despite the advantages the school-to-work idea can offer the college-bound, two barriers are preventing its wide acceptance.

First, the college-admissions process has to be modified. Basing admissions on traditional Carnegie units doesn’t take into account interdisciplinary courses and learning from work experience.

Some high schools solve this problem by shoehorning school-to-work programs into traditional Carnegie units and by including work-related activities in traditional extracurricular activities. Some states are devising admissions systems that more accurately evaluate the achievements of school-to-work students. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has piloted an alternative admissions procedure, and other schools are also experimenting with new ideas. But change remains slow.

A bigger problem may be school-to-work programs’ isolation from the broader education reform movement. As new approaches to education are discussed, school-to-work too often is seen as a threat to academic learning. This perception persists despite the fact that its goals and methods are completely consistent with broader reform efforts. Learner-centered teaching that requires students to develop in-depth understanding and to apply learning to realistic problems is characteristic of most of today’s reforms--and it is central to the school-to-work philosophy. Moreover, other reform efforts frequently offer students outside learning experiences that reinforce classroom instruction, as well as opportunities for career exploration. It’s time that reformers viewed school-to-work as an integral part of the nation’s broader school reform movement.

Given the rapid advance of technology and the accelerating pace of the global economy, most of us no longer have the luxury of segmenting our lives into blocks labeled “education,” “work,” and “retirement.” Instead, we must move back and forth from one phase to the other, with our success depending on how well we combine work and learning throughout our lives. Giving college-bound students a curriculum consisting entirely of abstract academic subjects barely related and without any practical application simply doesn’t make sense.

Skeptics are justified in asking for more systematic evidence of school-to-work programs’ success. But, in the meantime, we shouldn’t allow outdated biases to deprive academically gifted students of an opportunity to view the workplace as a site for continual learning.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 1997 edition of Education Week as School-to-Work for the College-Bound