Scuttled Program’s Work, Skill Themes Enjoying Resurgence

By Lonnie Harp — September 23, 1992 6 min read

The career-education movement, which was banished by the federal government a decade ago as a fad with little political clout, is being revived in a new form by reformers searching for stronger bridges from school to work.

The name has been dropped to avoid the lingering stigma of what many considered at the time to be a failed program. Yet the basic idea of the movement--that career themes should be woven throughout schooling from 1st grade through high school graduation--is making a comeback in federal and state reform reports.

Career-education tenets have recently surfaced in the policy priorities of such organizations as the Council of Chief State School Officers and the U.S. Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.

Believing that work values and attitudes should be taught as soon and as often as possible, career-education advocates designed programs for every grade and subject, with instruction becoming more sophisticated as students grew older.

In the early grades, such programs introduced basic ideas about workers and their jobs. In middle schools, the content shifted to career exploration, with thinking geared toward assessing students’ individual talents, lifestyles, and interests. Finally, high school students were taught basic skills such as teamwork, communication, and decisionmaking and their bearing on job choices.

Beyond classroom instruction, career programs also emphasized greater teacher awareness of on-the-job skills and encouraged field visits to work sites.

‘A Total Reorientation’

Many of the same themes are evident in the growing debate over how to better equip students for modern jobs and boost achievement.

“A total reorientation is required,’' the SCANS panel noted in its initial report, which called for making all school lessons more practical and applicable to jobs. “SCANS believes that teachers and schools must begin early to help students see the relationship between what they study and its applications in real-world contexts.’'

The commission issued a guide for integrating work-related skills into school curricula at the elementary, intermediate, and secondary levels, arguing that such an approach was needed as part of President Bush’s America 2000 school-reform plan.

At the state level, the C.C.S.S.O. last year adopted a school-to-work policy statement urging that schools view preparation for jobs as a fundamental goal.

“Beginning in the primary grades, schools must make clear for all students the connection between learning in school and future success in the labor market and must provide opportunities for career and employment orientation and awareness,’' the document said.

Gordon M. Ambach, the C.C.S.S.O.'s executive director, said that while the group did not lift its ideas directly from the career-education program, it was an influence.

“I guess they were so much embedded in our minds, we kind of grooved them into our work, but we didn’t think of them as career education,’' Mr. Ambach said. “It’s not as if we were reaching back into the shelf for this, but we didn’t need to do that. These concepts are still right, and now we’ve got a new context in which to incorporate them.’'

For Kenneth B. Hoyt, who left the Education Department when its career-education office was gutted in 1982, the revival of ideas he has championed for years is cause for satisfaction.

“It’s very intriguing to me to hear the business tycoons saying this now,’' said Mr. Hoyt, a professor of education at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where he has led a grassroots career-education network since 1984. “I think there is a recognition now that we never should have let it go. Not only was the philosophy O.K., but the research was accumulating that it worked.’'

‘Everything and Nothing’

Despite signs that interest is growing, though, the latest round of career-oriented reforms may face many of the struggles that plagued earlier efforts.

Mr. Hoyt was tapped to lead the federal career-education effort in 1974 after the program was included by Congress in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Mr. Hoyt and others worked to put into practice ideas developed by former U.S. Commissioner of Education Sidney P. Marland, who had argued that work principles should be an integral part of the school experience.

The progam continued to gain momentum at the federal level, culminating in 1977 in the passage of the Career Education Act. But while the law and Mr. Hoyt’s elevation to the level of assistant commissioner of education gave some prominence to the program, it received only a sliver of its authorized funding level.

The program died both from lack of funding and from criticism of the concept. Skeptics argue that career-education efforts were unfocused and ineffective, and express similar concerns about recent proposals as well.

“You’ve got to define what career education was,’' argued W. Norton Grubb, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley. “It was going to be something that would suffuse every aspect of school in every class and grade. Their definition of a career was everything, and therefore nothing. By the time they got finished defining a career, it was adult life.’'

Some Programs Survived

In an informal survey of career-education courses in the San Francisco area during the heyday of the movement, Mr. Grubb said, researchers found little in the way of constructive teaching. He cited as an example of superficial efforts a program providing middle school students with career-exposure classes that matched personality-profile results with information about related occupations.

“They were really awful, and they fell apart and just about vanished in the 1980’s,’' he said.

Mr. Grubb also argued the concept behind the programs was too narrow because it emphasized preparing students for work over citizenship and cultural or other non-economic roles.

But Mr. Hoyt and other career-education backers disagree with charges that the programs were ineffective. In addition, they point to states and local school systems that were maintaining successful programs even before the recent resurgence in the general themes.

In Ohio, for example, the career-planning, transition, and intervention section of the state’s vocational- and career-education division has operated since 1971 and currently has a $4.8 million annual budget.

In addition to a range of K-12 curriculum materials covering career education and self-esteem, the office has developed an individual career-planning program for high school students that had more than 50,000 participants last year, according to Karen P. Heath, the section’s assistant director.

A Formula On File

Despite the surviving programs, supporters lament the movement’s lost momentum. Current efforts pale when matched against the national campaign supporters had imagined, Mr. Hoyt observed.

“Any time a federal program is dropped, a lot of people decide they shouldn’t do it anymore,’' he said. “But we’re getting somewhere now.’'

“They never pushed it to the full extent that it could have been,’' added Stephen L. Mangum, an associate professor of management at Ohio State University.

“You have to wonder, if they had pushed it, would we still be singing the same sad song about entrants into the workforce,’' he said. “My own gut feeling is that we would probably have been better off.’'

Donald M. Clark, the president of the National Association for Industry-Education Cooperation, said he has been surprised that in the parade of school-reform reports that followed A Nation at Risk in 1983, only recently have the notions of career education resurfaced.

“It is hard to understand because all this time employers have been talking more and more about changes in demographics and skills and technology,’' said Mr. Clark. “Here was a program designed exactly to meet employers’ expectations and it was shelved.’'

“What we’re seeing is a reinvention of the wheel,’' explained Mr. Mangum. “We had what appeared to be a very coherent set of ideas that fell out of favor, and now people are coming back and saying much the same thing. We’re spending so much time looking for a new formula, and it’s sitting there in the file cabinet.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Scuttled Program’s Work, Skill Themes Enjoying Resurgence