Bridging the Gap
Dressed in a white lab coat, a stethoscope slung around his neck, Eddie Hwang leads a cardiac-rehabilitation patient into the examining room. While a nurse asks questions, Eddie attaches an electrocardiograph machine to the man's chest and ankles, then takes his blood pressure.
Suddenly, Eddie smiles. Dimples appear in both cheeks. For a second, he looks like any other 17-year-old, awkward in front of strangers. "He does everything that we do,'' Jennifer Fleser, a cardiovascular technician at Bronson Methodist Hospital, explains. "No special treatment.''
But what Eddie is doing is hardly normal high school fare. He is one of about 300 students in Kalamazoo County, Mich., who are combining structured learning in school and on the job to help ease the transition from adolescence into adulthood. By the time he graduates, the high school senior should have a leg up on his career and definite plans for his future. That is not the case for most American teenagers.
The United States currently has the worst school-to-work transition in the industrialized world. In the past, most high school graduates could expect to find steady employment even if they did not finish college. Today, half of all high school graduates have still not found a steady job by age 30. Instead, they spend their young adulthood milling around, shifting from one low-paying job to another with little opportunity for training or career advancement.
Whether they did well or poorly in high school barely seems to matter. More than 80 percent of employers don't even look at high school transcripts in making hiring decisions. And fewer than one in 10 large American firms hires new high school graduates.
Not surprisingly, students who are not bound for competitive colleges see little reason to work hard in school. And their schoolwork often consists of a haphazard array of dull, low-level courses that fail to hold their attention or interest.
"The American high school doesn't seem to work very well for about 75 percent of the students, which is essentially those who are outside the college-preparatory program,'' argues Charles Benson, the director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.
Eddie plans to head for college and then medical school. But he sums up the problem pretty clearly. "It's a lot more serious here,'' says the student at Portage Central High School of his experiences at the hospital. "There is a standard here, unlike at high school. There's no screwing around.''
"I know I'm only a high school student,'' he adds, "but they don't treat you that way.''
School-to-work programs like the one in Kalamazoo are designed to upgrade both the academic and vocational content in high school. They make learning more meaningful by connecting school to the worksite. And, it is hoped, they produce a more productive, skilled workforce, whether students are bound for further education or for the job market. But most such programs are still in their infancy. In 1990, for example, only about 3,500 students participated in youth-apprenticeship programs nationwide. And there is no formal system to help prepare and place students in the workplace.
All that may be changing. This spring, Congress is expected to pass the "school-to-work opportunities act.'' The bill would provide a framework and $300 million in seed money next year for states and communities to design and implement school-to-work systems. About 15 states--including Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania--have already passed school-to-work bills. Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group that specializes in workforce issues, says many more states are considering doing so. There are also dozens and dozens of small, local efforts.
But what some people see as the key to revitalizing the American high school, others view as a pernicious attempt to sort students onto career tracks before they are ready. Moreover, it's not clear that most employers will be willing, or able, to provide teenagers with structured learning on the job. Or that high schools and colleges are ready to change the way they do business.
"It's going to take two decades to have a system that's going to serve the majority of folks who want to go through it,'' Gene Bottoms, an expert on vocational-technical education at the Southern Regional Education Board, predicts. "Right now in America, the only clear pathway through high school to a good job is a college-preparatory curriculum.''
"I think, at present, the real youth-apprenticeship-style programs are not on the horizon,'' says Peter Cappelli, the co-director of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce at the University of Pennsylvania. "I just can't imagine it happening.''
Just don't tell that to Renee Crawford. It's Thursday at 4:30 P.M. on the maternity ward at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo. Renee was supposed to leave at 3, but here she is, in blue scrubs, bottle-feeding one newborn, then taking measurements on another. Renee, a senior at Vicksburg High School, plans to become a nurse "because I think you get more patient contact than if you're a doctor.''
She admits that the health-occupations class is hard work. Last year, some of her friends dropped out. But, she says, "I feel like I come out of this class learning something, whereas some classes in high school, you wonder what you've learned all year.'' Since being here, she has observed several births, a Caesarean, a number of induced labors, and countless sonograms. She has also watched mothers receive prenatal and newborn care.
In the early 1980's, vocational education in Kalamazoo County was on a downward slope. Districts were losing enrollments and shutting down programs. In response, seven small districts joined forces with Kalamazoo Valley Community College and the Kalamazoo Valley Intermediate School District in 1982 to form the Education for Employment Consortium. The idea was to pool their resources, give students a wider array of course offerings across districts, and shut down programs that didn't work.
Today, the consortium has expanded to include nine local school districts. About 600 students cross district lines each year to enroll in technical programs in the area. Of those, about half are in four off-site programs that combine academic and job-related training at the worksite.
In addition to the health-occupations program, whose partners include the Bronson Healthcare Group and Borgess Medical Center, there is a law-enforcement program operated out of a minimum-security facility, a hospitality program located at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo, and a new theater-technology program at Comstock Community Auditorium, a large facility that plays host to national touring companies. At the auditorium, students can complete a registered apprenticeship that is recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training.
Students typically enroll in the programs as juniors.
Five days a week, first-year students in the health-occupations cluster arrive in the basement of Bronson Methodist Hospital for a two-hour course that introduces them to basic anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and the core laboratory skills needed for many health-care fields: safety, vital signs, first aid, CPR.
During the second semester, students spend every Wednesday "job shadowing'' professionals in the health-care field, tagging along and interviewing them as they carry out their duties. They also research three specific health occupations as part of a "career-exploration project.'' All of the teenagers belong to Health Occupations Students of America, a national vocational organization.
At the end of the year, students receive certificates of completion that indicate their competency in core health-care skills. This certificate becomes part of each student's portfolio, which is shared with educators and employers. They also receive adult CPR and first-aid certificates. And, if they choose, they can complete additional training and examinations to become certified as nursing assistants and phlebotomy technicians in Michigan.
In the second year, students spend two afternoons a week in classes at the hospital or community college and three afternoons on the job in a specific health-care field. Students who finish the training receive up to nine hours of community-college credit on their high school transcripts for basic cardiac-life support, medical terminology, health-careers mathematics, nutrition in disease prevention, and cell biology.
The worksite training, which the Education for Employment Consortium calls an "externship,'' is designed for each student during a meeting between the instructor, the workforce-entry coordinator (a counselor attached to the program), and the supervisor at the job site. Students are also expected to keep a journal, complete an in-depth project that is designed to increase the efficiency of the unit where they work, and conduct a case study of a patient, from admission to follow-up.
At the end of the year, a second health-occupations certificate that lists the student's competence in job-specific skills is signed by both the teacher and the employer and added to the student's portfolio.
In the third year, students can enter the labor force or continue in postsecondary education. But the consortium provides a support group that includes such services as guest speakers, advice on financial aid, and additional skills training. Unlike some youth-apprenticeship programs, the externships are not paid. The hospitals have made no commitment to provide continued worksite experiences or employment for students beyond high school, but they give preference to health-occupations graduates for job openings.
The other off-site programs follow a similar model, with work-related education and training at the job site and all other academic courses completed at school.
Participating districts also provide a system of educational and career counseling for students, beginning in elementary school. Every high school student, for example, has an educational-development plan that maps out course and career goals. And all 10th graders have at least one job-shadowing experience. The consortium hopes to develop new off-site programs in paper technology, financial services, aviation, and plastics in the next few years.
"It's a lot of studying,'' says Kim Keller, a senior at Comstock High School, who plans to pursue an associate's degree in nursing next fall. "My courses at high school are easier.'' But she adds: "I love doing it. I would do it all the time, if I could.''
Because of the program, Kim enrolled in a chemistry course back in her home school, once she realized that she would need it for most health professions. In addition, her high school--like all of the schools in the county--grants her a science credit for completing the health-occupations class. But like most students in the program, she admits that there is little relationship between the academic courses that she takes at Comstock and her experiences in the hospital.
Most experts agree that building a strong school-to-work system will require major changes in how high schools operate.
A growing body of evidence suggests that many students could learn better and perform more competently in the context of solving real-world problems. Such research has also found that some students can learn through the hands-on application of ideas what they cannot absorb from a textbook.
For these reasons, many people, including U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, view school-to-work programs primarily as an education-reform issue. "Many of these students just drift through school,'' Riley said in testimony before Congress last fall. "They'll sit in the back of classrooms. They'll get C's. And then, suddenly, when they graduate, they'll realize they have no idea in the world of how to get a job.''
"It's not always their fault,'' he added. "We never really answer a basic question for them, 'Why do I have to learn all of this?' We never make the basic connection between learning, a paycheck, and some basic career goals. We need to reinvent the American high school to find a way to catch the attention of these young people and help them get a focus in their lives a little earlier.''
Yet, today, about a third of American high school students take general-track courses that prepare them for neither work nor college. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, "students in 'general' programs take a random selection of courses that lead nowhere, exiting high school with a diploma that is practically worthless.''
Vocational courses also have been criticized repeatedly for offering outdated, inadequate skills, primarily to students whom nobody else wants. Very little in the way of academics is taught in vocational classes. And vocational students take fewer academic courses--and fewer advanced courses--than do other students. Moreover, evidence that vocational training pays off is decidedly mixed. Students who concentrate their coursework in a vocational field earn more in training-related jobs, and are more likely to find such jobs, than their peers. But fewer than 40 percent of high school graduates with occupational training are able to find jobs that match their preparation.
In 1987, the S.R.E.B. began working with 28 schools in 13 states to blend the basic content of college-preparatory studies with vocational coursework. Today, the High Schools That Work consortium has expanded to include 350 high schools in 19 states. High schools that participate in the coalition are asked to drop low-level and remedial courses and to require that all students take a core academic curriculum.
"As you raise expectations, dropout rates go south,'' observes Gene Bottoms, the project's director. "If you care about folks, you expect something of them.''
When the program began in the 28 sites, 41 percent of the boys who had completed at least four credits in a vocational field had never done a bit of homework outside of class. Eighty percent of the seniors had never read a book assigned by a teacher during nonschool hours. Even today, "out of 18,000 high school transcripts, we have yet to find one high school vocational completor [who has taken at least four credits in an approved vocational area] who's taken physics,'' Bottoms says.
But the attempt to upgrade the high school curriculum and teach students through applied, hands-on methods appears to be working. In just two years of involvement with the S.R.E.B. program, eight pilot sites closed the gap in student achievement between vocational graduates and the national average by 89 percent in reading, 36 percent in mathematics, and 75 percent in science, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"We hold some pretty deep-seated beliefs that an awful lot of youths cannot master very complex things in math, English, and science,'' Bottoms remarks, "and we have really designed a high school program built on that notion. There's a deep-seated belief that there's no need for half the students to work hard, because they couldn't master it if they did, and it wouldn't work if you asked them. Getting beyond that is very difficult.''
In 1990, Congress enacted unprecedented changes in federal vocational-education law to encourage schools to rethink the way they do business. One of the most important amendments to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act requires programs that receive federal funds to integrate academic and vocational content. Schools are taking a variety of approaches to meet that challenge.
The Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, Pa., is a low-slung red-brick building that serves about 800 high school students from six surrounding school districts. A full-time vocational school, it teaches all academic and vocational subjects on campus. Ten years ago, the school reassigned all of its academic teachers to one of four career clusters, so that both vocational and academic teachers work with the same group of students throughout their stay in the building. Each team develops its own curriculum, with the help of an advisory group of business and industry representatives. A class on American culture, for example, focuses on how technological advances have shaped U.S. history. Construction students take a course on the history of buildings.
"The hardest thing,'' says John A. Polto, the vocational administrative director, "is to actually get teachers to talk to one another. It's difficult to provide the time for that to happen, and it's most difficult for teachers of unlike disciplines to really share.''
In Denver, about 100 students attend the Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center full time, while others spend half of each day at their home schools. About three years ago, the faculty began working to identify and enhance the academic content in all of its career classes. As part of that effort, the school has assigned three academic teachers--in science, math, and English--to a full-time integration-resources team. "They're not responsible for a class,'' explains Assistant Principal Debbie Williams. "Their sole purpose is to develop lesson plans, do integration activities, conduct research, and help with project planning.''
Academic teachers are being asked to integrate more career-oriented projects into their classrooms. And the school is developing buildingwide, multidisciplinary projects that span both academic and career areas.
Another approach that is growing in popularity is the career academy. Typically, this is a school within a larger high school, where a group of students and teachers stays together over a period of years. Academic and vocational education are integrated around a single career theme. And employers are actively involved in program design and support.
At the Baltimore Academy of Finance, a member of the National Academy Foundation, students learn how to read The Wall Street Journal in English class and study economics in American-government class. Mentors from the business community provide students with job-shadowing experiences at least four times a year. And students can participate in a paid internship during the summer between their junior and senior years. Seniors also take a college course at Morgan State University.
"We're hitting the student who has potential that's been wasted before,'' Kathleen M. Floyd, the program's director, asserts. "These kids would normally just be put in a general academic track.'' Although most of the program's 165 students are members of minority groups, 98 percent of its graduates go on to college, compared with 16 percent of the students in Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, where the program is housed.
California has used the career-academy model to create at least 60 "partnership academies'' organized around such industries as health care, electronics, and finance. As in Baltimore, students work in an industry during the summer after their junior year and serve as interns during the second semester of their senior year. Businesses also provide mentors, workshops, part-time jobs, and full-time employment for graduates. Although the programs were initially focused on at-risk youths, they have since expanded to serve a broader array of students.
In Pennsylvania, researchers and teachers at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center have created a multidisciplinary curriculum for the state's youth-apprenticeship program.
The curriculum is based on a project approach that enables teams of math, science, English, social-studies, and vocational teachers to integrate academics and work-based instruction. In a unit on why safety is important, for example, the math teacher tells students they are allowed to work in 250 cubic feet of air space and has them measure and mark off the area on the floor. The English teacher uses the poem "Butch Weldy,'' about a factory worker who loses his eyesight through an accident and is not entitled to compensation. And the social-studies teacher introduces the story of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire of 1911, which led to major revisions in New York State's labor-safety laws. Students are then given the task of producing posters and newsletters dealing with safety issues.
Martin Nehemov, the director of school-to-work projects at the L.R.D.C., says, "Projects are a very good jumping-off point to help give the curriculum more meaning.''
Despite such progress, attempts to integrate academic and vocational content, on the one hand, and work-based and school-based content, on the other, remain limited.
But an even greater challenge may be creating high-quality learning experiences at the worksite. The United States generally has a poor history of on-the-job training. "The vast majority of U.S. employers remain firmly committed to traditional production processes that depend on low-wage, low-skilled workers,'' argue Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt of the Institute for Education and the Economy at Columbia University. "Even if such employers could be convinced to take on youth apprentices, the quality of education students would receive in these settings is questionable.''
The proportion of high school students who hold paying jobs during the school year has been increasing since the 1940's. According to Ivan Charner, the director of the National Institute for Work and Learning at the Academy for Educational Development, between 60 percent and 80 percent of juniors and seniors now work at paying jobs. Many work more than 30 hours a week. But most of these jobs bear little or no relation to the students' schoolwork and provide minimal training. Some studies also suggest that working too many hours while in school may depress academic achievement.
Cooperative-education programs, which provide students with high school credit for paid experience on the job, exist across the United States. About 8 percent of 9th through 12th graders participate in them. But the relationship between a student's school- and work-based learning varies widely and is often haphazard. Joan Wills, the director of the Center for Workforce Development at the Institute for Educational Leadership, recently surveyed more than 400 employers in five major urban areas who paid students under co-op-type arrangements.
"There were no demands on the employers, and the employers loved it,'' she says, "because it was a screening device for them. They would have taken more students. But there was no thought at all--and no integration at all--in terms of what is learned in the workplace as part of a really planned program of study. You need to decide what it is you expect kids to learn in those worksites, and that's going to take a whole lot more involvement on the part of the employers than probably most people anticipate.''
When the Kalamazoo program began, there was very little structure in a student's work-based experience. "We initially started with a student who was just placed here, and we really didn't know what direction to go in,'' recalls Lucinde M. Stinson, the supervisor of pulmonary services at Borgess Medical Center.
Now, each student has an extern training plan, based on an analysis of job tasks. The plan--contained in a large three-ringed notebook--accompanies the student to the job site and forms the basis for instruction and evaluation. In Eddie Hwang's case, for example, there are long lists of technical competencies related to such skills as stress testing and blood-pressure monitoring. For every skill, Eddie's preceptor at the worksite checks off when he was exposed to it; when he could accomplish it with some assistance; when he could do it on his own, according to set criteria; and when he could demonstrate or teach it to others. Eddie is expected to work his way through the entire list before completing his externship.
Students are also evaluated on a core set of competencies related to on-the-job performance that spans all of the off-site programs. These include such areas as teamwork, communications, productivity, and professional grooming.
In Broome County, N.Y., the Apprenticeship Demonstration Project placed 45 students in work-based programs this year in manufacturing and engineering technology, administration and office technology, and health care. Program officials have spent much of their time working with employers to identify the social and technical competencies that apprentices should learn on the job. But developing such standards is a lot of work, says Mary Agnes Hamilton, the associate director of the Cornell Youth and Work Program, which houses the project. Ideally, as in Germany, she argues, it should be done by networks of employers and others at the state or national level, and not community by community.
President Clinton's "goals 2000: educate America act,'' now pending in Congress, would create a national skills-standards board to help specify what workers should know and be able to do in various industries. The development of such standards at a national level is crucial, many suggest, so that students in school-to-work programs can earn portable certificates that would be widely recognized and honored by employers.
Many school-to-work programs have found themselves spending as much time on students' social skills as on their technical competence. According to a 1991 survey, the biggest deficits that employers found in high school graduates who were applying for jobs were dedication to work and discipline in work habits. Surveys also show that employers place a high priority on such qualities as self-discipline, pride, and teamwork in making hiring decisions. Such skills amount to a hidden curriculum, and failure to master them can bar the door to students' career advancement, even before they get started.
Project ProTech is a youth-apprenticeship program that operates in conjunction with a number of firms in the Boston area. Its students are drawn from comprehensive high schools in the city, and many of them come from low-income and minority backgrounds. Lois Ann Porter, the project director of ProTech for the Boston Private Industry Council, says much of the problem amounts to a cultural gap between students and employers.
"The language that is accepted at a school, in terms of slang, is something that's not understood or desired in a workplace,'' she says. "It's as basic as dress. If students wear pants whose belt is around their rear end, they will not be treated the same way in the workplace as if they wear them pulled up around their waist. Those are cultural issues.''
The Kalamazoo program has tackled such issues directly, spending a large part of its time on such matters as attendance, dress, and attitude. In their off-site classes, students regularly work in teams. And they can receive professional-conduct points for how they carry themselves in class, based on the evaluation of a peer. Attendance is strictly monitored. If students are absent, they are expected to call their employers, and any absences must be made up. A related-work class, taken by students during their senior year, focuses on such topics as ethics, personal management, and team-building.
The law-enforcement program is located in a light-blue, minimum-security building that houses nonviolent male offenders. The classroom is separated from the men's dormitory by a wall that stops just short of the ceiling, and, early in the morning, inmates can be heard swearing and banging around. As students enter the class, several of them don ties. Soon, they sit down to work in study teams on a project on the role and function of grand juries. Nick Westra, the program's instructor and a former sheriff, appoints a different student each week to supervise his or her team. He also develops written contracts between students and parents to improve behaviors that could interfere with job performance. Westra argues that "school standards are not business standards.''
"It's not that students weren't taught these skills,'' he observes. "They weren't being reinforced on a consistent basis. They were being passively taught irresponsibility.''
Interestingly, many of the supervisors at the worksite comment on how much more mature their young charges are than the average teenager. Marcia Moerman, the clinical educator for the emergency room at Bronson Methodist Hospital, contends that school-to-work programs need to screen their students carefully. "I think that you could expose someone to a situation that could be overwhelming, or more than they could handle,'' she says. Seventeen-year-old Sachin Patel, for instance, has seen a patient die. And he's been in a burn unit. His preceptor, Dawn Norby, a neurodiagnostic technologist, says: "It takes a really mature attitude. I don't think I could have dealt with that in high school.''
But many of the students say they're not much different from their peers. What's different is what's expected of them on the job. Nehal Patel, a 17-year-old student at Portage Northern High School who works in the emergency room at Bronson, says: "Here, you have to be professional. In high school, you're just a plain old simple kid.''
Mary Wiersema, one of two instructors in the health-occupations program and a registered nurse, argues: "I think we set our standards too low for high school students. In high school, they expect them to act like adults, but treat them like children. We expect them to act like adults and treat them like co-workers. They rise to the occasion.''
It's not clear how many employers will be willing to provide structured learning experiences for young people--or to pay for them. "We know very little about how to successfully attract employers and gain broad private-sector participation,'' Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, remarks. "Indeed, this is probably the most difficult obstacle facing the expansion of these programs on a large scale.''
The Clinton Administration's school-to-work bill, for example, requires that students receive paid work experience, but it provides no subsidies for employers. Many advocates of youth apprenticeships argue that students should be paid at least a minimal amount.
"From the kid's point of view, many of them can't afford to do something like this unless they get paid,'' says Hilary Pennington, the president of Jobs for the Future. "And, number two, it's a way of valuing them and their contribution to the workplace, which means it's taken seriously. On the employer's side, we feel it's important for there to be some pay at some point for the same reason; it means that they're making an investment in a future worker rather than doing a favor for a kid. And it's our belief that they will design and manage a program differently if they pay for students.''
But after three years of providing money to students during their externships, Kalamazoo dropped the idea. Educators argued that the program couldn't reach as many students if employers had to pay them all.
Others note that employers who are downsizing rapidly have little incentive to participate in such programs. David Host, the manager of staffing for AlliedSignal Aerospace in Phoenix, says his firm became involved in a youth-apprenticeship program during the late 1970's when it couldn't find enough skilled machinists, welders, and electricians locally. The program has trained 375 students since 1979. A year and a half ago, 150 of those were still employed by Allied. Today, only 58 are, because of downsizing in the defense industry. And in 1991, the firm hired none of its graduating apprentices.
Nevertheless, Host believes that the training program is still a good investment for the company. All of its graduates have found jobs, often with Allied's vendors. And when the economy rebounds, Host says, Allied will be ready.
Others are less optimistic. "The big cost is on the employer side, if you really go to big-time youth apprenticeships,'' Peter Cappelli of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce says. In Britain, he notes, it costs $15,000 a year to train somebody in a reasonably good youth-apprenticeship program. And the German figures are higher still.
"One of the things that makes apprenticeships go in some European countries is that the trainee effectively hangs around the employer long enough after the training so that they can recoup the investment,'' Cappelli adds. But the United States has the highest rate of employee turnover in the industrial world, and a company may be reluctant to provide high-cost training for an employee who walks out the door.
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, notes that the highly acclaimed German apprenticeship system is not voluntary. Employers who do not participate in training youth apprentices have to pay a tax that supports government-sponsored training programs. But German employers suggest that there are other, powerful incentives to participate. Youth apprentices can be paid below the minimum wage. And they are often able to perform unskilled work for medium- and small-sized firms that would cost them much more if they had to hire a regular employee at German wages.
"What will be the sustainability of these things?'' Cappelli asks. "I think you'll get a lot of experimentation and growth, just because people are told this is the right thing to do. But I would bet we have a low survival rate.''
Yet, some of the more successful youth-apprenticeship programs have managed to build on their successes to attract new business partners.
Hospitals that participate in Project ProTech in Boston pay students $5.50 an hour as juniors and $6 an hour as seniors. The program now has seven hospitals providing some 160 training slots to students. This year, the program has recruited seven new businesses in the financial-services industry to provide 70 additional training slots. And next year, it expects to expand into utilities, communications, and environmental services.
"Health care and financial services are two of the largest employers in the city of Boston,'' Lois Ann Porter, the project's director, says, "so, clearly, we've gone to employers who have the largest number of employees in the city; employers who are already involved in employing youths from the Boston public schools; and employers who need a lot of people to come in with a base set of skills that they currently aren't getting from high school graduates. So we've identified some needs that meet the businesses' bottom line.'' The program has also used corporate executives and vice presidents for human resources who are familiar with its work to recruit new companies.
A survey of some 3,000 small firms by the National Alliance of Business found that 75 percent of the respondents would be willing to spend time and money in order to have a better-prepared workforce. And 80 percent of the remainder said they would be interested in youth apprenticeships if they were offered incentives to offset the cost to them.
Even so, concerns that too few employers will participate have led some experts to urge that more attention be paid to simulations of worksite experiences, school-based enterprises, and other models for creating a closer link between school and work that fall short of full-scale apprenticeships.
Most experts also argue that school-to-work programs, particularly in this country, must be tied to postsecondary education, because of the high premium Americans place on advanced degrees.
Fifty percent of American high school graduates do not go directly on to postsecondary education. An additional 25 percent begin postsecondary education but do not complete bachelor's degrees. Yet, the baccalaureate is still considered by many parents to be the prerequisite to a successful future.
Maine's youth-apprenticeship program, for instance, is operated by the Maine Technical College System. Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. argues that youth apprenticeship "will never be respected in this country unless there's some postsecondary component to it.'' But he also suggests that Americans need to change their views about the benefits of a four-year college degree and focus, instead, on technical training.
One of the most popular approaches is the technical-preparation program that typically combines the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. As many as 100,000 students are now participating in such "tech prep'' programs, according to the U.S. Education Department.
In 1990, Congress gave such efforts a boost by authorizing federal funding for tech-prep as part of the Perkins vocational-education act. But while these "2 plus 2'' programs provide a clearer, more stringent path through high school for many students, their links to employers are often tenuous. The fundamental emphasis is on articulation between high schools and community colleges, and not on on-the-job training.
In Kalamazoo County, all students are now required to select their courses based on a tech-prep or college-preparatory curriculum. Kalamazoo Valley Community College is also involved in the school-to-work program. Its president meets with area school superintendents monthly. Eighth graders in the county visit the campus to explore future careers with members of its staff and with local business and industry volunteers. Students in some of the off-site programs receive community-college credit for courses taught by their instructors that follow the college's curriculum. Others take classes on the Kalamazoo Valley campus or at Davenport College, a private business school in the area.
But more than an articulation of courses is needed to insure that students actually continue their education beyond high school. Boston's Project ProTech requires students to take two college courses while they are in high school, primarily to give them a taste of college expectations and the college environment. It provides them with college-readiness workshops, assistance with financial aid and applications, and career and college counseling. Students also remain part of the program throughout their postsecondary educations, receiving part-time jobs from the employers and some tuition assistance. A college counselor, supported by a grant from the Charles Hayden Foundation, meets with students on a weekly basis once they've made the transition to postsecondary education and training.
The school-to-work bill now before Congress encourages programs to include at least one year of postsecondary education and training. But it does not require it. Meanwhile, the Harvards of the world aren't changing their admissions requirements to recognize work experience or applied-academics courses, says Thomas Bailey of the Institute for Education and the Economy. "For that really to happen, those universities have got to change their ideas, and I don't see a big movement toward that.''
Hilary Pennington of Jobs for the Future also suggests that community colleges have little incentive to participate in school-to-work programs. "Many of them make their money on short-term courses and remediation,'' she explains. "They have a part-time faculty that does not have the time to get involved in the high schools. I think that part of the puzzle is going to be more challenging than initially thought.''
There are also continued tensions about who should participate in school-to-work programs. The rhetoric is that such programs--with their emphasis on hands-on learning and work-based opportunities--would benefit "all'' students, from the college-bound to the high school dropout.
Such an approach is designed to keep the programs from becoming stigmatized as "second rate'' enterprises.
"It's an anti-tracking position,'' says Charles Benson of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. "If we say that these programs are of no use to people who are going to four-year colleges, I think you then get a public reaction that 'I don't want my child in them.'''
But increasing the focus on college-bound students runs the risk of an admissions process that excludes those who are less accomplished. For now, most programs seem to be taking a middle ground, establishing some selection criteria, but not many.
In Broome County, N.Y., says a progress report on the Cornell Youth and Work Program, "the aim is to recruit 'middle' students--young people who probably would not enroll in college without an extra boost but who do not have severe academic or behavioral problems. We expect that, as it matures, the program will become better able to accommodate young people who face greater risks.''
The proposed school-to-work act stresses that such programs should be accessible to all students--including those who are disadvantaged, disabled, or have limited proficiency in English. But whether states will provide enough support to insure that such access occurs remains to be seen, says Paul Weckstein, the executive director of the Center for Law and Education.
In Kalamazoo County, it's up to each school to select the students who will participate in the off-site programs. Selection is based primarily on interest, but because all of the programs have more applicants than they can serve, the schools have added additional criteria. Vicksburg High School, for instance, also weighs a student's attendance record and grades. Others enroll students on a first-come, first-served basis, based on good attendance.
But the program goes out of its way to accommodate all students. Each off-site program has a technical assistant who works with individual students who need extra help. In addition, the off-site programs are based on a mastery-learning model. Students have to score 80 percent or higher on the examinations to pass the course. But they can retake each test twice.
"Teachers here, they really care about the students,'' says Teresa Buck, a 17-year-old in the health-occupations program from Vicksburg High. "They're like your counselor, your teacher, your mother. The teachers back home, you sit down in your class, they teach you whatever they have, and you're out the door.''
The trick, Mary Wiersema, the auburn-haired dynamo who is one of two health-occupations teachers, says, "is making sure that we have alternatives for the kids who are really bright and for the kids who are struggling. It's a lot more work for the teacher, but it's much more successful for the student.''
The real trick, however, will be to move from a handful of isolated programs that don't last to a system that helps move the majority of students from school to work.
"Most places are doing one aspect--they're working on changing the schools, or changing the workplace, or changing the postsecondary connection,'' Hilary Pennington says. "But it's really much harder than people want it to be. The really key implementation challenge is to help places move toward doing all three things well.''
That, it is becoming evident, will require a whole new infrastructure that doesn't exist now in this country. And national skills standards are only the tip of the iceberg.
Most of the existing programs, for example, have created new roles for staff members in schools and at the worksite. Such jobs range from preceptors or coaches who can mentor and supervise students on the job to liaisons between the school and the workplace--all of whom require training and time.
School-to-work programs also have had to create or find umbrella organizations that are capable of bringing together employers, educators, community-based organizations, students, parents, unions, and others with a stake in their operation. European apprenticeship systems are operated by joint committees that include employers, educators, and organized labor. In Germany, they are convened by chambers, which are employers' organizations. In Denmark, freestanding trade committees perform the same functions. The United States has no comparable employer networks or broad-based institutions linking school and work.
What kind of structure will work is far from clear. "We're not sure what works,'' Paul Osterman of M.I.T. says. "One of the things that this current legislation will do, hopefully, is give us a chance to see which models work better than others.'' It's also designed to help states and communities plan for a new infrastructure and assist, modestly, in its implementation.
Meanwhile, there is little research to suggest just how well school-to-work programs succeed, whether in raising academic achievement, placing students in jobs, or moving them on to further education and training. Most youth-apprenticeship programs in the United States are too new to assess fully, Pennington notes.
Boston's Project ProTech, for example, had a higher percentage of its students continue on in grade-level math and science after its first year than was found among non-ProTech students in the public schools. But in the first six months, 33 percent of program participants quit or were dropped from the program, in part due to the quality of some of the job placements and the lack of support for students. Since then, changes in the program's structure have reduced the dropout rate to less than 1 percent for new students in the first six months of last year.
In a 1993 follow-up of students who completed Kalamazoo's health-occupations program in 1992, 88.6 percent of students were continuing their education, 89.7 percent of them in a health-related field. In addition, of those students who worked at least part time, 93.3 percent were in a health-related area.
"By and large, where the programs we see seem to be dramatically successful is in their impact on young people's self-esteem and motivation and in showing them a pathway to work and further learning that they can understand,'' Pennington says.
"Number two,'' she continues, "where schools work together with the workplace to do the kind of integration that we're talking about--and where the schools begin to change ways of teaching and organizing learning--it appears that kids become much more turned on about their academic learning. I think it's too soon to say, across the sites, whether that has a visible impact on test scores. But over time, these programs are going to have to be looked at for the degree to which they can increase students' knowledge.''
In Kalamazoo County, at least, school-to-work programs seem to have found an enthusiastic reception among both students and employers. "At 17,'' says Malika Glover, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School, "not many of my friends can say, 'I have a skill.' And that makes me kind of proud of myself.''
Next in the series: A visit to career academies in Pasadena, Calif., to examine school-based changes in preparing students for the world of work. The "Learning to Earn'' series is being underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Vol. 13, Issue 18