State Progress on School-to-Work Reforms Slow, Study Finds

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States are making slow progress toward the goals of a 1994 federal law designed to better prepare young people for careers and colleges, according to preliminary findings from a federally commissioned study.

Only two of the eight states examined in the evaluation--Oregon and Kentucky--had made school-to-work activities an integral part of their education reform agendas.

In other states, school-to-work efforts were only peripherally related to--or vying for attention with--attempts to raise test scores and hold schools more accountable.

The evaluation is the first installment in a five-year study of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. By late last year, the federal government had provided more than $643 million under the law to state and local partnerships.

The findings are sobering news for the National School-to-Work Office, a joint venture of the federal departments of labor and education. Officials there have been trying to emphasize preparation for the world of work as a way to engage students in rigorous academics and improve their performance.

J.D. Hoye, the director of the office, described the report as a "heads-up" for her agency, and for state and local partnerships. But she stressed that it captures very early efforts in only eight of the 37 states that have received implementation grants.

Later evaluations will draw on data from a survey of local school-to-work partnerships in the 27 states that had received such grants by the fall of 1995.

Early Results

The study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a nonprofit research group in Princeton, N.J., is meant to provide data against which future progress can be measured.

It summarizes case studies of eight states and a sample of 39 local partnerships within those states in the spring of last year. The states are Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

The study also includes results from a spring 1996 survey of 12th graders at high schools participating in school-to-work partnerships within those states.

"My overall sense is that a lot of energetic effort at the state and local level has been stimulated by the legislation," said Alan M. Hershey, a senior fellow at Mathematica and the director of the evaluation. "But in many places the work is just beginning. So it really is early to judge the long-term consequences of the legislation."

Mr. Hershey said that was particularly true of the student survey. "For the class of 1996," he said, "most of their school-to-work experiences took place before the School-To-Work Opportunities Act would even have been implemented."

The law describes a school-to-work system that is much more ambitious--and complex--than traditional vocational education. According to the act, school-to-work systems should integrate rigorous academic content with vocational learning; coordinate secondary and postsecondary education through approaches such as technical-preparation programs; improve career guidance and counseling for students; and link learning in the workplace with learning in schools.

The researchers found that most of the states studied had not bitten off this entire agenda at once. They initially focused on changing schools or expanding workplace activities for students, but not both.

Many states built their initial school-to-work initiatives on earlier efforts to strengthen vocational education, such as youth apprenticeships and technical-preparation programs. But researchers cautioned that this could make the new initiatives less attractive to some parents and teachers.

'Disconnected' Activities

States also had focused on creating better career counseling and guidance for students--efforts that many had begun before the law was passed.

The student survey found that 63 percent of seniors had participated in at least four of five career-development activities: completing an inventory of career interests, attending talks by employers at school, taking a workplace-readiness class, visiting a worksite, or shadowing an employee on the job.

But for most students, such activities were "infrequent and disconnected," the evaluation found.

The study also found that "career majors"--programs that relate students' course-taking to their career interests--and other efforts to integrate academic and vocational instruction are, at this early point, a relatively low priority for states.

"Emphasizing defined career majors means reorganizing school curricula and convincing parents and students that having a career focus in high school is useful," Mr. Hershey said. "Neither of those things is easy to do."

In addition, the study found that many efforts to integrate academic and vocational instruction focused more on the method of teaching than on creating rigorous course content.

Only 2 percent of 12th graders surveyed had engaged in a range of school-to-work activities--including career development, career majors, and work-based activities linked to school.

Such low participation rates were not surprising, since the seniors were halfway through high school by the time the law was passed. Future surveys in 1998 and 2000 should reflect greater changes.

The follow-up surveys also will look at the rates of participation in school-to-work activities among students who pursue postsecondary education and those who do not. In most cases, the report found, the role of postsecondary institutions in building school-to-work systems remains vague.

Work-Based Learning

Most of the local school-to-work partnerships had made work-based learning activities for students their top priority.

But only 16 percent of seniors reported participating in a workplace activity linked to a school grade or assignment. Although 88 percent of the students surveyed held paid jobs sometime during high school, most found those jobs on their own.

However, students who found employment or internships through school reported working in more diverse industries; were more likely to have jobs related to their career interests; spent more of their time learning and practicing skills, as opposed to doing regular production work; and were more likely to receive training in a structured classroom or workshop setting.

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