Work-Based Curriculum: A Labor Approach to School-to-Work

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This past summer, I visited the National School-to-Work Resource Center in Washington to share materials that my colleagues and I had produced through our work-based curriculum project in Rochester, N.Y. It was a sweltering day, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked into the cool lobby of the modern, glass-enclosed office building. But when I entered the school-to-work offices down the hall, the cool air was gone and I felt as if I'd walked back outside. The center's staff were just settling in at their desks, which sported tiny fans blowing around the unbearably stuffy air. I asked what was going on, and I was told that the new building management was trying to save on its air-conditioning costs. How ironic, I thought, that workers in the federal program charged with educating students about work were themselves experiencing intolerable working conditions.

Working conditions and workers' rights, though, are not high on the school-to-work agenda, with its emphasis instead on inculcating work attitudes and skills defined by business and industry. I had come to the national center to share some critical curriculum and professional-development materials, written and implemented over the past two years by Rochester teachers, in close collaboration with members of affiliates of the Rochester Labor Council. Through our project, funded by state, federal, and foundation grants, teachers have been invited to examine their own working conditions, career paths, work values, and views about current work issues, and to re-examine how and what to teach their students about work. Although the project has evolved only over the past few years and has at this point touched the lives of a relatively small number of teachers, their enthusiasm and the project's apparent uniqueness recommend its approaches to a larger audience.

One key assumption of the project is that students should be educated about work as well as being trained for it. Work is a central part of people's lives, yet it is rarely treated thoughtfully and critically as a subject within existing curricula. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act and the Carl Perkins Amendments to the Vocational Education Act, twin pillars of the recent school-to-work effort, both stress the importance of integrating work-based insights into academic curricula and of encouraging students' broad understanding of industry's impact on workers and society. But such critical thinking about work, workers, and work issues is not really what the school-to-work movement seems to be about, from our informal look at the sorts of things happening around the country in its name.

When we have queried middle and high school students about work, their own questions cut to the quick: Will there be a decent, secure job for me in the future? Why can't people on welfare find decent jobs? How is education related to my future work? How do I become a professional? How will I be treated at work and what are my rights? How do I handle problems that arise in my part-time job? These are complex questions that deserve thoughtful analysis, research, and discussion. But they are rarely the focus of investigation in the nation's secondary classrooms, with or without school-to-work programs. Teachers are not encouraged to find out what students want to know about work, or to discuss in class students' own part-time job experiences, or to share their own working experiences as teachers.

Part of the problem is that teachers within school-to-work programs are rarely encouraged to reflect critically on their own work and the work of others, or on how work should be taught. In fact, time and again we have been told by those involved in school-to-work efforts that teachers have an "impoverished" sense of the world of work. Teachers, we are told, need to be informed about the new skills and attitudes employers now expect from their workers, in order to target these skills in their teaching. So teachers visit factories, take internships in industry, listen to business representatives talk about new job requirements. They thereby supposedly overcome their presumed naivet‚ about work and are prepared to bring the real world into their classrooms.

But we must ask, "Where do teachers go when they get up at 5 a.m., day after day, year after year?" They go to work, of course, just like those workers in the businesses and industries they visit to learn about the world of work. It is true that a teacher who has spent 30 years in the same middle school may know little about changes in the work environment and skill requirements of a software engineer, social worker, nurse practitioner, or machinist. But each of these workers also knows precious little about the work of teachers or of each other. What they do know a lot about is their own work.

So professional-development activities within our project invite teachers to examine work at this most natural starting place, their own work. Collectively, they examine their changing working conditions and expectations, the disparate tasks they perform each day, the education they received to do these tasks, the rewards and frustrations of teaching, the (often circuitous and serendipitous) paths they took to become teachers, the influences and obstacles along the way, the origins of their own work values, and the precarious balance between their work and identity as a teacher and their personal lives. They also interview other workers in their schools--social workers, nurses, psychologists, assistant principals, food-service workers, secretaries--to understand the complexity and interdependence of the work of these fellow workers in their school buildings. From these reflections, teachers collaborate on a curriculum that captures the often obscured or glossed-over realities of career preparation and everyday work.

Teachers are not encouraged to find out what students want to know about work, or to discuss in class their own working experiences.

A pivotal component of our project is teachers' collaboration with other workers from local unions. Rather than gaining access to workers at other sites through limited arrangements with business and industry, teachers in this project go directly to the workers themselves, through their unions. And they meet and collaborate in ongoing partnerships with a variety of workers who themselves possess a critical understanding of their own work. Together they discuss changing skill demands and educational requirements, the changing availability of jobs, job-security issues, safety and health issues, workers' rights, job satisfaction, changing wages and benefits. They view films and videotapes related to work and read work-related literature. And together they develop curriculum components that capture the reality of these work issues students want to and need to understand. For all this work, the teachers and other workers are paid. Education reform should not and cannot be accomplished through the volunteer efforts of already overworked teachers and other front-line workers.

Our project is, for the most part, at the stage of professional development and curriculum development. Some pieces of the curriculum have been used by participating teachers in their classrooms, students have benefited from the collaboration among their teachers in different subjects, and union workers have conducted class discussions on labor topics. But we are at the early stages with students. Teachers, however, have been extremely enthusiastic about their own participation, especially because they have determined the course of their activities every step of the way, based on their own particular questions and work priorities. Some teams of teachers have emphasized worksite visits and interviews, while others have focused on integrated curriculum development, close collegial collaboration, or personal reflection and understanding.

Together, they have helped shape the various parts of this still evolving project. And together they have created and compiled a variety of provocative teacher-professional-development activities, some of which are already published. They also have published curriculum materials; a handbook of activities on occupational health and safety; various units integrating math, science, and technology; and two sets of critical curriculum accompanying a nationally televised video series on work and labor issues, completed in collaboration with the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association. Additional materials will be available soon.

We must link more closely the two priorities in school reform, critical thinking and preparation for work. Employers tell us they want to hire students who can think for themselves and solve real-world problems. If this is true, then a critical curriculum about work will produce highly marketable workers, whatever their chosen fields. And who knows, maybe students and their teachers who think critically together about work will help us figure out how to ensure the creation of decent jobs for all workers who need them now and in our children's future. What more can we ask from an education for work?

Vol. 17, Issue 13, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: November 19, 1997, as Work-Based Curriculum: A Labor Approach to School-to-Work
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