School-to-Work Movement Faces Test, Study Says

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The school-to-work reform movement doesn't stand a strong chance of surviving after the federal money for it winds down in 2001, predicts an evaluation that will soon be released to Congress.

To survive, school-to-work programs need funding commitments for state and local partnerships, and they must be at the core of states' efforts to raise academic standards, according to the evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J.

So far, there is little evidence that either condition is occurring, the report says, concluding that "the overall vision of a [school-to-work] system may slip into the shadows of the many other competing demands on schools and teachers."

The 204-page report, titled "Expanding Options for Students: Report to Congress on the National Evaluation of School-to-Work Implementation," bases its findings largely on programs in eight states that have received grants from the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. They are Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

The act was designed to help young people explore career interests and relate their academic studies to the real world. Funding for the act will end in 2001; state governments have received $1.1 billion so far.

Bill McCarthy, a spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee, had not seen Mathematica's report last week, but he said the findings appear to justify the government's decision to discontinue funding for the program.

"We've provided the seed money, but it doesn't appear it can stand on its own, and it hasn't met its objectives," Mr. McCarthy said.

Integrating Reforms

School-to-work advocates interviewed last week generally did not dispute Mathematica's findings, but they did contest its bleak conclusion.

J.D. Hoye

"It's too early to tell" whether school-to-work programs will be sustained, said J.D. Hoye, a school-to-work consultant and the former director of the National School-to-Work Office, which administers the federal program for the departments of Education and Labor.

Thomas A. Henry, the director of school-to-career and college initiatives for the New Jersey Department of Education, suggested that Mathematica had missed the point. Even if school-to-work doesn't survive as a separate program, it may well get embedded in other kinds of reform, he contended.

"When you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer," Mr. Henry said of Mathematica's evaluation. "We certainly don't view [school-to-work] as a separate program in New Jersey."

The influence of school-to-work reform in New Jersey, Mr. Henry said, can be seen in the state's requirement that every high school student select a career major and participate in a structured learning experience--including a service, volunteer, or work experience--before graduation.

"We may see some of the school-to-work ideas simply integrated into the fabric of whole education reform efforts," agreed Patricia W. McNeil, the assistant secretary of vocational and adult education for the federal Department of Education.

Ms. McNeil, the National School-to-Work Office, and Mathematica declined to comment specifically on the evaluation, since it had not yet been officially released at press time.

Academic Benefits

School-to-work advocates also said Mathematica's assessment that such activities are running on a separate track from efforts to raise academic standards overlooks some important exceptions.

Mathematica "did not survey the entire school-to-work population. There is an increased realigning," said Ms. Hoye, the school-to-work consultant.

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, has just launched an initiative in 13 school districts--including Oakland, Calif., and New York City--to strengthen links between school-to-work and academic-standards efforts, said the group's president, Hilary Pennington.

She and Ms. Hoye both held up school-to-work programs in Philadelphia and Boston as proof that the approach is already being used to raise student achievement.

In Philadelphia, 32 percent of the 3,501 students participating in work-based learning experiences last year had a grade point average above 3.0, compared with 26.7 percent of students in the district as a whole, according to the district's office of education for employment.

A study by Jobs for the Future and the Boston Private Industry Council showed that young people participating in Pro-Tech, a school-to-work program in Boston schools, were more likely to attend college, earn a degree, and receive higher wages than graduates who did not participate in the program.

But while some cities are having success, Mathematica is right in saying that school-to-work will not survive on the national level unless it is perceived as integral to raising academic standards, said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank.

"I've long thought the only way school-to-work could survive is if it were plugged into the standards and assessment movement," Mr. Jennings said. "If [Mathematica isn't] finding any cases where this is true, it will not be a broad-based change on the national level."

Looking Ahead

By the fall of last year, 34 states had formed 1,152 school-to-work partnerships involving 83 percent of secondary school districts, according to the Mathematica study. Those partnerships were more commonly found to involve students in career-development activities, such as "job shadowing," rather than deeper experiences such as internships or classes that integrate vocational and academic studies.

"That says to me they've done the easier part--to help kids get more aware of jobs," Mr. Jennings said. "The much harder part is to connect employers, and get kids on site, having a meaningful experience."

With federal funding for school-to-work activities about to end, advocates have been looking for strategies to keep the efforts going. The Institute for Educational Leadership and the American Youth Policy Forum brought Washington-based school-to-work advocates together for three meetings last summer to discuss the topic.

"'How much does money matter?' is one of the questions we have to think about," Ms. Pennington of Jobs for the Future said.

"More and more companies and more and more schools are coming to [school-to-work] on their own," she said, "and they are coming to it without federal money because it just makes sense."

"Will it happen as fast as if the funds stayed in place? No, it won't," she added.

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 1, 29

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as School-to-Work Movement Faces Test, Study Says
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • The U.S. Department of Education's School-to-Work site includes updates on state initiatives in school-to-work.
  • School-to-Work for the College Bound. This 1997 publication, by Thomas R. Bailey and Donna Merrit, describes school-to-work programs that emphasize academics and describes how they prepare students for college. It is available from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.
  • Cornell University's Youth and Work Program maintains a list of publications and research tools for evaluating school-to-work programs.
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