School & District Management

School-to-Work Seen as Route to More Than Just a Job

By John Gehring — April 11, 2001 10 min read
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In Philadelphia, what started 10 years ago with a few students in a manufacturing apprenticeship has today grown to a districtwide school-to-work program in which hundreds of employers work with thousands of students and teachers to provide work-based learning experiences.

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High school students spend part of their days at medical laboratories, law firms, or banks. Teachers complete “externships” over the summer, spending time at local businesses to learn what skills employers are looking for in workers. With strong backing from education officials and a host of corporate leaders, the 208,000-student district has made school-to-work programs a centerpiece of its school improvement strategy.

“For us, school-to-work became the vehicle for engaging employers in schools and really changing instructional practices,” said Mary Jane Clancy, the executive director of the education-for-employment office of the Philadelphia public schools. “You can’t forget this is about increasing access for students who have not had access. For the first time, our children are sitting in the boardroom—not cleaning the boardroom.”

As consensus builds on the need to up the academic ante in America’s high schools, school-to-work initiatives are being seen as one way to engage students by making learning more hands-on and relevant. At their best, these programs connect what students learn in their academic subjects with the knowledge and skills they acquire from more career-oriented studies and on-the-job experiences in school-related internships.

While some observers say the approach has not achieved the widespread national success that its supporters would have liked, programs such as Philadelphia’s are cited as examples of the significant contribution that work-based learning can make.

“We should continue to push for alternatives to the very traditional high school classroom that is organized around lectures,” said Thomas Bailey, the president of the Institute for Education and the Economy in New York City. “School-to-work has been very useful for people to realize that combining the theoretical and the practical has a lot of exciting potential.”

Seven years ago, lawmakers in Washington passed bipartisan legislation with the ambitious goal of using school-to-work programs as a catalyst to improve academic standards and expose more students to the demands of the workplace.

The initiative drew criticism in some quarters, however, with opponents arguing that it would amount to creating job tracks for students. But advocates saw the potential for bridging the gulf between what was happening in the nation’s classrooms and the skills business leaders said graduates were routinely lacking. Hopes were especially high for reaching students from minority groups and poor families, who drop out at higher rates than their white and middle-class peers.

While business leaders in the United States were struggling to find highly skilled graduates amid the economic worries of the early 1990s, many looked to school-to-work programs as this country’s version of the successful career education and apprenticeship programs in countries such as Germany and Japan. The movement also drew in part on the best practices of vocational and technical education.

In 1994, President Clinton helped give those efforts greater exposure when he signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which led to federal grants totaling more than $1.6 billion in seed money to support programs that included internships, career academies, and job shadowing.

Today, the school-to-work movement has reached a crossroads. With federal funding slated to end next fall, states are working to keep alive local programs that many educators and employers credit with making academics more relevant for students and increasing business involvement in schools.

Last year, 24 states introduced legislation related to maintaining school-to-work programs. Out of the 62 bills introduced in those states, about half passed, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. For the 2001 fiscal year, California gave $2 million toward school-to-work initiatives, Massachusetts earmarked $5 million for workforce learning, and Wisconsin will spend $4 million to support work-based activities for students.

Career Moves

A report released in February by the Institute for Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, presented evidence that school-to-work programs help reduce dropout rates, improve students’ readiness for college, and get good reviews from teachers and business leaders.

The report, “School-to-Work: Making a Difference in Education,” is described as the most comprehensive review to date of research examining such programs’ impact. The report analyzes results from more than 100 studies on school-to-work programs.

Career academies—a 30-year- old model that entails breaking up large schools into learning communities centered on a workplace theme—have yielded especially strong results.

The Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit research organization in New York City that began a 10-year study of career academies in 1993, has found so far that 32 percent of academically at-risk students who did not attend a career academy dropped out of high school, compared with a 21 percent dropout rate for career-academy students.

While the latest findings don’t show improved test scores for career-academy students, they do suggest that those students are as likely to pursue higher education as students on a more traditional college-prep path. In one case, graduates of a California career academy were 40 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college than other students in the same school district.

The National Alliance of Business, which works to improve student achievement and workforce competitiveness, has helped set up partnerships between schools and businesses. According to Hans Meeder, who oversees school-to-work programs for the NAB, businesses now often help schools develop curricula that are directly relevant to the workplace. Some computer companies, for example, let high school students earn certification by following programs that feature hands-on training in using technology.

Students need to be in an environment where their education has connections to real life, said John Ferrandino, the president of the National Academy Foundation, a New York City-based group. The foundation supports and develops curricula for more than 400 academies nationwide that prepare students for careers in finance, information technology, and travel and tourism.

Mr. Ferrandino said the purpose of career academies is not to give students narrowly focused skills, but to expose them to broad career options. “Kids get engaged with learning when they understand why they are learning it,” he said.

A Federal ‘Stepchild’?

Although the 1994 federal school-to- work law passed with significant backing across political lines, momentum for the initiative faded as President Clinton moved on to other education priorities, contends Samuel Halperin, the founder of the American Youth Policy Forum, based in Washington.

“It became a stepchild at best at the federal level,” said Mr. Halperin, who wrote a major study published in 1988 called “The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America.” School-to-work programs “really didn’t have significant backing from the educational establishment,” he said. “There was a lot of cynicism that led to a less-than- powerful push.”

But despite the flagging federal focus, Mr. Halperin said, school-to-work programs have flourished at the local level. “It’s helped educators to understand schoolwork has got to be made authentic,” he said.

Robert Lerman, an economist with the Urban Institute and American University, both in Washington, said that while giving students a better general understanding of the workplace has been a benefit of school-to-work programs, not enough students have acquired specific skills that will translate into jobs if they opt not to go to college.

European countries, he said, have strong apprenticeship programs that the initial school-to-work-legislation here promoted, but that approach never caught on among U.S. educators wary of backing away from a college-is-for-everyone message.

“The educational planners all went to college, and they think everyone should do what they did,” Mr. Lerman said.

Richard Kazis, a senior vice-president with the Boston- based Jobs for the Future, said career education has yielded some solid, if not spectacular, successes. In their report “What’s Next for School-to- Career?,” Mr. Kazis and co-author Hilary Pennington write that during the past five years, only a few states have successfully used school-to-work programs as part of broader school improvement strategies.

“When you look at the evidence, it is not a knockout punch,” Mr. Kazis said. “But there is evidence it has done right by schools and kids.”

Building on Success

In Maryland, the state’s school-to-work efforts have been organized under a program called Career Connections, which supports student internships and helps restructure schools around small, career-oriented learning communities.

One showcase for the approach is Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md.

For years, the science and technology magnet program at the Prince George’s County school attracted students seeking rigorous academics. But even as the program garnered nationalattention, administrators knew they weren’t reaching many students outside the elite program.

With 3,200 students, the high school is among Maryland’s largest, and students outside the magnet program often drifted academically. Today, after nearly a decade of improvement efforts centered around breaking the school up into smaller academies, the school can boast about more than its island of excellence.

The high school has phased in academies in areas including arts and communication, advanced technology, and health and human services. Internships and projects, involving such organizations as the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution, bring students and teachers into the workplace.

Academy teachers encourage all students to pursue college- track classes. Ten years ago, 874 students were enrolled in Advanced Placement classes in 14 AP courses. Last year, 1,635 students were enrolled in 17 AP classes. Of those who took the AP tests, 72 percent posted passing scores.

“Instead of patting ourselves on our back, we wanted to replicate the success we had in the magnet program for all students,” said Laura Grace, the director of academy programs at the school.

Kathy Oliver, who oversees school- to-work programs for the Maryland education department, said school-to-work programs are an essential element of a strategy to improve academic achievement from kindergarten through graduate school. “This has a lot of momentum in the state,” Ms. Oliver said. “It makes learning relevant for students. It answers that question, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as School-to-Work Seen as Route To More Than Just a Job


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