Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Head Smart and Hands On

By Lynn Olson — September 24, 1997 6 min read

Lynn Olson, a senior editor for Education Week, is the author of The School-to-Work Revolution: How Employers and Educators Are Joining Forces To Prepare Tomorrow’s Skilled Workforce, published this month by Addison-Wesley.

At age 16, Chris has decided that he can’t think. Why? A big reason is because American schools have told him so. Throughout the 20th century, this country has built an educational system based on the premise that many students cannot think deeply and therefore cannot engage in serious intellectual work. Although Americans embraced the democratic notion of mass public education, we did not embrace the idea of the same public education for everyone. Instead, we created an academic education for the “head smart” youngster and a vocational education for the “hands smart.”

Now, Americans are trying to reinvent schools based on an entirely different premise. The United States is currently engaged in an important effort to help all students meet higher academic standards. It’s based on the assumption that through persistent, hard work, all students can learn to use their minds well.

But, as Christopher’s comments suggest, simply setting academic standards will not be enough. Schools also must find ways to engage and motivate students so that they believe such standards are attainable.

Schools have one approach that could help at their fingertips. But it is seldom considered in the debate about standards-based reform.

More than 900 local partnerships across the United States are currently developing school-to-work, or school-to-career, activities that help connect what students are learning in school with the world beyond the classroom.

The best such efforts integrate high-level academic and technical knowledge. They engage students in hands-on, active learning by letting students work in the community to solve problems and complete projects, rather than just learning from textbooks. Such programs also build bridges among high schools, higher education, and the workplace to prepare young people for both careers and college.

In a year spent traveling around the country visiting such efforts, I saw evidence that the school-to-work approach can help ignite young people’s interest in learning. Well-structured school-to-work initiatives can be a powerful tool in the fight to achieve higher academic standards.

This approach can contribute to standards-based reform in several ways:

  • School-to-work can motivate young people to learn. Many students I interviewed said they were more interested in and more challenged by these programs than by traditional academic coursework. “It’s a lot more interesting,” said Brett Cottle, a junior at the Greene County Career Center just outside Dayton, Ohio, and a participant in the Miami Valley Tech Prep Consortium. “The academic classes are more understandable because they relate to what you’re doing.”

For once, many students told me, they could see the real-world connection to what they were learning. “It gives you a different idea of school, when you’re out there,” explained Matt Ciprich, an apprentice at Ingersoll Rand in Pennsylvania. “At school, you can say, ‘Who cares?’ Out there, what you do could be live-or-die for the company. ... I worked at a level that I didn’t think I could.”

Studies from Jobs For the Future, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., the Office of Technology Assessment, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc. all reach basically the same conclusion. Well-structured school-to-work activities can slash boredom and re-engage students in schooling.

  • School-to-work can encourage young people to take more academic coursework. The central goal of any school-to-work system should be to help students achieve more academically. Programs that have focused on raising the academic expectations for students are beginning to show promising results. A 1994 evaluation of ProTech, a school-to-work program in Boston, found that students who participated took more rigorous mathematics and science courses than their peers, although their grades were not substantially better. In 1993, a study of the seven most improved sites that belong to the High Schools That Work consortium found that these schools had managed to significantly close the achievement gap between college-bound and career-bound students in just three years. High schools that belong to the consortium pledge to replace low-level, watered-down courses with a solid academic core.

A three-year evaluation of Fenway Middle College High School in Boston found that students who participated in internships exhibited among the lowest dropout rates and highest attendance rates of any students at the school. Student interns also completed more courses, earned more credits, and were promoted to the next grade at a higher rate. Similarly, at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Ore., enrollment in physics, Algebra 2, and chemistry classes has increased since the school launched its school-to-work efforts in the early 1990s.

While such results are hardly conclusive, they demonstrate the promise of well-structured school-to-work initiatives.

  • School-to-work can prompt young people to pursue further education and training. In sites ranging from ProTech to the Education for Employment Consortium in Kalamazoo, Mich., higher percentages of young people involved in school-to-work initiatives are choosing to pursue postsecondary education because they understand the connection between learning and a good job. Many of these programs report college-going rates among their graduates of about 80 percent, compared with about 62 percent nationally. Other studies have found that while school-to-work graduates do not attend college at higher rates, those who do are more likely to declare a college major and to earn more college credits.

Of course, there is always a chance that school-to-work programs will be done badly. Improperly structured, they could further dumb down education and channel students into low-expectation tracks. That is exactly what we don’t need. Nor do we need more students prepared for narrow, dead-end jobs that may not even exist in the next century.

Today, both employers and colleges want people who can read and do math; frame and solve problems; communicate orally and in writing; use computers; and work in teams. Schools need to do a better job of preparing all young people for this future.

Not every school-to-work program is right for every student. But good programs can provide choices and opportunities for young people, many of whom are not being well served by our education system right now.

Yet despite the promise of the school-to-work concept, most states appear to draw little connection between their school-to-work activities and their pursuit of higher academic standards. In a study released in May of eight states that received funds under the federal School to Work Opportunities Act, only two--Oregon and Kentucky--had made the approach an integral part of their mainstream education reform agendas. In other states, school-to-work efforts were only peripherally related to attempts to raise test scores and hold schools more accountable. And, in some cases, school-to-work and standards-setting efforts actually vied for educators’ time and attention.

It’s time for those who advocate higher academic standards and those who champion school-to-career initiatives to realize what they have in common. Together, they could provide the means to help more young people achieve.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1997 edition of Education Week

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