A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Changes in Curriculum

The content, purpose, and organization of courses and activities shape every student's school experience. In addition to multicultural education efforts, other initiatives reject the special education model of offering more of the same content at a (perhaps) slower pace by making the school curriculum more engaging and relevant. These efforts generally focus on developing content that relates to the student's current interests and life experiences or by combining vocational with academic tasks.

Real-world learning. A number of curriculum projects have been developed that focus on real-world experiences for the learning content. Examples include the microsociety school (Richmond, 1989), experiential learning projects (Blumfeld et al., 1991; Erickson and Shultz, 1992; Means et al., 1991), Action Learning Projects from Minnesota's Project Together (Daniels, 1983), the Foxfire student publishing experience (Wigginton, 1989), the Algebra Project (Moses et al., 1989), and various community service programs (Coleman et al., 1974; Nettles, 1991a, b; Newmann and Rutter, 1985-86; Schine, 1988). At the same time, comprehensive plans are being pursued by major national groups to completely restructure the curriculum for active student learning of higher order competencies through real-world applications in each major subject across the grades (Jackson, 1992; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; Anderson et al., 1989). If all students are to benefit from these developments, resources must be available to implement ambitious curriculum changes in all schools, including those attended by poor children and children of color that presently are not adequately funded for instruction in the traditional curriculum.

Integration of academic and vocational skills. Many middle and high school students are more motivated to work hard if they view classroom learning tasks to be useful in the adult world of work. But traditional vocational education has frequently been criticized as lacking sufficient academic content and failing to prepare students with well- defined marketable skills (ETS, 1990b). These problems have a particularly strong impact on poor children and children of color since they are disproportionately represented in vocational programs (Braddock, 1990).

Proposals for upgrading the quality of vocational education typically involve some variation of the thesis that programs must provide students with a combination of essential academic skills, rigorous vocational training, and on-the-job experience (ASCD, 1990; Bottoms and Presson, 1989). Asserting that "learning to know and learning to do are linked," Bottoms and Presson (1989, pp. 2-3) observe that "allowing students to use academic materials to perform `real-life' tasks or address `real-life' problems is appealing as a method for increasing students' motivation to learn higher level academic concepts in high school." Considerable impetus for the integration of vocational and academic education emanated from the reauthorization by Congress in 1990 of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, which pressed states and local school districts to achieve such a merger. One of the most ambitious efforts to integrate academic and vocational education is the 13-state Vocational Education Consortium of the Southern Regional Education Board, which involves 33 secondary schools (Bottoms and Presson, 1989; Educational Testing Service, 1990b).

In an empirical survey, Grubb, Davis, and Lum (cited in National Center for Research in Vocational Education, 1991) studied more than 70 secondary schools around the United States and identified several different models for integrating vocational and academic materials. These models include merging faculties and course content and creating academies or major programs within a school that focus on a general cluster of careers. Unfortunately, evaluation data for these programs are not available; the diversity of these programs may provide useful information and strategies that can be applied in other settings, if the implementers can be convinced to incorporate evaluation as part of the overall program models.

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