With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Academy for Educational Development's National Institute for Work and Learning (AED/NIWL) undertook a four-year Study of School-to- Work Transition Education Reform supported by the U.S. Department of Educations, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. The study focused on the planning, design, implementation, and impact of school-to-work transition reform initiatives. By documenting the design and integrity of exemplary programs and by assessing program experiences and impacts, the study offers critical lessons for those interested in adapting or adopting programs that effectively link schools with the business community to improve the transition from school to work. A number of activities were undertaken to carry out the study, including: a comprehensive review and synthesis of the state of the art on school-to-work transition; the commissioning of a series of papers on critical issues; the convening of a national conference; fourteen case studies of exemplary school-to-work transition reform initiatives; a cross-case comparison of the fourteen case studies; and the dissemination of diverse products to the research, policy, and education communities.
The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that has no institutionalized school-to-work transition system to help its young people navigate successfully between their learning and work experiences. The lack of a comprehensive and effective school-to-work transition system has a serious impact on many students. It also means significant costs to business and our economy as a whole. A skill-deficient workforce hampers the nation's economic growth, productivity, and ability to compete in an international economy. In recognition of these problems, "school-to-work transition" has become the catch phrase for American education in the 1990s. Too often, however, this phrase is interpreted to mean that there should be one path taken by all young people directly from the classroom to the workplace. In practice, what was once the traditional route for most young people, completing school and then entering full-time employment, has given way to a variety of paths. Our use of the term "school-to-work transition" is intended to embrace this variety: young people who leave or complete high school and seek full-time work; those who enter the workforce and undertake employer- provided training; those who work and continue their education simultaneously; those who complete relatively new programs like academies or tech prep programs and then enter the full-time labor force or continue postsecondary education; those who remain in the labor force for several years and then return for postsecondary training; and finally, those who participate in high school programs that link education to work, regardless of whether the student is anticipating continued education or entry into the workplace.
The primary aim of the AED/NIWL study was to obtain firsthand information about exemplary instances of school-to-work transition reform. To accomplish this, AED/NIWL conducted case studies in fourteen communities across the United States. The research team sought to learn about the contexts in which reform occurred, its planning, design, implementation, and impact, especially on students. More specifically, the study focused on the following: contexts of reform, planning and design, structure of reform, implementation, collaboration, student competencies, curriculum, resources, impacts, and outcomes. The fourteen case study sites were: Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Sitka, AL; Student Career Opportunity Paths In Education, Veradale, WA; Youth Transition Program, Eugene, OR; East San Gabriel Valley Regional Occupational Program, East San Gabriel, CA; Graphics Arts Academy, Pasadena, CA; Roy High School, Roy UT; Metro Tech Vocational Institute, Phoenix, AZ; Tiger Inc., Rothsay, MN; Kalamazoo Valley Consortium Education for Employment Program, Kalamazoo, MI; Patterson Career Center, Dayton, OH; Shawnee High School Aviation Magnet, Louisville, KY; Baltimore Commonwealth, Baltimore, MD; Comprehensive Employment Work And Transition, Charlottesville, VA; and Performance-Based Diploma Program, Fort Pierce, FL.
Through the individual case studies, we identified and documented best practices from which others could learn. The case studies describe the operation and impact of the school-to- work reform, drawing out the important components or pieces of each initiative. It was clear from what we heard at the sites and from our analyses of the cases that school-to-work is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Through the cross case analysis, twelve critical elements or building blocks of school-to-work system reform were identified. These are briefly described below.
Leadership from program deliverers - The category of program deliverers covers a variety of roles, including those of instructor, counselor, transition specialist, school-to-work coordinator, and others. Some delivery roles typically belong to certain positions--instructors usually provide classroom training, for example--but other roles, such as communication with business partners, may be delegated or shared in various ways. As managers, program deliverers must possess excellent organizational and communication skills. As reformers, they must have substantial knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum, the industry, and the student population. Whether their training is academic or experiential, effective program deliverers also understand youth development and learning theory, including the variety of learning styles and the stages of adolescent development. Effective program deliverers also have some understanding, usually earned through actual experience in the industry, of the occupational area within which the school-to-work program provides training.
Professional development for teachers and staff - For any reform effort to take root successfully in a school system, practice in classrooms, counseling sessions, and administration must change. Professional development is one route that school-to-work initiatives adopt in order to engage school staff in the reform, ensuring that at least some will change their professional practice sufficiently to support the vision and strategies of the reform. The executive of the educational system must make professional development a priority for that school, district, or regional entity. Like so many aspects of school-to-work, professional development conflicts with standard school schedules and logistics, which can block the effort unless an administrator in a position of some authority clears the way.
Cross-sector collaboration - A school-to-work transition system is by definition dependent on effective collaboration among all of the stakeholders. The first step in developing a representative system is taking stock of the range of partners in a community. It is important to engage partners early in the process in order to foster a sense of empowerment and ability to influence the shape of the system. Effective long-term collaboration requires not only broad and inclusive recruitment, but also continuous nurturing of partnerships, so that all the partners recognize the rewards, risks, and long-term outcomes they can expect for themselves and, more importantly, for the students. Different partners are going to require different types of support or reassurances that the system will work for them. The goal of such extensive and carefully nurtured partnerships is an atmosphere of shared vision, beliefs, and, ultimately, resources.
Student self-determination - In order to help students prepare for a lifetime of learning, fulfilling work, and productive adult lives, school-to-work transition systems must support the development of self-determination in all students. Students should be encouraged to take responsibility for their learning, to understand and manage their career options, and to develop social skills and a maturity level that will help them interact positively with adults and peers. This is especially true for at-risk students, as the school system may be the only vehicle for them to learn how to cope with the complexities of adult life.
School-based curriculum and instruction - At the heart of school-to-work reform is a transformation of curriculum and instructional practice so that learning is "contextual," that is, learning that occurs in a real life context, or a close simulation of a real life context. Curriculum and instruction in transition systems must provide multiple points of connection between the experiences of work and learning. The successful school-to-work curriculum in some manner integrates demanding academic study with up-to-date vocational instruction and work-readiness preparation. Whatever the classroom curriculum, it must connect in a rational and supportive way to the workplace learning experience, and in schools that have instituted articulation agreements, with that postsecondary curriculum as well. The measurement of learning that occurs in settings so unlike the traditional classroom requires assessment practices which are correspondingly different. Many school-to-work programs have drawn up comprehensive sets of competencies, often in consultation with business partners, which students in that program are expected to acquire, at certain minimum levels. Others have established comprehensive standards toward which all the programs within a school or district are expected to strive. Others have experimented with portfolio assessment as the most accurate way to document a student's education.
Work-based learning strategies - Successful transition systems offer a variety of work-based learning experiences, building on local labor market conditions and allowing for differences in student interest, aptitude, and developmental stage. Transition systems can include a menu of options such as business-based experiences, school-based enterprises, entrepreneurial programs, youth apprenticeships, mentorships, cooperative education, and service-learning. Programs also use a range of strategies-- paid or unpaid work experiences, for five or fifty students, during the school day or after school, based in the school classroom or in a "community classroom"--with programs customized to fit the needs of youth, schools, business, and the local community. Regardless of which particular options or strategies a system utilizes, it must provide appropriate support services to students, staff, and business partners.
Integrated career information and guidance system - Another critical component for effective transition systems is the integration of career counseling into the system. In addition to career information, assessment, and guidance, many programs provide mentoring and personal counseling activities. These services are not appendages, but essential components of the system. Services must be ongoing, and each student should have an individual educational and career plan that is regularly updated. As part of the system, career counseling must link back into earlier grades: age-appropriate activities should start in elementary school. There must be multiple points at which counseling can occur, and it must be ongoing and consistently available to students. Equally important, the school's counseling system must tie into reliable, up-to- date labor market and job information sources.
Progressive system starting before grade 11 - Programs that do not start until eleventh grade will miss the chance to make a difference for many students. It is crucial to reach younger students before they become discouraged, disengaged, or drop out. Common sense and research both support the concept that a student who understands the connection between school and work--between lifelong learning and a successful life--will be much more motivated to succeed in school. Programs must take a progressive, sequential approach that includes preparatory, age-appropriate "feeder" programs starting as early as elementary or middle school.
Postsecondary articulation - Just as an effective school-to- work system begins before eleventh grade, it also extends beyond high school graduation. Programs must provide multiple connections to postsecondary institutions, beginning when the student is still in high school and extending to provide post-high school education and training options. Articulation with postsecondary institutions while the student is in high school may take the form of dual/concurrent enrollment, college credit for high school courses, the acceptance by postsecondary institutions of alternative forms of assessment such as portfolios or certificates of mastery, or an agreement that the postsecondary institution will grant credit for alternative instruction such as work-based learning experiences. These arrangements at once greatly expand the training immediately available to high school students, and offer them a ladder of opportunity toward progressively more advanced training and advantageous employment after high school.
Creative financing - Obtaining seed money for reform in its early stages is almost always a critical element of school- to-work initiatives. Many initiatives have drawn on federal funding, including Perkins Act and other vocational and special populations grants. Where the state government has supported tech prep and related reforms, state funds have made a significant difference. In some states, funds for educational reform, including specific set-asides for school-to-work transition, have helped schools initiate school-to-work reforms. Business has provided funds, in- kind contributions, and human resources that have not only underwritten specific programs, but offered evidence of corporate support that often helps leverage additional support. Interagency agreements that allow education programs to draw on other governmental funds, particularly those set aside for employment and training or for special populations, have greatly benefitted school-to-work transition systems in several states.
Application of research - A number of the sites studied by AED consciously drew upon existing research, conducted their own research, or commissioned new research in order to plan, assess, or strengthen their school-to-work system. They made use of the research to provide a foundation for a program model; to assess the local labor market and economy; and to measure the impact of the program on students, specifically how their graduates fared in the worlds of work and postsecondary education. Using research in these ways also brought a number of secondary benefits, as the findings helped justify the school-to-work system, affirm to the staff the importance of their work, leverage additional resources for its support, and provide feedback that could be used to improve and refine different aspects of the reform initiative.
An educational reform that engages as many players and as many levels of the educational system as does school-to-work transition reform has the potential to achieve significant outcomes for many people and institutions. AED/NIWL's study documented evidence of such outcomes for students, business partners, schools (from elementary grades through college), and other partners to the STW collaboration.
The genesis of the school-to-work movement was the widespread concern that students were leaving high school unprepared for work, lifelong learning, and citizenship. These undesirable "outcomes" remain the impetus behind the current movement. There is evidence from the findings that school-to- work is making a difference. A few sites in the study had gathered sound data concerning long-term student outcomes in the categories of employment, postsecondary education, and income, and evidence of connections between these circumstances and their secondary school STW experiences. These studies indicated that, a few years after graduation, STW graduates were more likely to be employed, more likely to access postsecondary training, and had higher incomes and professional standing than their peers who did not experience STW. The shorter term outcomes that were documented have value, both because of their intrinsic importance, and because they enable students to achieve the long- term outcomes that are the ultimate goal of STW. Short-term outcomes for students include skills and knowledge, career direction, motivation, and empowerment. Specific outcomes for students include: occupational skills development, "employability" skills, sense of career direction, career planning process skills, motivation, and personal empowerment.
Although STW reform is primarily intended to benefit students, the study found evidence of positive outcomes for business and industry as well. Businesses were pleased to have the immediate benefit of extra workers provided through STW internships. Some businesses also reported as a positive outcome the development of a better-trained pool of potential employees, who understood the industry and its needs. Enhanced presence in schools is also an important outcome for business. In addition, participation in STW provides an avenue for good public relations, giving business more visibility in the community.
School-to-work is an educational reform so profound that it literally transforms every aspect of schooling, at least at the secondary level -- curriculum, pedagogy, standards, assessment, scheduling, even the physical location for learning. Our study documented many outcomes for secondary schools resulting from the introduction of STW programs. One outcome is the introduction of new resources--usually brought about through business or other partnerships, sometimes through grants. A second outcome is opportunities for the professional development of instructional, counseling, and administrative staff. This in turn creates a more knowledgeable and a more motivated staff. Another outcome is a transformation of the school's career counseling system--its structure and process. The study uncovered different models, which, in contrast to traditional guidance counseling, depend upon individual student career and educational planning processes, continual assessment, and up-to-date labor market information, and do not emphasize application to traditional four-year college programs.
Less isolation of schools is yet another outcome of STW reform. Schools are brought into the community, and a variety of community partners are invited into the schools. A final outcome of STW reform is that it tends to reorient secondary school thinking towards a K-14+ concept. High school graduation is no longer the goal towards which all activity in the school points; staff members are creating new articulation arrangements with postsecondary institutions, and helping their students plan their futures with the years after high school graduation in view. High school graduation and college admission have become steps in a lifelong learning process, rather than make-or-break hurdles.
Effective STW reform, like the pebble tossed into the pond, has a ripple effect that includes important outcomes for all the major players in the effort. Outcomes for students may be most crucial, but the system's survival is also influenced by how it affects the organizational partners.
The primary implication of the study for policy and practice is summarized in the twelve elements that we identified as critical building blocks of school-to-work systems. These elements should be incorporated into school-to-work practice, and policy makers should ensure that regulatory and other government activity supports their incorporation. Other policy implications are related to postsecondary systems, teacher training, employer incentives, parent involvement, and publicity. First, will be important for state postsecondary institutions to cooperate with state STW and K-12 systems around issues of alternative assessment, admissions requirements, and articulation agreements. Second, effective STW programs require pedagogical and curricular approaches that are not usually accorded much consideration in teacher training programs. Both pre-service and in-service teacher training will require reform in order to prepare instructors for the contextual, interactive, more flexible approaches demanded by STW programs.
Third, the study documented cases of business partners making important contributions to STW. Policy makers and practitioners cannot expect that businesses, especially those operating on a close margin of profit--as most do--will participate in STW out of altruism, however. Incentives, such as tax credits, should be devised to help businesses balance bottom- line demands with the desire to assist in the educational system.
The basis of STW system building is partnership, yet the AED/NIWL study found one group of partners conspicuous by their absence: parents. It is crucial for policy makers and practitioners to devise and implement strategies to engage parents in school-to-work. Finally, we found a common need for more widespread and effective publicity about STW--locally, nationally, and at the state level.
The study's findings underscore a number of areas in which further research is needed in order to further clarify its impact of school-to-work reform on students, the impact on employers, the relative effectiveness of various reform strategies, the development of systems for school-to-work, and the implications for financing school-to-work systems. We are much more able now than we were several years ago to recommend more focused areas for future research.
First, additional long-term follow-up studies of student outcomes are needed, to learn more about the relative effectiveness of various approaches and to help system administrators strengthen local initiatives. Secondly, we recommend studies that consider student outcomes in youth development terms--such psychological and social characteristics as motivation, self-determination, responsibility for oneself and others. Thirdly, we recommend cognitive studies of the impact on students of "contextual learning" -- educational settings in which students learn in real-world contexts, a basic aspect of school-to-work learning. These studies should compare and contrast the impact of different approaches: academies and student enterprises, for example. A fourth area suggested for research would be intensive case studies of students in workplaces over time. This approach would enable practitioners and policy makers to learn more about the relative effectiveness of different strategies for integrating learning into workplaces, more about the types of skills transmitted, more about the quality and clarity of assessment practices, and more about how students and their workplace supervisors perceive these experiences. A fifth area recommended for further research concerns access and equity of STW programs: studies of student tracking, equal educational and occupational opportunity, and sex role and racial stereotyping. A sixth area of research is analysis of the costs and benefits to students of working, both in terms of the impact of working while in school and perceptions of students who work. The debate concerning the pros and cons of combining work with schooling has continued for at least a decade. As work becomes an acceptable, even required aspect of the educational process for larger groups of students, including those planning to go to college, studies are needed that examine the impact of work on schooling (grades, attendance, test scores), social relationships, extracurricular and other activities, and use of alcohol and drugs. We also suggest research to examine how employers and postsecondary institutions perceive the impact of school-to-work experiences on students who arrive at their doors as workers or college students. Another area in which we recommend further case study research would be pedagogical and curricular changes, and their impact on student learning at different grade levels. Intensive case studies would enable researchers to focus on direct relationships between specific interventions and specific learning or developmental changes in students.
There is one area in which we strongly recommend further examination of effective strategies, and that is, parent involvement. The research literature provides ample evidence that students whose parents are engaged in their learning perform better in school. It also documents the steep drop off in parent involvement after elementary school. Given the tendency of many parents to emphasize college education to the exclusion of career preparation, parent involvement will be key to successful school- to-work systems. As this list of recommendations indicates, school-to-work is a field that offers many exciting areas for research, exciting because of the importance of the outcomes sought and because of the immediate opportunities for applying the findings of research in practical ways. In many cases, the research could have additional applications in broader areas, such as systems building and engaging parents in secondary education.
The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 offers a chance to bring together partnerships of employers, educators, and others to build an effective school-to-work system that prepares young people for either high-quality jobs or further education and training. While this study of school-to-work reform focused on programs that serve students who are entering the world of work after high school, the findings have important implications for those at the state and local level with the responsibility for school-to-work opportunities for all students under the act.