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

Study of School-To-Work Initiatives October 1996


Part 1 of 2


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. And until relatively recently, little national attention has been paid to this serious disadvantage to both our youth and our society. Now, however, it seems that, just as the buzzwords for the 1980's were "school reform," the catchphrase for the 90's is the "school-to-work transition," one area that has been the focus of some school reform initiatives.

Current transition efforts are characterized by a direct linkage between school and subsequent employment and by the recognition that a multiplicity of institutions are involved in the school-to-work transition and must be players in any national policy (de Lone, 1991). Many of these efforts stress a broader role for business, both in responding to the needs of business and industry for well-prepared youth and in strengthening the instruction and preparation of youth for work. They also recognize the importance of including as core components a wide range of services that encompass academic skills, career guidance, work experience, and job preparedness and placement assistance.

The last five years have seen an enormous increase in the attention being focused on the transition in the substantive literature as well as the popular press. Much of this attention can be traced to the rapid pace of economic, political, and technological change that is occurring on local, national, and global levels. With the U.S. facing changing demographics, business' need for a more productive and competitive workforce, growing concern about the economic futures of many of our youth and the increasing strength of our international competitors, a flood of information has been released that relates to the school-to-work transition and what can be done to improve the process, especially for our young people who do not complete college in the traditional lock-step sequence (the traditional path being going directly from high school to further education and after completion of schooling entering the workforce).

Too often the phrase "school-to-work transition" implies that there is one direct path for all young people that leads them from the classroom into the workplace. In fact, what once may have been considered the traditional route for the majority of youth (completing school and then entering full-time employment) has given way to a series of variations that reflect more accurately the needs and condition of youth in our society today. Our use of the term "school-to-work transition" includes, in addition to young people leaving or completing high school and seeking full-time work, those who enter the workforce and go on to receive employer-provided training; those who work and continue their education simultaneously; those who complete relatively new programs like the Academies or tech-prep programs and then enter the full-time labor force or go on to continued postsecondary education; those who enter the labor force for a number of years and then return for additional postsecondary education or training; and finally, students who participate in a range of high school programs that link education to work regardless of whether the student is anticipating continued education or entry into the workplace.

Our task in the state of the art literature review and annotated bibliography was to sort through the many publications dealing with the transition from school to work and, without duplicating the admirable work that has been done by others, synthesize the latest available information on programs and approaches relating to both the theory and practice of school-to-work transition as a part of school reform. School-to-work transition may in fact be driven by school reform or may drive some of the changes that are being incorporated as a part of restructuring efforts. The literature taken as a whole indicates a consensus that school-to-work transition cannot be accomplished as an activity separate from the school reform movement; it is an integral component in any effective reconfiguration of our current education system.


AED conducted the state of the art literature review to provide a comprehensive information base on school-to-work transition programs and issues. The dual focus of the review highlighted cross-cutting issues surfacing from research and evaluation of theory and practice in the field, as well as review and evaluation of programs that fall under three types of school-to-work transition reform initiatives: programs that integrate work into learning experiences, curriculum links between academic and vocational disciplines, and transition, counseling, and information programs.

The review was guided by the overall project's conceptual framework (see Figure 1), which was used to identify major areas of interest and critical elements and relationships. The framework outlines the relationship among the community, the design and implementation of reform initiatives, and their effects on student and business/labor market outcomes. The first column of components reflects the community and institutional context under which reform initiatives take place. The second column represents the critical components in the design of school-to-work reform efforts. The third column includes the elements that need to be considered in implementation of reforms. The final column contains the anticipated and actual student, school, and business outcomes brought about by the reform initiatives. Changes in the outcomes result from the impact of the reform initiatives and any intervening factors.

We employed four methods of searching for relevant information. First, we analyzed AED's extensive in-house collection of reports, articles, and other information on school-to-work transition issues. Second, we targeted appropriate organizations and individuals, including our National Advisory Panel, and contacted them directly. Third, we utilized information from databases which abstract books and journal articles. Fourth, we systematically reviewed recent relevant publications, journals, and conference programs and searched through the bibliographies.

Specific information sources we reviewed include the following:

- U.S. Department of Education sources, including the Office of Educational Research and Improvement and the National Diffusion Network;

- Other federal agencies, including the U.S. General Accounting Office's Human Resources Division and the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration and Bureau of Labor Statistics;

- School-to-work transition databases, including ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education and the National Youth Employment Coalition Information Center;

- Current and past journal issues, including Employment and Training Reporter and Partners in Education Journal, Educational Leadership, and Vocational Training News;

- Publications, newsletters, and conference programs from appropriate Universities, including Cornell University Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, University of Illinois National Center for Research in Vocational Education, Ohio State University Center on Education and Training for Employment, University of California National Center for Research in Vocational Education, and Brandeis University Center for Human Resources;

- Publications, newsletters, and conference programs from other appropriate organizations, including Public/Private Ventures, Jobs for the Future, Institute on Education and the Economy, National Center on Education and Employment, Institute for Technological Solutions, The Business Roundtable, National Alliance of Business, Educational Testing Service, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Commission for Employment Policy, Education Resources Group, Education Writers Association, RAND Corporation, National Governors Association, Children's Defense Fund, American Association for School Administrators, National Youth Employment Coalition, The Conference Board, The William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Youth and America's Future, National Center on Education and the Economy; and

- Informal networking at organizational meetings and with individual educators, academics, and specialists.

The following steps were taken to implement the state of the art review:

  1. Analysis of existing reviews and synthesis on school-to-work transition developed by AED.
  2. Selection of broad topic areas related to school-to-work transition.
  3. Identification of research and evaluation studies through other sources.
  4. Development of a framework/outline for the review.
  5. Abstracting of materials.
  6. Preparation of draft state of the art review: including an annotated bibliography, detailed review, and synthesis (exemplary programs and cross-cutting issues).

The review is divided into nine sections:

A. The Context: The Impact of Economic, Political, and Technological Change
B. Core Transition Components and School Reform
C. Workforce Readiness
D. Articulation Between Academic and Vocational Skills
E Contextual Education
F. International Approaches to the School-to-Work Transition
G. Apprenticeship in the United States
H. Youth Work Experience in Naturally Occurring Jobs
I. School-Business Collaboration and Partnerships
Each section consists of an introduction that synthesizes the information contained in the annotated entries. The literature included in each section was chosen to represent the latest thinking and information available on the topic and to give a broad perspective on the range of views and related concerns. In some areas, a large number of documents necessitated our selecting just a sampling of the literature; in other areas, less information was available, reflecting a lack of relevant materials or the very recent nature of the attention being focused on the issue. A copy of the full annotated bibliography is included in Volume IV.

A. The Context: The Impact of Economic, Political, and Technological Change

Rapid changes in technology and increasing international competition have led employers to seek new strategies for producing goods and providing services. These changes require a high performance organization where all workers have more responsibility and decision-making functions. Such organizations need employees who are well trained and possess the skills and knowledge necessary for their new functions. In addition, as learning becomes an integral part of the work itself, workers will need to be better prepared to avail themselves of training and learning opportunities in the workplace (National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990).

One challenge faced by educators and employers is how to prepare students for their changing roles in the workplace and how to ensure that the economy uses the full capacity and potential of our youth. At a point in our history when education beyond high school is increasingly viewed as necessary to meet the educational and skill requirements of many current and emerging careers, approximately one half of U.S. youth do not attend college and about half of those who do will not complete their studies. For many of these youth, particularly those who are members of the growing underclass, the transition between school and work has become problematic (U.S. GAO, 1990b). Many graduate high school with few or no job-related skills; often their academic preparation is weak.

Those who drop out before high school graduation, many of them caught up in an inescapable world of poverty, fare worse with even more limited job and career prospects. Until the age of 25, these youth are likely to move from job to job, usually in the service sector of the economy where they find jobs that are low-skilled, poorly paid, and offer few opportunities for further training or advancement.

The result for some young people is a life of poverty. For many others the prospect is employment that pays less than a living wage and offers neither self-respect nor a future (William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, 1988). Unemployment rates among all youth are high (twice that for adults) and not responsive to economic upturns. The official 1991 unemployment rate for high school graduates below the age of 24 was 13 percent for whites, 17 percent for Hispanics, and 29 percent for Blacks. In reality, these frighteningly high rates are probably even worse. If young people drop out of school, their prospects for not getting a job are one out of four, and their employment prospects do not improve with time.

Related to these employment patterns are the prospects for further training and career mobility. Employers tend to invest training dollars in their best educated employees. Only 45 percent of high school dropouts received training from their employers compared to 71 percent of high school graduates and 79 percent of college graduates (Vaughan and Berryman, 1989). Also, those who are trained on one job are more likely to be trained on subsequent jobs.

Recent attention to the "forgotten half" of students who do not follow the traditional high school to college sequence stems from changes in the economy and the inadequate response by schools, businesses, and government. A number of factors make the school-to-work transition issue critical at this time.

First, the changing demographics of the U.S. population find fewer young people and a general aging trend (U.S. DOL, 1989a). Second, a set of changes in the labor market suggests a shift from manufacturing to a service economy with the resulting reduction in low-level high-pay jobs in manufacturing and growth in low-skilled low-pay jobs in the service sector of the economy (Johnston and Packer, 1987). According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (1992), while there is general agreement that the demographic make-up of the labor force will continue to change, critics differ on the likelihood of labor shortages and skill gaps. Johnston and Packer argue that there will be a need for higher order and technological skills for a growing number of jobs in all sectors of the economy. Others assert that labor shortages will be limited in scope and impact and that high-skill technical jobs will represent only four percent of all jobs by the year 2000.

Third, an increasing number of young people are "at-risk" of not becoming productive members of society. Finally, as the institutions of the family and community have changed dramatically, society once again has turned to the schools to carry out the transition process, an enormous role for which schools have not received the resources or the required training and which some critics view as a dangerous shift in the focus of attention away from "the nation's economic malaise." These critics argue that while our education system is in need of major improvement, business has done much to contribute to the American worker's lowered competitiveness and offers little in the way of an economic agenda aimed at absorbing the highly skilled workers it is demanding from the schools (Weisman, 1992).

B. Core Transition Components and School Reform

In many communities, transition programs are a part of major school reform and restructuring efforts. School-to-work transition may in fact be driven by school reform or may drive some of the changes that are being incorporated as a part of restructuring efforts. The literature taken as a whole indicates a consensus that school-to-work transition cannot be accomplished as an activity separate from the school reform movement. It is an integral component in any effective reconfiguration of our current education system.

There is a growing recognition that school reform requires the full commitment of all partners to systematically change the way we approach education in the U.S. Schools alone cannot be expected to develop effective strategies for providing young people with the knowledge, skills, and support they need to become creative and productive members of society. At the same time that educators have reached out to the community for advice and support, businesses have become aware that the local and national economic interest is increasingly at risk. Furthermore, the absence of an effective system to help non-college-bound youth make a smooth transition to the primary labor market has cost the U.S. socially and economically. Half of our young people are experiencing difficulties finding long-term, productive employment. Currently there is no system in place to help them access such opportunities. Charner (1990) suggests that such a system would comprise a set of services essential to an effective transition, including information on employment and career options, career counseling, oversight of student work experience, linkages to employers, and other essential services, similar to those offered in other countries. Byrne et al. (1992) point to the Quality Connection Consortium, initiated by the National Alliance for Business, as a school-to-work transition model where employers take direct responsibility for a portion of the educational enterprise.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (1991a) also views the improvement of transition connections between school and employment as a critical catalyst in the restructuring of elementary and secondary education. The Council offers a set of nine principles for improving the preparation of youth for gainful employment and continued learning, and a set of ten actions which should be taken in each state to establish curriculums that promote a school-to-work system.

The National Center on Education and the Economy (1990) has received a great deal of public attention focusing on its recommendations which provide a framework for developing a high quality American education and training system, closely linked to high performance work organizations. The recommendations include: a national benchmarked educational performance standard for all students; state responsibility for students achieving Certificates of Initial Mastery; a comprehensive system of technical and professional certificates and associates degrees; incentives for employers to invest in further education and training for their workers; and a system of Employment and Training Boards to organize and oversee the proposed school-to-work transition programs and training systems. Recently, a series of bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress that build on these recommendations for a national system.

Fraser and Charner (1993) recommend setting up local Community Youth Development Councils, with a satellite Office of Youth Transition Services in every high school. Because no single institution acting alone can address the education-work needs of youth and employers, these local collaborative councils would be responsible for overseeing the movement of all the community's young people between school and work or further education and training.

Another approach that has been advocated by the Director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education is "high schools with character," which would include: the integration of academic and vocational studies; cooperative student learning; collegial work among teachers; and a special school identity, commonly established through an industrial connection (NCRVE, 1992a). This connection with a specific industry or corporation is similar to the Japanese connection between high schools and individual corporations. It is believed that a substantial number of students will perform better in such a program than in traditional college-prep programs and that such schools will be more relevant to the needs of our economy.

Waiting until high school to address the education-work needs of youth, however, may prove to be a costly mistake. Lacey (1988) and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989) build a strong case for providing new school structures and supportive services as core program components for students in the middle grades. Without an early focus on such elements as counseling and health services to assist youth in overcoming difficulties, and without innovative delivery approaches such as case management, large numbers of our young people will not be able to become self-sufficient (Nightingale et al., 1991).

Bostingl (1992) posits that our schools no longer provide an opportunity for students to perform high-quality work. The primary issue is how to rethink the schooling process so that young people have greater opportunities to develop the self-direction and creative decision-making skills that are necessary for success in today's global economy. Finn (1992) argues that the chance to reform our schools may be squandered unless three promising educational reform ideas are implemented: national school standards; exams keyed to those standards; and the use of exam results for college admission and employee selection.

The general consensus is that two problems are motivating the current restructuring movement--the educational system's poor performance and the changing nature of work and workers (McDonnell, 1989). How well restructuring transforms American education, improves student learning, and eases the school-to-work transition will depend in large measure on the sustained attention of parents, employers, trade unions, educators, churches, youth-serving agencies, community leaders, and local, state, and national authorities (William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship, 1988).

C. Workforce Readiness

With our nation's economic competitiveness sagging and our productivity levels not keeping pace with our international competitors, employers and policy makers have called for changes and improvements in how our schools prepare students (PEI Quarterly, 1991). In multiple surveys, employers point to inadequacies in academic skills and work readiness among workers, including the lack of integrity and of willingness to assume responsibility and work cooperatively. They also point to the increasing need for workers to be lifelong learners--a need generated by the increasing speed with which skills become obsolete and by the frequent changes in jobs that are typically made by workers during their lifetimes (one in five workers leave their jobs once every five years and younger workers even more often). According to the Committee for Economic Development, "Employers in both large and small businesses decry the lack of preparation for work among the nation's high school graduates. Too many students lack reading, writing, and appropriate behavior on the job. Nor have they learned how to learn, how to solve problems, make decisions, or set priorities" (quoted in Carlson, 1990). This view of young workers contributes to their poor prospects in the labor market as employers seek to hire older, more experienced workers, even for entry-level positions.

Yet students have correctly ascertained that there is little if any relationship between how well they do in school and how likely they are to get a high-skill, high-pay job, or even a job that pays good students more than their counterparts who do less well in school. Employers rarely bother to check the academic credentials of young job applicants, nor does the U.S. have an externally graded competency assessment system keyed to the secondary school curriculum, as do most other industrialized nations (Bishop, 1992). The U.S. Department of Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) recently made a start on developing such a system by identifying the five competencies that effective workers can productively use and the three-part foundation of skills and personal qualities that competence requires (U.S. DOL, 1991).

Other approaches to providing information on the skills employers need include the Employment Readiness Profile proposed by Barton (1989b) and the employability skills portfolio being piloted in the State of Michigan (Stemmer et al., 1992). All of these approaches are aimed at providing both students and employers with a set of useful, practical indicators of linkages between student competencies and achievements and their likely performance as workers in a changing economy.

D. Articulation between Academic and Vocational Skills

For years, vocational education has been regarded as the traditional "dumping ground" for those students who were identified as not being suited to a curriculum of academic, college-oriented courses. According to Douglas (1992), the long history of competition and distrust between the academic and vocational sectors of schools succeeded only in embittering teachers and harming students. Today, the emphasis is increasingly being placed on integrating academic (theoretical) disciplines with more rigorous vocational (hands-on) courses for all students, but particularly for the large number of non-college-bound students. In the best of these programs, traditional academic and vocational offerings are complementary, with work activities used to help students learn English, math, and science, for example, while the classroom experience builds on and reinforces on-the-job learning.

A variety of innovative efforts are aimed at achieving such an integration between academic and vocational skills, including tech prep, cooperative education, academies, occupationally focused schools, and occupational clusters within schools. The 2+2 tech prep/associate degree program is currently being implemented in a number of states (Hull and Parnell, 1991). Tech prep links vocational education programs offered at the secondary and postsecondary levels, covering the last two years of high school and the first two years of postsecondary education. The four-year program combines a common core of learning and technical education, built on a foundation of basic proficiency in math, science, communications, and technology, all in an applied setting and subject to tests of excellence. The first phase of the program stresses career counseling and academic work and moves toward a more technical concentration at the postsecondary level. The student who completes the program earns a certificate or associate degree in a technical field. First introduced in Indiana in 1987, currently approximately 700 tech prep programs in 47 states allow students to link their high school studies with studies in both community and four-year colleges (Education Writers Association, 1992).

Kerka (1989) examines the findings from cooperative education as a model for school-work integration and finds that although it appears successful for students in the fields of engineering, business, and health, cooperative education remains a marginal program, lacking the scope, funding, and impact it needs to serve as a vehicle for workplace transformation. Grubb (1992) looks at three approaches that attempt to reshape both the academic and vocational components of the high school: academies, occupationally focused schools, and occupational clusters. Academies usually operate as schools-within-schools, existing in many occupational areas, and maintaining close relationships with businesses related to the core occupational area. Occupationally focused schools are usually magnet or focus schools with clear missions, separate organization, and social contracts that indicate the responsibilities of teachers, students, and parents. Every student in an occupational cluster chooses among clusters within a school rather than among schools. In each case, the traditional division between academic and vocational subjects has been bridged.

The general consensus seems to be that vocational education in this country is at a crossroads. Major restructuring is necessary to meet the future economic, social, and technological needs of the U.S., including a new vision of vocational education as an integrated and interrelated part of the overall education program for all students (Daggett, 1990). Achieving this goal will not be easy, given the years of historical distance between academic and vocational educators. Based on current information, however, the momentum seems to be growing for closer integration of academic and vocational skills for the benefit of all students.


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