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. But is there evidence that school-to-work is making a difference?
Our findings suggest that it is important to look both at long-term outcomes for young people and at short-term outcomes-- changes that occur while students are enrolled in a school-to-work program. A few sites in the AED/NIWL 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. It is one of our recommendations for further research, however, to collect more data on these long-term outcomes for students: employment, independent living, postsecondary education, income, and professional standing.
While these long-term outcomes have an undeniable bottom-line importance, AED/NIWL urges that the short-term outcomes we have documented also be valued, both because of their intrinsic importance, and because they enable students to achieve the long- term outcomes that are the ultimate goal of STW. We found short- term outcomes for students in terms of skills and knowledge, career direction, motivation, and empowerment.
Teachers, administrators, employers, and students themselves at the case study sites reported skills development as a key outcome of STW programs. Most programs are reported to be effectively teaching occupational skills at a sufficient level to enable students to gain a foothold on the professional ladder within an occupation. Most programs also teach, through a combination of classroom instruction and experiential education, a range of "employability" skills: resume preparation, job searching, interviewing, and on-the-job roles, responsibilities, and human relations. Less commonly, gains in academic skills were reported, often by students who observed that their STW experience had motivated them to pay more attention to academics, because now they saw the connection between "book learning" and real world experience.
A new sense of career direction is another very important short-term outcome for students documented by the AED/NIWL study. STW students acquired both formal career plans and a personal, career-directed way of thinking about their futures. Most of the AED/NIWL sites had in place an individualized career planning process integrated with student course selection and postsecondary plans. These processes mean that every student has an individual plan to guide him or her through high school and beyond, in contrast to the traditional system of clumping students into college-going, vocational, or general tracks. Going through the formal process, however, also appears to have enabled many students to internalize career planning processes, a lifelong skill that enables them to weigh their plans against their goals and resources, and take responsibility for changing their plans as their goals shift.
Students in STW programs discussed their career plans thoughtfully and knowledgeably, demonstrating their acquisition of career planning skills and ability to apply these to their own lives. In particular, students talked about their own career paths, explaining step-by-step plans for acquiring the training, work experience, and sometimes even the financial resources they would need to achieve their career goals. They had an integrated vision of schooling and work, and incremental view of building careers. Students and teachers also both observed that students who previously had shied away from college entirely were now planning at least some college course work.
Motivation is a broadly defined concept, but anyone familiar with high school students in the late 1990s knows how critical it is. Students in STW programs and the adults who work with them report remarkable improvements in motivation, both among students who do well in traditional classrooms and students who do not. Even students who have left school, or are on the verge of it, become motivated to return and to succeed in school. Students apply themselves in new ways to their studies, both on the job and in workplaces. They have an answer, as a principal at one site observed, to the question "Why am I studying this?" Various explanations are offered for the increased motivation: visible rewards in terms of career experience and prospective employment, opportunity to be treated as adults in an adult world, learning that is contextual rather than abstract, pedagogy more conducive to a range of learning styles, and the opportunity to escape from the high school building.
Closely related to motivation, but a more sweeping outcome, is the development of "empowered" students. By "empowered," we mean students who have the knowledge, freedom, self-esteem, and motivation, connected to a deep sense of individual responsibility, to make independent choices for themselves and play meaningful roles in setting the course of the STW program itself. A setting with empowered students has achieved a profound educational reform, because in many respects it is the mirror opposite of the traditional high school classroom. To achieve empowerment requires an educational setting that grants significant power to students, and prepares them to use it responsibly. AED/NIWL teams found several sites that were attempting to create such a setting through STW. Ultimately, empowerment means achieving the maturity to make adult decisions and take responsibility for the results. This is obviously an important step, not only in developing lifelong learners, but in producing responsible citizens. It is important for all young people, but for those with learning disabilities or personal problems that have hindered their social development, it is the step that makes successful independent living possible.
Although STW reform is primarily intended to benefit students, the AED/NIWL 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, although some employers complained that, under short- term arrangements, by the time students were trained and up-to- speed, the internship had ended. We also found evidence that, besides providing an extra pair of trained hands, students can supplement an employer's work force in more sophisticated ways, performing tasks that otherwise would not be accomplished. Students apply problem-solving and technological skills, conducting a marketing survey in Sitka (Alaska), for example, or surveying fire safety systems in Dayton (Ohio), or training adult employees in the use of computer technology in Fort Pierce (Florida). In these examples, the educational system has supplied business with the latest or most sophisticated workplace techniques, rather than the other way around.
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. Business representatives on advisory groups, in particular, were pleased with the opportunity to shape the curriculum of occupational training in the high school, and believed they were having an influence on these programs and their graduates that would ultimately pay off for business in terms of a better qualified workforce. Indeed, the case studies found some evidence of businesses hiring graduates of STW programs.
The organizational structures of STW programs and systems create new roles for business and industry that together amount to a more continual and more substantive presence in the educational system. Business takes on leadership roles through representation in partnership steering committees and advisory groups, but it also plays face-to-face roles with students and instructors as employers work as mentors, trainers, and curriculum developers.
Itself an important outcome for business, this enhanced presence in the schools leads to a series of additional outcomes. Surveys have indicated that many employers have negative assumptions about young people and their schools; the case studies found that employers who work with students as part of STW programs tend to express positive attitudes about these students--although they may still have criticisms of their schooling. Some business representatives, however, also expressed more understanding and even appreciation for the challenges facing schools, and how much is accomplished despite these.
Face-to-face supervision and mentoring of students in the workplace at times produces practical and positive outcomes for business. Employees who supervise students gain supervisory, mentoring, and training skills. Analyzing tasks in order to convey them to students, and analyzing competencies in order to assess their accomplishment, has led to improved internal training for regular employees, and reexaminations of internal career paths, according to some businesses.
Collaborating with other community representatives on advisory groups and partnerships has the beneficial outcome for business partners of improved political and business connections. Businesses make new contacts and have opportunities to develop existing relationships that go beyond the STW initiative.
Participation in STW also provides a business with an avenue for good public relations. The role can bring the business more visibility in the community, specifically within the schools--often the heart of a community--and in a fashion that demonstrates commitment to children and to the community's future.
AED/NIWL found, however, that many of the businesses participating in STW appeared to be motivated by a sincere commitment to community service, rooted in a sense of social responsibility. STW programs have many positive outcomes for businesses, but they also require a great deal in energy, time, and resources. Businesses that do participate, however, also appear to have their sense of commitment reinforced by their participation, both because they see results for their efforts, and because they see, firsthand, how serious the issues are. Such businesses often become advocates for school-to-work, encouraging other businesses to take part.
By definition, the outcome of STW reform is the transformation of the educational process itself: changed curriculum, pedagogy, standards, assessment, scheduling, even the physical location for learning. School-to-work is an educational reform so profound that it literally transforms every aspect of schooling, at least at the secondary level. This recognition goes a long way to explaining the complexity of implementing STW reform, and the resistance with which it often meets within schools.
Secondary Schools. The AED/NIWL researchers documented many outcomes for secondary schools resulting from the introduction of STW programs. Although those involved generally reported these to be positive outcomes, they were often achieved at the cost of some burnout among STW leadership and over the objections of some staff members.
One outcome is the introduction of new resources--usually brought about through business or other partnerships, sometimes through grants: equipment, funds, advice, speakers, mentors, staff development, student placements. These resources represent new opportunities for students, obviously, but also for school staff.
Which leads into the second outcome: opportunities for the professional development of instructional, counseling, and administrative staff. STW reform means new staffing configurations, new kinds of responsibilities, and new ways of thinking about existing roles and relationships within the school. Staff members who become committed to the reform will see these innovations as opportunities for personal growth as well as for an improved school. They pursue formal training introduced through STW reform and make their own opportunities for personal development.
When STW reform engages school staff in professional development in this manner, it has the further outcomes of creating a more knowledgeable and a more motivated staff. The AED/NIWL site visitors found many instructors who reported that STW had led them to understand and adopt more comprehensive views of student learning processes. Counselors tired of planning career days were reengaged by the opportunity to create more sophisticated career planning systems. Staff members who become engaged in STW reform bring renewed energy and creativity to their work, perhaps in part because, like their students, they have a new sense of purpose for what they are doing in school. Sometimes this also results in a new, formal mission statement; sometimes it is simply a new sense of mission.
As observed above, STW reform by definition leads to the outcomes of changed curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and scheduling and location of learning. STW reforms in these areas tend to mean certain thematic outcomes as well: more individualized approaches to students and their learning, more flexibility in styles and structures, more competency-based and standards-based teaching and assessment.
A transformation of the school's career counseling system--its structure and process--is also by definition an outcome of STW reform. The AED/NIWL case study process 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.
Another outcome of STW reform is that it results in less isolated schools. STW brings schools into the community, and invites a variety of community partners into the schools, who in turn bring new perspectives, resources, and connections. The STW processes in which they engage are likely to lead to a community that knows more about the schools and feels more commitment to what happens within them. In some cases, this sense of ownership has led to practical support, such as passage of a school bond issue.
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.
Postsecondary Schools. Colleges and universities who engage in STW programs also reorient their thinking towards a K-14 or even K-16 model, making traditional college admission requirements more flexible, granting college credit for STW courses, and even admitting students still in high school to college courses. This reorientation is a significant outcome, but so is the reform in admission requirements, which may change both the process and the materials required, for example, waiving credit requirements or accepting student portfolios. We did find, however, instances in which postsecondary systems were not responsive to these new systems, even openly setting policies that blocked the admission of STW students.
On a practical level, articulation and other agreements may mean a new source of incoming students for colleges. Increased enrollment is usually reported to be a welcome outcome, but some colleges have had more students seeking to enroll than they could serve.
Another outcome is that engaging in STW programs enables colleges and universities to have an impact on prospective students. Through articulation processes, college faculty and staff shape curriculum, strengthen standards, and assist teachers at the secondary level. In these ways, they help determine the preparation that students will bring to the postsecondary classroom.
Elementary and Middle Schools. Not surprisingly, the AED/NIWL study found relatively few outcomes for elementary and middle schools as a result of STW reform, for two reasons. First, our study's focus was on secondary school reform initiatives rather than STW reforms in elementary and middle schools. Secondly, few secondary level STW reforms reach even as far as the middle school. Where there was a STW presence in the middle school, the primary outcome tended to be a strengthened, more systematic career exploration/awareness process. We documented a few curricular changes in middle school classrooms as well.
STW systems must work with secondary school, business, and postsecondary partners, but often engage other organizations as well, including government agencies, job training entities, community-based organizations, human services organizations, labor unions, and research organizations. In many cases, these partners are being brought into the educational system for the first time, an outcome intended to benefit students that may have desirable outcomes for the partners as well. Collaboration on a STW agenda is likely to introduce people to each other for the first time, create relationships in a new and collaborative context, and suggest new ways of working together. The AED/NIWL research team found evidence of activities apparently spun-off from collaborative planning on STW.
Effective STW reform, like the proverbial pebble tossed into the pond, has a ripple effect that bears 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..