High School Restructuring and Vocational Reform: The Question of “Fit” in Two Schools

Publication September 1996

Proposals to reshape the relationship between academic and vocational preparation coincide with other challenges to the prevailing curriculum, pedagogy, and social organization of secondary schools. Despite certain broad areas of agreement among these various reforms, however, they tend to differ in the emphasis they give to work preparation among the remedies for the present failings of high schools. In this report, we draw upon the experiences of teachers and students in two “restructuring” high schools to examine the place of vocational reform amid the evolving purposes and content of secondary schooling.

At the outset, we reasoned that the prospects for closer ties between academic and vocational education rested on the impetus provided by specific reform initiatives to take work preparation seriously as part of education for all students, and on a school’s capacity to undertake the necessary structural and cultural changes. We were guided by three questions:

  1. In challenging the established traditions of secondary schooling, do these schools also examine and alter the long-standing ambivalence toward vocational preparation? That is, does the “restructuring” environment create a favorable disposition toward vocational reform?
  2. In seeking a more coherent and well-connected curriculum–a common tenet of broadly defined school restructuring–do schools more readily embrace the idea of integrated academic and vocational curricula?
  3. In creating alternative structures for students’ and teachers’ work–interdisciplinary teams in lieu of departments, for example–do schools enable teachers to bridge the “two worlds” of academic and vocational teaching?

In selecting case study sites, we focused upon schools that have been funded to pursue a comprehensive agenda of school reform. Southgate High School and Prairie High School (pseudonyms), both moderately large comprehensive high schools in California (approximately 2,400 students), have undertaken a program of reform in which the characteristic assumptions, traditional structures, and persistent practices of secondary schooling have–in principle at least–all been opened to question. The schools differ in the reform strategies they have adopted, but have in common a schoolwide effort to establish new forms of social organization for teachers’ and students’ work.

Over a two-year period, we made several team visits to each site. We conducted interviews with teachers, administrators, counselors, students, and community members; observations in classrooms, meetings, teacher planning sessions, and inservice education activities; informal observations throughout the school grounds, including the staff lounges and offices; and reviews of key school documents, including various demographic data, reports, yearbooks, teachers’ work assignments, course offerings, and students’ academic transcripts.

Although the schools differed in some important ways, we found certain common conditions in regard to our three guiding questions:

1. Was the restructuring environment conducive to vocational reform and the integration of academic and vocational study?

  • The restructuring environment was very conducive to new forms of vocational education, but did not fundamentally alter the division between academic and vocational goals for most students or teachers. The integration of academic and vocational education gained substantial visibility at both Southgate and Prairie with the introduction of a designated career academy which was granted an unprecedented degree of institutional legitimacy and material support. Preparation for work–as a goal for all students–figured prominently in the reform-oriented documents of one of the schools but was not evident at the classroom level except in the designated career academies. The academies’ demonstrated success with students brought them high regard but proved insufficient to create a substantially altered view of work education among the wider population of teachers and students.
  • Fundamental to elevating the status of the career academies at Southgate and Prairie was their emphasis on a dual mission: career preparation and college preparation. In recruiting students to an academy, teachers emphasized this dual mission–students came to the academy persuaded that they would be helped to prepare for college, while also acquiring marketable skills. The college preparation side of this dual mission took precedence in both schools. On the whole, we did not find academic teachers or departments outside the academies reconsidering how curriculum, instruction, and assessment might give greater prominence to work-related outcomes.
  • In each school, school-level leadership tended to support career academies as one of several parallel ventures in reform, but stopped short of promoting larger scale discussions regarding the relationship of academic and vocational goals.

2. Did the emphasis on integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum extend to the integration of academic and vocational study?

  • Curriculum integration received widespread support at both schools, both in terms of administrative endorsement and teacher interest. The schools organized common planning times for interdisciplinary teams (including the academy teams composed of academic and vocational teachers). Administrators committed resources to professional development activities that enabled teachers to consult with colleagues or other experts on approaches to integrated curriculum, and to work with similar teams from other schools. Taken together, the value attached to integrated curriculum and the resources devoted to it created a substantial latitude for experimentation.
  • Teachers’ efforts to establish new curricular connections concentrated on discovering “authentic” connections across subjects, but tended to stop short of integration with work or other forms of “practical” knowledge. Even teachers who supported cross-subject integration balked at the idea that a premium be placed on concepts or skills with a work-related or other out-of-school application. Outside the career academies, we saw virtually no instance in which interdisciplinary teams concerned themselves with these possibilities. Their reluctance appeared to stem in part from well-established conceptions of what legitimately constitutes instruction in academic subjects and in part from an absence of persuasive alternatives.

3. Has restructuring created closer ties between academic and vocational teachers?

  • Both schools have created new opportunities for collegial contact and collaborative work among teachers–for example, schoolwide governance arrangements, team-based teaching assignments, and the organization of teacher planning time. In both schools, career academies have brought a small number of academic teachers into intensive and productive contact with vocational colleagues. However, the academies also suffer high rates of turnover among the academic teachers, leaving us with questions regarding the overall strength and durability of these collegial ties. In one of the schools, academic and vocational teachers also come together in committees and other settings to pursue questions of schoolwide interest, but we neither saw nor heard described any instance of a prolonged discussion of vocational and academic goals.
  • In both schools, academic teachers came to admire the expertise and achievements of the vocational teachers. That is, the overall climate of restructuring and the specific success of the career academies combined to make vocational teachers less marginal than we have seen them in many other comprehensive high schools. Yet in many ways, these teachers remain divided in their educational goals, their conceptions of curriculum and instruction, and their views of students. The “two worlds” of academic and vocational teaching, if more readily bridged in these schools, remain visibly distinct.

The multiple currents of reform in these restructuring schools run along separate channels. Although they are given a comprehensive and coherent face in public documents, each has its own internal advocates and its own external sources of pressure and support. These separate channels parallel one another in important ways. That is, the directions pursued by vocational reform activities–seeking curricular connections, broadening students’ understanding of occupational possibilities, building students’ capacity for independent work and cooperative endeavors, and emphasizing assessment based in performance–are compatible with the spirit of school restructuring more generally. In this regard, the restructuring environment is assuredly conducive to new forms of vocational education.

The distinction nonetheless remains between a “work-bound” and “college-bound” curriculum. We find little indication of support for wholesale rethinking of the high school experience in ways that would broaden the conception of work education for all students. Although the principals of both schools consistently signaled their support for the career academies and for career education more broadly, they supplied equally consistent reinforcement for efforts to strengthen the traditional academic curriculum. Many academic teachers remained skeptical of a curriculum that would emphasize practical applications, especially if they believed that the search for practicality would take precedence over academic priorities–the key concepts or topics typically associated with core academic subjects.

With the exception of individuals who became directly involved in career academies or similar structures, few academic teachers had occasion to think explicitly and imaginatively about what “learning work,” as Simon, Dippo, and Schenke (1991) phrase it, might amount to in a restructured school, or how vocational education might contribute to other reform goals. Structures that joined teachers’ work in unfamiliar ways, such as the career academies, enabled teachers in these schools to discover shared interests, penetrate old stereotypes, and forge new social ties. They also revealed the limitations of structural solutions to problems that center on multiple and competing views of schooling.

The most ambitious integration models in these schools, such as career academies, have generally succeeded in garnering the respect of academic teachers, parents, and students–although not necessarily because they have fostered a deeper and broader understanding of what “learning work” might entail. Such models appear to achieve their effect with their students largely on the basis of (1) general “planfulness” about the future (including both postsecondary education and career); (2) small scale and close socio-emotional support for students of the sort also attempted by other “small school” or “school-within-a-school” models; and (3) the press for achievement communicated by teachers who monitor student progress closely. On this basis alone, these seem ventures worth supporting. It is perhaps through these accomplishments that these and similar programs most clearly stand to influence the wider school program and the experience of a larger number of students; that is, it would not require a major philosophic shift, and would require only a quite manageable structural reconfiguration, for most schools to supply the conditions available to students in these academies.

The paper concludes that substantial change in the character and scope of vocational preparation seems unlikely unless the schools succeed in placing “work” more visibly on the agenda of schoolwide goal-setting and redesign. Schools engaged in comprehensive programs of restructuring seem in principle well-positioned to do so. Our subsequent research in a larger number of schools suggests that these case study sites resemble other restructuring schools in many relevant respects. Most have created governance and decision-making structures that include multiple stakeholders: administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and students. Many have created common planning times for teachers to work both within and across traditional subject boundaries. Some, like these case study schools, have sought new ways of organizing teachers and students that will foster greater coherence across the curriculum and enable teachers and students to know and support one another better. Professional development activities tend to focus on ways of “rethinking” approaches to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. New forms of assessment offer opportunities to explore the intersection of academic concepts and practical application (e.g., senior projects typically incorporate a written narrative, a “product,” and an oral presentation). Schools might take greater advantage of such arrangements to investigate what is and what might be meant by “learning work.”

Little, J. W., Erbstein, N., & Walker, L. (1996, September). High school restructuring and vocational reform: The question of “fit” in two schools. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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