School to Work, College, and Career: A Review of Policy, Practice, and Results 1993-1997

Publication December 1997

This report synthesizes literature on the development and effectiveness of school-to-work (STW) programs since 1993, the last year NCRVE published a review of that literature. The report’s purpose is to inform policymakers, educators, employers, researchers, and others seeking to understand the origins of the STW movement as to what kinds of new initiatives are taking place, and what is known so far about results for students. These are the questions taken up in Parts II, III, and IV.

Part I gives an overview. The STW movement has several origins and various meanings. Nevertheless, there is wide agreement among STW proponents that academic and occupational subject matter should be more closely integrated in high schools and two-year colleges; that work-based learning should be part of the curriculum for all or most students; and that clear pathways should be created from high school to postsecondary education, including four-year college or university.

On the other hand, some economists have questioned whether there needs to be a STW movement at all. They argue that turbulence and instability in the youth labor market may actually be the result of a rational and efficient job-matching process. One recent study of job stability for young men confirms that those with four-year college degrees experience relatively smooth transitions into full-time work. Another finds that individuals who experience instability or unemployment in their first year or two after graduating from high school are more likely to experience unemployment or instability in their fourth or fifth year after graduation. While neither of these studies can draw definite conclusions about cause and effect, they provide support for the idea of helping young people find stable employment early on, while also encouraging access to four-year postsecondary education.

Part II describes some of the main sources of impetus for the STW movement. The main source seems to be a widespread concern that current forms of schooling, especially at the high school level, are not preparing young people well for the emerging economy in which continual learning is an increasingly important part of work. Federal legislation has responded to this concern in the 1990 Perkins Amendments, calling for integration of vocational and academic education, and the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA), which provided money for local partnerships and states to build new STW systems. While the STWOA has been the most important single event in the STW movement so far, states have also enacted legislation of their own, some of it preceding STWOA and some following. These state laws have ranged from relatively narrow youth apprenticeship initiatives to much more encompassing visions of educational reform. In addition to state and federal legislation, private foundations have also supported influential efforts involving networks of high schools and community colleges. Although there is some consistency among these various initiatives, there are also considerable differences. Local communities, therefore, have considerable choice about what brand of STW to adopt.

Part III describes the state of STW implementation along several major dimensions. Integrating academic and vocational curriculum at the high school level is a central objective. Following the amendments to the vocational education law in 1990, efforts to enrich the academic content of vocational courses became widespread, as did the adoption of new, applied courses in academic subjects. Over time, and especially after STWOA with its call for giving all students access to STW programs, the curricular integration movement has broadened and deepened to the point where some high schools have now completely reorganized themselves into career majors or academies. Examples of curricular integration can also be found in community colleges, though they have not gone as far as the high schools.

Creating clear pathways from secondary to postsecondary education is another major objective of the STW movement. Tech Prep, for which special funding was allocated in the 1990 Perkins Amendments, has concentrated on access to two-year colleges. STWOA, however, explicitly includes the four-year college or university as an eventual option. In practice, it is not easy for Tech Prep students who complete two-year degrees to transfer course credits to four-year colleges. Some have argued that expanding the four-year college option is important to ensure that students in STW programs have a shot at the higher pay and steadier employment that four-year college graduates on average enjoy.

Others counter that only about one in four young people receives a baccalaureate degree, so there is no point in preparing everyone for a four-year college. This is one of the major divisions within the STW movement. Work-based learning (WBL) is another main pillar of STW. Like curricular integration, the vision of WBL has expanded in recent years. While cooperative education attached to vocational programs traditionally has enabled students to acquire skills at work, newer versions of WBL emphasize development of personal and social competence related to work, learning all aspects of an industry, and deepening students’ understanding of concepts taught in academic classes. Well-developed examples of programs that have demonstrably achieved these broader purposes are difficult to find, however. The future direction of the STW movement will depend in part on the adoption of WBL as an instructional strategy by teachers in the academic disciplines.

The spread of WBL also depends on employers. Debate continues over whether employers have sufficient incentive to provide high-quality learning opportunities for students in the workplace. Case studies of programs indicate that employers who participate in STW programs are satisfied with their experience, and local efforts, once established, have been able to expand their numbers of placements. But the overall numbers remain small.

Serving out-of-school youth is another objective of STWOA. Recent examples of programs serving this population exhibit some of the characteristics of STW programs–that is, combining academic and occupational development through classroom instruction linked to WBL. It is too soon to tell, however, whether these approaches will work better than the generally unsuccessful strategies that have been used up to now.

Part IV reviews recent literature evaluating the actual effects of STW programs on young people. Since the meaning of STW varies from one place to another, it is not possible to evaluate it as if it were a unitary concept. Recent evaluations of particular programs, both experimental and non-experimental, have found either no difference between students in STW programs and their counterparts in the control or comparison groups, or else differences in favor of the STW students. In other words, there is some recent positive evidence, but on the whole the new evidence since 1993 is still fragmentary. As the STW effort expands to include all students, conventional evaluation comparing STW and non-STW students becomes impossible, and it may be more useful to design evaluations that treat the whole school, college, or locality as the unit of analysis.

Part V offers a few brief comments about continuing and emerging issues. The degree to which governance of education and training should be centralized or decentralized is generally controversial in this country, and STW has been caught up in that controversy. Since there are strong arguments on both sides, the debate seems to be deadlocked. On the issue of educational content and method, however, the debate seems to be more productive. Arguments are occurring about whether new STW systems should mainly be promoting advanced occupational training, or preparing all students for the possibility of at least a four-year college education. There are risks on both sides, but the competition between these views seems to be producing creative innovations that may better accomplish both purposes.

Urquiola, M., Stern, D., Horn, I., Dornsife, C., Chi, B., & Williams, L., et al. (1997, December). School to work, college, and career: A review of policy, practice, and results 1993-1997. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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