School-to-Work for the College Bound

Publication February 1997

In 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act articulated an educational reform that included innovative approaches to classroom teaching, guided learning experiences outside the classroom, usually at work, and increased career counseling and guidance. Initially, this approach was seen as most appropriate for students not headed for college. But researchers now see that it has the potential to serve as a model for all secondary schools–that school-to-work can prepare young people for work and college. This report makes the case for school-to-work as a college preparatory strategy, arguing that it can teach academic skills as well as and possibly even better than more traditional approaches. By making this case, we hope to expand the use of school-to-work so that all students have the opportunity to benefit from it.

The principal barriers to the widespread acceptance of school-to-work as preparation for careers and college are (1) the fear of many parents and teachers that the school-to-work strategy is designed to prepare students for work directly after high school or at most after community college; (2) the belief that enrolling in a school-to-work program might divert students from academic learning and weaken their preparation for college; and (3) an existing college admissions process that relies on traditional measures of student achievement. Even if it were demonstrated that school-to-work could be used to teach the skills required for successful transition to college, some parents fear that college admissions procedures and standards would not recognize that competence. This fear has considerable justification since college admissions requirements are still based on Carnegie units– the accumulation of classroom hours in traditional academic subjects. The classroom teaching approach and work-based learning that characterize the school-to-work strategy do not fit easily into the traditional Carnegie structure.

Yet a good deal of the skepticism of school-to-work is based on misconceptions about its characteristics. In fact, the pedagogical arguments used to support school-to-work apply to all learning, not just learning for some students. A basic element of school-to-work is “learner-centered” or “authentic” teaching, which requires students to think, to develop in-depth understanding, and to apply academic learning to important, realistic problems. This pedagogic approach already has widespread support among many teachers and parents, yet few realize that this is a core component of the school-to-work strategy. The second basic element is guided educational experiences outside the classroom, particularly the workplace. Many researchers have come to see that this approach strengthens and increases the amount of knowledge that is learned, understood, and retained. For most professionals–teachers, architects, doctors, lawyers–internships and other types of work experience are central components of their education. The jobs that students take in connection with school-to-work are designed to contribute to the student’s substantive education. The third basic element of school-to-work is a structured approach to help young people think systematically about their aspirations and how they can achieve them. School-to-work can then build on those interests and aspirations to help motivate interests in academic learning. Although many high school and college students work while in school, most of these jobs have nothing to do with their studies.

This report describes school-to-work programs that emphasize academic skills, and presents empirical evidence that these programs have been successful in teaching academic skills and preparing students for college. If programs are well planned, students can learn academic skills, earn high grades, score well on tests, and gain access to college. However, widespread acceptance of school-to-work as a strategy for preparing students for selective colleges will require significant changes in assessment and college admission procedures.

Although these are long-term goals, steps can be taken now to improve the reform’s potential to prepare students for college and to convince students, parents, and teachers that enrollment in a school-to-work program will not impede college aspirations. One important step would be to integrate the school-to-work movement into broader education reform efforts. Skeptics are justified in asking for more systematic evidence on the effects of this strategy on academic skills. High schools and school-to-work advocates can also begin to develop a broad strategy for working with colleges. Strengthening communication between secondary and postsecondary education requires three broad components.

The first component of stronger communication involves accommodating school-to-work activities into a traditional college preparatory program. This requires both trying to “shoe horn” school-to-work into traditional Carnegie units and adding school-to-work activities to all of the traditional school activities–in effect treating school-to-work like an extra-curricular activity.

The second component is based on strengthening the relationships between individual schools and colleges. Indeed, the direct relationships between individual schools and colleges is already an important component of the college admissions process. The specific knowledge gained in these relationships is used by admissions committees to evaluate the significance of grades, recommendations, and extra-curricular activities. In some cases, high school teachers and counselors have been able to take advantage of these individual relationships to overcome the skepticism of non-traditional records among college admissions personnel.

Third, assessment and college admissions systems need to be reformed. Indeed several states are now developing assessment and admissions systems that can more effectively evaluate the achievements of school-to-work students. All of these cases involve the development of competency based assessments. Moreover, this is also consistent with a much broader movement in education towards the development of “authentic” assessment. If assessments include more complex material such as papers, projects, and portfolios, it may be that students with a well designed school-to-work experience will look better than students in traditional programs. Colleges already appreciate outside interests and commitments. In principle, school-to-work tries to integrate such interests with academic learning. Assessments that can capture that integration should be of particular interest to colleges.

Thus in the short term, if school-to-work is to spread as a strategy for preparing students for college, it requires better articulation of its characteristics and known effects, accommodation with traditional college preparatory systems, and the development of better individual relationships between schools and colleges. In the long term, school-to-work advocates need to improve the research base, better integrate the strategy with broader education reform movements, and develop new assessment and college admissions systems. While there are still many substantive questions that need to be resolved, school-to-work represents a significant change in educational strategies with the potential to benefit all students by better preparing them for college and career opportunities.

Bailey, T., & Merritt, D. (1997, February). School-to-Work for the college bound. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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