School-to-Work for the College-Bound: Strategies for Maximizing the Educational Opportunities of School-to-Work Students

Publication October 1999

Guided by the principles of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, the school-to-work movement has become the cornerstone of an ambitious national initiative for systemic education reform. The school-to-work system was to include three components: (1) school-based learning, (2) work-based learning, and (3) connecting activities. In addition, the systems were to integrate academic and vocational education, link secondary and postsecondary education, and fully involve the private sector. The idea behind the strategy is that students learn best through the application of academic concepts to real-world situations. While igniting enthusiasm around the country, much of the effort surrounding the school-to-work movement has focused on the need to distance itself from the negative stigma of vocational education. To move the reform into the mainstream, proponents have made the case that school-to-work would benefit all students, including the college-bound.
Using published reports and past research experience, researchers from the Institute on Education and the Economy (IEE) identified states that have been particularly successful and creative in expanding the school-to-work agenda. To examine and analyze the work of these programs, IEE researchers conducted telephone interviews with local school-to-work coordinators and staff members and state school-to-work officials in sixteen states–Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

Authentic Teaching and Learning

The first part of the report discusses the connections between standards, “authentic teaching and learning” pedagogy, and school-to-work efforts. Many schools have attracted college-bound students into school-to-work activities by emphasizing authentic teaching and learning beyond a career orientation. These programs are more concerned about the outcome of the learning process than with where the learning takes place. Their goal is to ensure that students can apply abstract principles to real, often unique situations.

Many academic and workplace reformers recognize the importance of standards in preparing individuals for the demands of the 21st century. Moreover, most business and academic leaders support the growing belief that standards should emphasize the application of knowledge and skills to the same extent that they emphasize their attainment. Many programs and states around the country promote school-to-work and standards simultaneously. Given something as tangible as standards, many feel that opposition to school-to-work from constituencies such as postsecondary institutions and parents can be minimized.

The experience in many states indicates that standards-driven reform must dedicate equal effort to developing assessment tools that provide valid measures of competency to often-skeptical constituencies. While the experience of some states indicates that these kinds of assessment vehicles could be difficult to develop and implement, they have the potential to drive the curriculum and ensure a place for school-to-work in mainstream reform. Because students are not accustomed to taking activity-based exams that may involve teamwork, moving from the old system of content-centered standards and assessment may cause a temporary dip in the performance of students. The battles over these changes can be minimized if the standards are accepted and understood.

To nurture the evolution of school-to-work into the reform mainstream, many programs shy away from the usual school-to-work terminology. Indeed, they envision their efforts as being driven by broader goals than those expressed in the school-to-work principles. The main difference between these programs and others that have been less successful in involving college-bound students is that they attempt to maintain, at least at first, some aspects of a traditional framework–one that college admissions officers, students, and parents can understand. These programs, which call themselves “works in progress,” are developing a school-to-work culture slowly, keeping in view the overriding goal: a more academically rigorous and applicable education for all students.

Thus, although many of these programs do not meet the exacting standards established under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act for placing students in work-based learning experiences, two features nonetheless offer great hope for expansion. The first is the development of a strong foundation or philosophy for authentic learning that penetrates all areas of the school. The second is their emphasis on changes in learning, not changes in the venue for learning.

Programs that attempt to “go to scale” too quickly–before the school, its culture, its staff, and its resources are ready to handle the extra obligations of a school-to-work program–run the risk of sending students into unfulfilling work placements where little, if any, learning takes place. In addition, programs that require full-blown workplace experiences can discourage the involvement of students and parents who want to maintain a balance between traditional and nontraditional learning opportunities. To achieve this balance, the successful programs create a flexible system that allows and encourages students to take part in both the traditional and the nontraditional learning experiences.

Guided Work Experiences Outside the Classroom

The second part of the report explores the various ways programs have used guided work experiences outside the classroom as a way to reduce fears among some constituencies that school-to-work programs are “vocational.” First, many programs seek to communicate more effectively about guided workplace experiences, usually without using the traditional vocational education terminology. Second, successful programs tend to concentrate their energies initially on constituencies that are more receptive to work-based contact. Science and business disciplines, for example, have long traditions of work-based, application-oriented education, especially in higher education. Third, several successful programs emphasize one benefit of guided work experience that is neither a threat nor an obstacle to future success in college or career: the simulation of college and adult experiences.

In many places and situations, the obstacles to school-to-work are substantial. In response to a survey by the State University of New York, four-year colleges in that state said that a student’s work-based learning experience or actual employment experience had little influence in their admissions decisions. In Vermont, the state’s three selective postsecondary institutions told high school counselors that they base their assessments of students almost exclusively on standardized test scores, classroom grades, and weighted class rank.

Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in the postsecondary community in understanding and developing many of the application-based philosophies and pedagogical strategies that school-to-work promotes. For example, six states are involved in an effort directed by the Educational Commission of the States (ECS) to connect learning and work in postsecondary education. The ECS project stems from an interest in how work and learning are integrated beyond school-to-work and Tech Prep forums, meaning, outside the traditional school-to-work notion. Each state approaches the issue of work and academic integration in a different way.

According to educators in states that have made this effort, there is a primary benefit that guided learning experiences outside the classroom can offer students. This benefit is an opportunity to function as more independent, mature individuals in a controlled environment with a strong support system of teachers and other concerned adults. Offering guided learning experiences to students makes it easier for high schools to emulate the autonomous environment that college students and adults face.

Career and Interest Exploration

The third part of the report describes how successful programs use career and interest exploration to minimize the disconnection between traditional academic courses and the world beyond the school walls. The experience of these programs indicates that offering career and interest exploration opportunities in school need not arouse anxiety among parents, teachers, and students. Indeed, these programs have found that the school’s traditional programs, activities, and curricula do not even have to change with the addition of career and interest exploration. Moreover, in many cases, career exploration adds cohesion to the academic courses and motivates students to learn and reflect more.

The programs have included career and interest exploration in one of two ways. Some incorporate career-oriented activities, materials, and concepts into mandatory courses so that all students have the same opportunity to explore and reflect before graduation. This way, school-to-work concepts and teaching methods become a natural part of the traditional work for all students.

Other programs arrange the schedule so that school-to-work courses, while still considered electives, can be taken without sacrificing the traditional academic courses that the students need for acceptance into selective four-year institutions. Many colleges now look closely at students’ senior course selections, and many school-to-work programs are capitalizing on this change, promoting career exploration classes as a way to give students direction and keep them on a traditional college track. Regardless of the particular approach, all of the successful programs had one philosophy in common regarding career and interest exploration–there is no need to differentiate students when offering them the opportunity to explore their interests and ambitions. In short, it does not have to become an “either/or” school agenda.


Much of the effort to advance school-to-work reform has taken advantage of the latitude offered by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. Instead of trying to provide an increasing number of students with work-based, school-based, and connecting activities, educators are attempting to reform entire schools and offer a locally tailored, application-oriented, quality education to all students. In many cases, programs with weaker connections to the formal school-to-work concept have greater opportunities to create successful mainstream reforms than programs that adhere too strictly to the school-to-work triad. Below is a summary of the strategies that successful school-to-work programs have used.

  • Use standards to promote the same authentic teaching and learning strategies that the school-to-work ideology embraces.
  • Become a “work in progress”; work to slowly overcome the misperceptions of school-to-work; and never lose sight of the real objective–the application of knowledge.
  • Avoid traditional school-to-work jargon; nurture and seek involvement from constituencies that are already accustomed to the hands-on learning experience.
  • Emphasize the idea that using the workplace offers opportunities for students to demonstrate adult behavior.
  • Offer postsecondary institutions, parents, academic teachers, and students alternative ways to interpret skills and knowledge; supply options that meet traditional needs while, at the same time, illustrating the richness of skills and abilities that students gain through guided experiences outside the classroom.
  • Be more effective with the use of electives that have been traditionally labeled career or interest exploration courses.
  • Focus on one philosophy regarding career and interest exploration–that is, that there is no need to differentiate students based on when they choose to enter the workplace; all students will eventually enter the workplace and all can benefit by being offered the opportunity to explore their interests and ambitions.

Merritt D., & Williams, L. C. (1999, October). School-to-Work for the college-bound: Strategies for maximizing the educational opportunities of School-to-Work students. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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