School-to-Work Opportunities in the Middle School: Concepts and Issues

Publication November 1997

Over the past decade, increasing numbers of senior high school educators have provided comprehensive and meaningful school-to-work (STW) opportunities for their students. Unfortunately, these opportunities may be offered too late in some high school students’ studies to have much impact on them. By the ninth or tenth grade, many students have already become turned off to education and made up their minds to quit school or just comply with minimum requirements for graduation. Other students may not have received much parental and peer encouragement to study and/or do not view schooling as an avenue to future occupational and career success (Kennedy, 1996; Lichtenstein & Blackorby, 1995). In response to these and other concerns, a number of school districts across the United States have created STW opportunities for middle school students. Examples range from including career exploration activities in individual middle school courses to school- and school-district-wide incorporation of STW opportunities in the curriculum. In some school districts, educators are providing middle school students with meaningful experiential learning related to occupations and careers.

Although educators are continuing to gain experience at implementing STW opportunities in the middle school, these activities have largely been conducted on an ad-hoc basis with little knowledge about how and why they should be included in the middle school curriculum as well as the impact they are designed to have on students. This report has been designed to address these concerns and issues. More specifically, within the middle school context, answers were sought to a series of questions that were posed to middle school educators who had implemented STW curricula in their schools (Questions 1-5) and to representatives of selected national associations (Questions 4-6):

1. Why was the STW curriculum implemented?
2. What conceptual, organizational, and operational reasons exist for implementing the curriculum?
3. What is the focus of the curriculum and how was it determined?
4. What benefits does the curriculum provide to students?
5. What issues and concerns are associated with implementing a STW curriculum for middle school students?
6. What are selected national associations’ views on the inclusion of STW curricula at the middle school level?

The Process

Based on an initial manual and computer-based literature and research search, interview protocols were developed to gather in-depth information from middle school educators and association representatives. Concurrently, exemplary locations where STW opportunities for middle school students have been implemented were identified. State STW coordinators, selected association representatives, and VocNet subscribers were asked to nominate middle schools where exemplary school-to-work/careers programs had been established. Thirty-six middle schools were nominated for participation in the study. In-depth telephone interviews were conducted with contact persons from 28 of these schools. The remaining eight schools either did not meet the criteria established or were unavailable to complete the interview within the time constraints of the study.

Using the interview information gathered and a set selection criteria, six schools were selected for more detailed examination. At each of these middle schools, the contact person was asked to select three to five individuals, including themselves, to participate in a taped in-depth phone interview. At least one principal, one counselor, and one teacher directly involved in the STW middle school program were to be included on the list. At these six middle schools, interviews were conducted with a total of 26 persons, including ten administrators/coordinators, six principals, four guidance counselors, and six teachers.

It was also deemed important to gather information about the views national organizations had about STW opportunities in the middle schools. Project time and dollar constraints necessitated obtaining information as rapidly and efficiently as possible. This situation precluded conducting interviews with all education-related associations–an especially time-consuming task since many associations would not be able to respond to our focused middle school questions. Thus, a small number of national associations that had some involvement with and/or concern about STW opportunities in the middle school were identified. Information was sought from these associations since they tend to view STW opportunities from a macro- (national) rather than a micro- (local school) perspective. Additionally, since most associations’ purposes and philosophies reflect the views of their membership, the information gathered would not only reflect what associations support but what their constituents (members) view as important to them. Further, official association “doctrine” may be easily located in association publications, brochures, and internet home pages. Using a multi-level screening process, a total of six associations were selected to be interviewed. Of the six, five associations had knowledgeable representatives available during the time period we had established to conduct interviews. Associations from which information was gathered thus comprised a small, purposive sample of the universe of potential associations nationwide that might have views about and/or involvement with STW opportunities in the middle school.

Results and Discussion: Middle Schools

Why a School-to-Work Curriculum? Middle school educators we interviewed were pleased to describe why they chose to implement STW curricula in their schools. Some of their reasons were not entirely unexpected since, based on our literature searches and involvement with other STW projects, we anticipated that middle school educators would include enhancing curriculum relevancy, better serving the needs of at-risk students, and enhancing student development among their reasons for implementing STW curricula.

The remaining groupings of reasons (developing career awareness and exposure, supporting systemic change and school reform, building community linkages, and improving the transition to high school and beyond) were less obvious in the literature but appear to be of no less importance. All seven of the implementation reasons were to some extent a function of school context. That is, schools’ reasons for implementation were based on the particular school and community setting, student population, school district and/or state involvement in educational reform, and so forth.

The reasons educators gave for STW implementation were to a varying degree compatible with suggestions provided in several recent reports advocating change in the middle schools. For example, among its recommendations, Turning Points (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989) supports the implementation of personalized and cooperative learning for students and making meaningful connections between middle schools and their communities. These statements parallel several of the categories of responses that were drawn from the interview text. Other implementation categories we identified are either generally or specifically supported in the middle school literature (e.g., see Dougherty, 1997; Mac Iver, 1990; Marshak, 1995).

Unfortunately, even though a number of people we interviewed commented that their middle school STW programs were implemented at least in part to meet the needs of at-risk students, there is little discussion in the literature to support this focus. A plausible reason for such a mismatch is that the people we interviewed were at the cutting edge of educational reform but their exemplary efforts had not as yet been recognized in the professional literature. Another possible reason might be that middle school educators do not want to note in formal communication that some students begin to develop their at-risk characteristics while enrolled in middle schools.

Conceptual and Organizational/Operational Reasons for Implementation

About half of the middle school educators interviewed offered conceptual reasons for implementing their STW curricula. Some referenced Turning Points and/or general middle school concepts as a foundation for curriculum development efforts. One principal implied a mismatch between Turning Points and the STW curriculum; inferring that Turning Points de-emphasized academics in favor of affective behavior development. Several educators saw the STW curriculum as an excellent fit with the middle school philosophy of assisting students to transition from child to young adult. Comments made by several other educators supported the need to prepare students for the future as well as the present. Interviewees’ comments about the value of the STW curriculum ranged from “relevant to real life” to “produces lifelong learners” and “embedding basic skills into a thought-provoking curriculum.” The statement made by a middle school principal that “it is never to early to address future needs” seemed to capture the essence of why it is important for the middle school to focus on preparing students for their futures.

Interviewees mentioned a small number of organizational and operational reasons for implementing STW curricula in the middle school. Interdisciplinary teaming, which was discussed most frequently by middle school educators as an organizational reason for implementing STW curricula, is quite visible in the literature (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989, 1995; Keefe, Valentine, Clark, & Irvin, 1994; National Middle School Association, 1995). However, it is not very clear who should be members of these teams. Should teams include all the educators in a middle school or just a subset of these educators?

Curriculum Focus

Collectively, middle school educators we interviewed indicated that their curricula focused on five different but interrelated areas (career exploration and awareness, self-awareness, contextual learning, service learning, and integrated themes). It was in this area that STW curricula appeared to differ most from curricula advocated in the general middle school literature. However, the actual difference is quite subtle. Whereas the literature focused more directly on development of academic knowledge and skills within a framework of adolescent youngsters’ current development needs, educators we interviewed sought to assist their students in developing for the future as well as meeting their present needs. For example, interviewees mentioned that career exploration and awareness experiences could assist students in evaluating their current interests and abilities and expanding their future career horizons. Several educators noted that contextual learning should be used to connect basic learning with realistic applications in real life community and workplace settings.

Educators also discussed how the focus of their curricula were determined. Implicit in the literature is a view that educators are the source of content knowledge and organization for middle school curriculum development. In contrast, several educators we interviewed indicated that at their schools a broad net was cast to capture content that should be included in their curricula. Through approaches such as faculty brainstorming, student input, district-wide needs assessments, advisory committees, and community conversations, educators were able to bring a real world focus and view into their curricula. Curriculum development processes discussed by interviewees were much more comprehensive and dynamic than what we noted in the literature on middle school education.

Student Benefits

Interviewees described a broad range of benefits that the STW curricula had provided to their students. These educators’ comments underscored the contributions of STW experiences to middle school student development. Middle school educators noted that the middle school STW curriculum enhanced their students’ personal development in areas such as individual growth, self-understanding, confidence, self-esteem, and motivation and responsibility to learn. Interviewees linked these outcomes directly to the STW curriculum process. Examples of the curriculum process include ways it appeals to students at their developmental level and ways it focuses on issues that are relevant to middle school students. Teachers we interviewed were very sensitive to student outcomes and how they related to the process used to structure the curriculum.


For the most part, implementation issues and concerns expressed by the middle school educators we interviewed paralleled those associated with general change and reform in the schools. However, the process of implementing a STW curriculum should be viewed as much more holistic than what is viewed as traditional individual teacher-centered change. Several interviewees noted that “buy-in” was sought from virtually everyone from the schools, the community, and the workplace who might make contributions or provide meaningful input to the curriculum. These potential contributors were viewed as partners in rather than merely providers to the STW curriculum effort. This contrasts to some extent with recommendations for curriculum change described in several recent middle school publications (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989, 1995; National Middle School Association, 1995). For example, even though in Turning Points it is recommended that teams of teachers work with the same students, the notion of all teachers in the middle school working as teams is not addressed. In contrast, interviewees seem to view the STW curriculum as being every educator’s responsibility since it is meant to be implemented by all teachers in the middle school.

Results and Discussion: Associations

Literature gathered from selected associations revealed a range of views on STW efforts. Some associations made mention of STW efforts, and others did not. Most of the association literature focused on career development needs of secondary school students but not specifically middle school students. Discussions with association representatives confirmed the wide range of views found in the literature. However, the persons we interviewed provided more expansive views of STW efforts in the middle school than was identified in the association literature. For example, representatives collectively spoke much more directly and positively about the merits of STW activities in the middle school than what was formally documented. STW curriculum issues and concerns expressed by association representatives appeared to highlight philosophical differences among the various associations and their members. The differences in views expressed by association representatives provide a meaningful starting point for resolving these differences so more uniform STW opportunities can be provided to middle school students. Questions drawn from this area of discussion that need to be answered include

  • Are the middle school years the best to time to introduce STW opportunities?
  • Is there a best time to introduce STW opportunities in the middle school?
  • How should STW opportunities be defined as they relate to middle schools?
  • How can potential STW image problems be dealt with?
  • Are STW opportunities a quick fix or a long-term investment in improvement?
  • How can educators cope with external groups that do not support the inclusion of STW opportunities in the middle schools?

Possible Future Directions

Based on the results and discussion, several suggestions are offered for consideration by those interested in directions that may lead to peaceful coexistence between STW curricula and the middle school agenda. As a starting point, consider the direction STW opportunities in some middle schools appear to be taking. As described by middle school educators in exemplary middle schools where STW curricula are being provided to students,

  • these students can prepare for their futures in addition to satisfying their current needs.
  • teaching and learning focus on both the educational process and its outcomes.
  • every educator in the school can team with each other as well as with community and workplace representatives to provide students with authentic learning experiences.
  • the context for teaching is proactive and dynamic rather than reactive and static.
  • the curriculum can be developmentally responsive to students and concurrently provide them with a wide range of opportunities such as career exploration and awareness, contextual learning, service learning, and integrated learning themes.

Thus, there appears to be a clear connection between what the middle school literature says middle schools should do and what a number of STW-oriented middle schools are doing. Even though STW opportunities in the middle school may not be a mainstream focus for middle school professionals, these opportunities have the potential to meet students’ developmental needs in new and exciting ways. It is therefore important to better understand and document exemplary STW opportunities that are occurring in many middle schools across the United States so their successes can be shared with other middle school educators.

It also appears that middle schools where STW opportunities are being provided to students may indeed be exemplars of best practice as envisioned in the middle school literature. Broadly-based teacher teaming, extensive linking with the community, providing students with opportunities for contextual learning, enabling students to explore the real world, and providing students with meaningful development experiences are all suggested in the middle school literature and can all be accomplished within a STW opportunities framework. Descriptions about STW opportunities that can be provided to middle school students, and their potential value must be communicated to the middle school educator community. Middle school educators should have access to this information before they begin to implement major curriculum changes.

Finch, C. R., & Mooney, M. (1997, November). School-to-Work opportunities in the middle school: Concepts and issues. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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