Stretching the Subject: The Subject Organization of High Schools and the Transformation of Work Education

Publication December 1992

Proposals to integrate vocational and academic education challenge long-standing dichotomies between academic study and “real world” work. They challenge, too, the well-established subject hierarchies that privilege academic studies but accord vocational studies and work education only marginal status. Finally, such proposals respond to a litany of criticisms levied against contemporary secondary schools. Among them is the charge that neither the academic curriculum nor the formally designated vocational curriculum adequately prepares students for adult work as it is evolving.

From such criticisms spring proposals for a more fully integrated curriculum, promising more robust connections between school knowledge and meaningful situations of knowledge production and use. These proposals envision remedies for subject fragmentation, achieved through interdisciplinary curricula and through “problem-” or “project-oriented” tasks undertaken cooperatively by students. They seek remedies for persistent inequities in the opportunities and the outcomes of schooling, achieved principally through alternatives to tracking. They also require more credible attention to preparation for work and to participation in a democratic society.

Such proposals hold enormous promise for the transformation of secondary education. However, they also typically underestimate the contextual complexities of teaching in high schools. Some of these complexities derive from external constraints–for example, state-defined graduation requirements or university admission requirements that tend to push the curriculum toward curriculum coverage in discrete academic subjects. Some of the complexities reside in the beliefs that teachers, counselors, and administrators hold regarding students’ abilities and motivations and the ways in which those beliefs play out in patterns of curricular organization and student placement. Still other contextual forces arise from the social organization of teachers and teaching; prominent among these is a form of subject organization modeled on the disciplinary structure of higher education.

This paper explores the ways in which perspectives on subject matter teaching and investments in departmental structure serve as resources or obstacles in the pursuit of more closely integrated vocational and academic goals. The paper is informed in part by recent studies of the subject organization of high schools and in part by a round of site visits to schools attempting to alter the substance and form of the high school experience. It begins by introducing the “legacy of subject specialism” as a context in which teachers’ responses to vocational goals might be interpreted. The second section summarizes the contemporary challenges to subject specialism and specifies three responses that are consistent–in principle–with the integration of vocational and academic aims. The third section assesses four contributions that vocational education makes to the integration agenda: (1) broadened definitions of work education, (2) instructional practices that bridge theory and practice, (3) practices of authentic assessment, and (4) commitments to the disengaged student. The final section relates some of the struggles that teachers experience and the compromises they forge in the pursuit of a more credibly integrated secondary education.

This paper does not offer a definitive set of findings. Throughout, and especially in the last section on the emerging struggles and compromises that teachers undertake, the paper relies on selected instances–conversations with teachers, observations of daily life in schools, and selected documents–to suggest a provisional agenda for talk, observation, and action. Its intent is to contribute to discussion and debate, to the framing of problems, and to the design of local experiments.

Little, J. W. (1992, December). Stretching the subject: The subject organization of high schools and the transformation of work education. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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