As the concept of lifelong learning is embraced by more and more people, school-to-work transitions (STW transitions) are now likely to occur many times over the course of an individual’s lifetime. The school-to-work transition discussed here, however, will focus on only one of these transitions, the non-college-bound student’s entry into full-time employment after high school. Relative to other countries (Germany, for example), the United States has only recently turned attention to this important stage in a youth’s life, spurred in large part by the perception of the failure of many of its public schools, particularly those located in urban and rural areas. As evidence of this failure, critics of the secondary educational system in the United States point to increased dropout rates and a growing pool of high school graduates who are inadequately prepared for today’s more demanding entry-level positions. For the non-college-bound high school student, then, the transition to work lies at the nexus of what some have portrayed as a failing educational system and a dynamic, increasingly complex business community, whose entry-level jobs demand a knowledgeable and highly skilled workforce.
An early warning sign of the deteriorating quality of primary and secondary education in the United States was reported in A Nation at Risk, published in 1983 by the National Commission of Excellence in Education. This report brought to light the widespread illiteracy rate among adults and children, as well as the significant academic gap between majority and minority group members. To remedy these failings, the report recommended school reforms that emphasized a more rigorous, academic-based curriculum to help prepare more students for postsecondary education.
This recommendation to improve the academic preparedness of U.S. high school students set the stage for enhancing the focus on educational programs for students who traditionally did not pursue postsecondary education, that is, for students considered to be in the “forgotten half” (as termed in a report by the William T. Grant Foundation) or classified as “at risk” (of dropping out of school). Unlike reforms focusing on high-achieving students, school reforms for the students in the lower half focused greater attention on vocational preparation than academic achievement.
To some, this focus on vocational preparation was a way to further institutionalize a tracking system in educational institutions, one that is based on, and perpetuates, a rigid partitioning of students by social class, offering little opportunity for future growth. These critics claimed that the reforms for the forgotten half meant that students from lower socioeconomic classes are steered into less academic, vocational programs, while students from higher socioeconomic classes continue to be given opportunities to prepare for postsecondary education. Since education is an investment in human capital with a return in the form of lifelong earnings, this system may act as a further constraint on academic and career choices for those students from lower socioeconomic classes.
Despite these misgivings, emphasis in programs for at-risk youth continued to be placed on vocational, rather than academic, objectives. Federal legislation played a major role in funding many of these school-to-work programs. One of the more influential pieces of legislation in the STW movement was the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act, which was signed into law in 1990. The Perkins Act continues to provide federal funding for vocational-technical education programs that prepare high school students for occupations that do not require an advanced or baccalaureate degree. At its heart, this act promotes active partnerships between businesses and education, incorporating both school-based and work-based learning.
While the Perkins Act continues to make federal funds available to state-sponsored school-to-work programs, the legislation that had perhaps the most influence in the proliferation of STW programs in the United States was the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (1994-2001). The intent of this act was to create a national framework for linking school and work, in lieu of what it called a lack of a “comprehensive” and “coherent” system facilitating youths’ transitions into full-time employment. The funding mechanism under this act provided that federal funds be given directly to the states, a mechanism that allowed states considerable freedom to create their own programs linking school and work. Programs were eligible for funding under the act as long as they included three basic elements: work-based learning, school-based learning, and activities that connected the two. Since states were given the freedom to create their own programs, a number of different school-to-work models have been funded under this legislation. For example, in 1996, 64.2 percent of all U.S. high schools offered some type of school-to-work activity. While this act, then, offered flexibility to address local issues and helped these programs grow, it could be argued that by funding different STW program models, the act failed to create a comprehensive U.S. system to facilitate the transition of high school youth into the workforce.
Given the scope of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, it isn’t surprising that many different activities and models fall under the umbrella of school-to-work. These activities may last from as little as one-day job-shadowing experiences, to work and educational experiences that may last up to six years. These include such activities as job shadowing, mentoring, internships, registered apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, cooperative education, tech prep education, and career academies. Since the sunset of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, perhaps the most widespread SWT programs are the tech prep and career academy models.
Tech prep programs were funded by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act and continue to be eligible to receive funding under the Perkins Act. These programs are planned courses of study in technical fields that use 4 + 2, 3 + 2, or 2 + 2 formats. The “+2” designation indicates that the program lasts two years beyond secondary education and culminates with an associate degree or certificate. As such, they incorporate both academic rigor and technical development and competence, responding to the claim that career prep programs often limit educational achievement. These programs focus on technical preparation in engineering technology, applied science, mechanical, industrial, or practical art or trade, agricultural, health, or business. As of 2004, there were over 700,000 students participating in tech-prep programs across the United States.
The career academy model began in 1969 and has grown nationwide since that time. Academies were first developed by members of the business community in Philadelphia to meet increased demands for qualified, entry-level employees. Although many school districts in the United States have incorporated the academy model, the Philadelphia Academies is one of the few organizations that continues to operate as an independent, not-for-profit liaison between the schools and business. Career academies are organized as small learning communities (“schools within schools”), focus on a particular career theme, such as business, technology, law, or health care, and offer students employment preparation along with a college prep curriculum. Academies also actively pursue partnerships with the business community in order to offer employment to students while in school and provide developmental activities such as employment interview training and mentors. Career academies, as recognized by the National Career Academy Coalition, are now located in over 1,500 U.S. high schools and serve a significant number of students, over 10,000 in the Philadelphia area alone.
The extent of the business community’s involvement in school-to-work activities is the subject of a growing number of research studies. These studies have generally shown that larger organizations are more likely to participate in these activities than smaller ones. One study reported that 170,000 private organizations (each employing more than 20 people) were active partners in formal school-to-work partnerships. Of these, over 91 percent reported they offered work-based learning activities for high school or community college students. Researchers have speculated on employer motivation for their participation. One reason may be corporate altruism, as many employers report their desire to help their communities was the main reason for their participation. However, some researchers have argued that the most important reason employers participate in these programs is for economic benefit. First, employers may receive positive publicity in their communities as they actively engage in STW programs, which may generate additional business for them. Second, participating in these programs can also help employers fill short-term job openings with inexpensive labor, as well as to help them meet their longer term labor needs by hiring graduates of the programs.
While research on employers has identified multiple motives of employer participation, the impact of these interventions on students is more difficult to determine, given the complexity of isolating the effects of an academic program on a student’s motivation to participate in the program, learn, and achieve academically. Ideally, combining work-based and classroom-based learning should enhance student motivation to learn, as it allows the students to see the relevance of what they learn to their job performance and, longer term, to their careers. Some research has, in fact, made a connection between student participation in work-based learning programs with academic and employment outcomes. In one of the more rigorous studies of career academies, for example, a nationwide, longitudinal review showed evidence that participating in a career academy program had a positive, significant effect on future earnings of the young men in the sample that was studied. This same study showed that these earnings effects were not achieved by sacrificing academic performance, as the researchers found no significant differences in graduation rates between academy and non-academy students in their sample.
In addition, research has also reported a positive relation between participating in adult-youth, work-based mentoring programs in urban settings with academic performance and attitudinal changes. One study showed evidence that participating in such a mentoring program was positively associated with GPA and school attendance. Furthermore, students who reported having a mentor at work had higher levels of self-esteem, compared to students who did not work, and students with mentors in formal mentoring programs held stronger beliefs that school was relevant to work, relative to those who worked without a mentor.
However, questions have been raised over the extent to which learning in a work environment takes place in school-to-work programs. Often, educators assume that learning will take place as a consequence of the student’s mere presence in a work environment. In some programs, however, experience has shown that students are placed in environments and hold positions that do not require the acquisition of knowledge or the development of new skills. Some employers are also not interested in making the effort that is required to integrate academic and work-based learning, a critical step to ensure that learning takes place on the job. In addition, detailed lesson plans are not developed by the schools, nor are specific learning goals established at the outset of the program, making assessment of what is learned problematic. School personnel may also fail to follow up with the students about their work experiences. The multiplicity of these requirements and the need to carefully coordinate activities across school and work boundaries add to the challenge of creating successful STW programs.
Research has also provided useful insights into the nature of a youth’s STW transition, which can be helpful to administrators designing and managing STW programs. For example, there is evidence of an association between postgraduation employment outcomes and early (12-15 years of age) educational experiences. Specifically, a positive relation has been found between academic self-efficacy (confidence in one’s ability to do well in school) and academic performance at this early age, with job satisfaction and the likelihood of later employment (21 years of age). This reinforces the importance of focusing on both academic and vocational objectives in STW programs.
Additional research of the transition into the workforce has also shown changes in the youth’s sense of self, explicitly an enhanced self-confidence, an increased valuation of one’s personal life outside work, and increased ambition. Research has reported evidence of a dynamic interplay between personality development and work experiences that may also be useful to administrators of STW programs. While personality characteristics may be a factor in the student’s choice to enter an STW program, as well as the type of work chosen by the youth, the experience in the program may also have an effect on the youth’s personality. This interaction between personality and work experience is consistent with what is known as the cor-responsive principle, that is, that work experiences are likely to deepen the personality factors and characteristics that led the person to that experience in the first place. For example, a student who enjoys taking charge of things may be more inclined to enroll in an STW program because it offers work opportunities that allow for autonomy and the chance to influence and lead others. The student’s experiences in this position may then reinforce that original desire to take charge.
U.S. public policy toward STW transitions may best be described as a loose combination of activities and pedagogical models bridging the worlds of school and work. These programs are created and administered at the state and local levels and, in general, have not been subject to careful, rigorous assessment of their effectiveness. However, this lack of sound research evidence should not imply that there is little need to focus attention on this transition and provide resources to facilitate it. Many school districts and communities continue to be plagued by low academic achievement of its youth and high dropout rates, particularly among youth from lower socioeconomic classes, and employers continue to question the qualifications, skills, and abilities of those in the entry-level labor pool. As such, STW programs remain crucial to help prepare students not only for the increasingly complex work environment but to offer opportunities for all youth to lead productive, satisfying lives and become positive contributors to society.
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