Imagine that you are about to choose a new doctor. You can choose one who earned A's in biology, organic chemistry, and anatomy, but has no practical experience. Or you can choose one who has both academic training and practical experience. No contest? When we want someone to be an effective practitioner-- that is, to put knowledge to use--we do not question the need for appropriate experience. Yet many fear that work experience for high school students threatens their education.
Career exploration should give young people a chance to think systematically about what might interest them and, just as important, to give them more realistic information about what adults do. The purpose of career exploration is not to force high school students to make irrevocable choices about future occupations.
Although critics of school-to-work claim it can force high school students to make choices too early about their futures, the reverse is true. Steering students away from school-to-work opportunities because there is a belief that it will harm their chances at getting into a "good" college, actually limits students' choices. In fact, the practical aspects of school-to-work (STW) programs can help students develop a better sense of their own goals, and students with some sense of their goals can make a better selection of their post-secondary activities and better use of their time in college. This conclusion is supported by a study of New York City career magnet schools that shows graduates of the program had completed more college courses two years after graduation than similar graduates from traditional comprehensive schools.
According to a recent Department of Labor report, school-to-work programs have tended to focus on developing a strategy for the "middle" of the student population, young people who probably would not enroll in college and do not have severe academic or behavioral problems." However, if college-bound students are steered away from STW programs, then STW may become yet another tracking system instead of a program that includes all students.
School-to-work can be an effective strategy for all students, including the college-bound. Yetparents and teachers often fear that colleges will not recognize the competencies learned in school-to-work programs, and so guide students away from such programs. Reformers have taken a variety of approaches to reduce the conflict between participation in school-to-work activities and admission to selective colleges. These strategies fall into three groups: accommodation of the school-to-work program within the existing college admissions system, communication between individual schools and colleges, and attempts at broad reform in assessment and college admissions procedures.
In accommodation, applied courses may retain familiar academic labels to preserve the university's understanding. Or STW internships may take place after school or during summer vacation, so that the internship itself is seen as an extracurricular activity and is treated as such on college applications. Communication between individual schools and colleges has long been an important component of the college admissions process. In the case of STW programs, especially those that are geared toward high academically achieving students, it has sometimes been necessary for secondary school faculty to include a cover letter with their students' transcripts and college applications explaining the details of the students' work experiences, research projects, and the interdisciplinary and applied curriculum.
In terms of reform, several states are now developing assessment and admissions systems that can more effectively evaluate the achievements of school-to-work students. For example, the Oregon State System of Higher Education is developing a new approach to admissions that "replaces the traditional time-based proxies for learning, such as the Carnegie Unit, with clearly specified statements of the knowledge and skills which students must master to be accepted into any of Oregon's seven baccalaureate-granting institutions." The University of Maryland system has developed an Office of Articulation whose primary goal is to "facilitate the movement of students between and among educational segments."
The problems of connecting secondary and postsecondary institutions must ultimately be addressed through innovations in standards and assessment. This is also consistent with a much broader movement in education towards the development of "authentic" assessment. Authentic learning emphasizes knowledge constructed by the students; disciplined inquiry with an in-depth understanding of problems; and a value beyond merely showing the teacher, parent, or employer that the student has mastered the requirements.
School-to-work, at its best, represents a broad-based change in educational strategies, one which can improve the learning opportunities for all students.
Editor's Note: This article is based on a forthcoming document, MDS-799, by Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt. The document will be available from the Materials Distribution Service in 1997.
Thomas Bailey is the site director for the NCRVE Teachers College site. Bailey is also the director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College. He has a Ph.D. in labor economics from MIT.
Donna Merritt is a Research Associate at the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in Economics and Education.
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