Cooperative Education as a Strategy for School-to-Work Transition
CenterFocus Number 3 / January 1994
As the nation struggles with developing policies for a system for
school-to-work transition, it may be helpful to draw on lessons from
education and training strategies already in place. Cooperative
education ("coop") is the oldest of these programs. As the report of
the William T. Grant Foundation, The Forgotten Half, concludes,
cooperative education "has a solid achievement record and merits far
more attention than it has received" (1988, p. 96). Yet the coop
experience also suggests that there are a number of barriers to either
spreading this program in its current form or using it as a model for
an enlarged school-to-work transition effort.
This brief considers several critical policy issues in cooperative
education as it is practiced at the high school level: program costs,
the preparation of teachers and the training of employers to
participate in the program, and the effect of the program on students'
employment, school persistence, and social development.
The Nature of Cooperative Education
Cooperative education is a program which combines academic study with
paid, monitored and credit-bearing work. It was established around the
turn of the century as part of a movement to create experience-based
education. In fact, the first coop program looked more like what we
now would call apprenticeships. The four-year program, which led to
beginning journeyman status, began with a year in which students
studied only academic subjects; in the following three years, students
alternated weeks between shop and school (Bailey & Merritt, 1993).
Today, cooperative education is concentrated in the vocational areas
of marketing, trade and industry, and business. Although the program
is national, specific arrangements are worked out locally between
individual employers and school staff, subject to state laws and local
customs. In contrast to German apprenticeships, to which they are
often compared, high school cooperative education in this country
generally only lasts a year or less (U.S. General Accounting Office,
1991). Although a few coop programs alternate days or weeks of school
with work, or allow students to work in the morning, the most common
arrangement is to schedule the morning at school and the afternoon in
a paid job. Coop students usually take traditional academic and
vocational classes with non-cooperative-education students, although
particular courses may be recommended to the students by the school
coop coordinator. In addition, good coop programs include a special
related class, in which students are able to reflect on and integrate
their job experiences.
While Federal funds have not been specifically designated for
cooperative education, the program can be minimally supported by
Federal vocational education funds. In fact, cooperative education
declined significantly at the secondary level during the 1980s because
of a loss of both Federal and state funds. While about 11 percent of
all juniors and seniors were in cooperative education in 1981-82, by
the end of the decade this percentage had decreased to about 8 percent
(U.S. General Accounting Office, 1990).
The Cooperative Education Student
In contrast to cooperative education at the college level, which has
become an intrinsic part of professional programs like engineering or
architecture, the status of high school coop has suffered from its
links to vocational education, which is often considered a dumping
ground for low achieving, low income, minority students. Yet most
cooperative education programs have admissions requirements, such as a
2.0 grade point average, good attendance, a positive attitude, and no
disciplinary problems (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991).
Moreover, while a greater proportion of coop students are from low
income homes and have lower test scores than all seniors, 41 percent
are from the upper half of income groups and 30 percent are from the
upper half of the test score distribution (U.S. General Accounting
Office, 1991). In fact, according to High School and Beyond data,
about 76 percent of all coop students are white, 12 percent black, and
10 percent Hispanic--about the same as in the general student
population. Among all seniors in 1980, 23 percent of vocational
education students were in coop, ten percent of general track students
were in coop, and four percent of college preparatory students were in
coop. Finally, most coop programs are in the inner cities or suburbs,
with rural youth having the least access to these programs (U.S.
General Accounting Office, 1991).
Cooperative education is not an inexpensive program. Typically,
cooperative education teacher/coordinators are given only three
courses, of which one is a special coop course related to students'
work assignments. In return for three periods of released time, the
teacher/coordinators are responsible for screening students for
eligibility, as well as developing employment agreements and training
plans, finding jobs, and monitoring the field experience (for the
15-20 students for whom they are ultimately responsible), through
monthly or even bi-weekly visits (U.S. General Accounting Office,
1991). In periods of budget constraints, such as the last years have
been for districts across the nation, high schools have found it
increasingly difficult to absorb the costs of this released time. As a
consequence, coop programs have diminished in size and effectiveness.
Budget cuts have also made it more difficult for teacher/coordinators
to market their coop programs to prospective employers. Ironically,
successful programs, in which students become permanent employees
after completing their coop experience, involve the most work for
coordinators, who must find new placements each year (U.S. General
Accounting Office, 1991).
Finally, there are also professional costs associated with training,
as the next two sections make clear.
Professional Preparation of the Coop Teacher/Coordinator
In the most effective and common high school cooperative education
model, a teacher/coordinator handles all the work placements, and
teaches a course related to the students' work assignment. The
traditional preparation for becoming a teacher/coordinator has been
through a special vocational education course offered in teacher
training institutions. However, such courses are generally
disappearing, largely because there have been so few openings for new
coop teacher/coordinators. In fact, because few new teachers are being
hired in any subject area, if cooperative education is to be expanded,
or if apprenticeships or other school-to-work programs are to be a
serious option, existing teachers must be trained for the coordinator
role. This means creating in-service courses which incorporate the
content of the preservice vocational education courses that were once
delivered in teacher training institutions. These courses would give
teacher/coordinators the skills to connect schools to the workplace,
and would teach them how to develop objectives for curriculum,
materials, student behavior, and institutional links, as well as their
own effectiveness in all these areas (Armstrong, 1988).
Training Employers for Coop Programs
Many high school programs in the U.S. once had training programs for
employers to teach them how to be trainers on the job. Unfortunately,
the dwindling of coop, combined with the presumed reluctance of
employers to participate even without training, has made employer
training appear a utopian dream.
Nevertheless, for coop or any other workplace training program to
succeed, it is important to have someone at the worksite responsible
for workplace learning. This includes mentoring and coaching to pass
on the culture of the workplace, as well as the transmitting of real
knowledge and skills.
The Role of Employers
In the German system, employers have traditionally been eager to take
apprentices, in large part because these young workers remained in the
same firm for most of their work lives. By contrast, employment
patterns in the United States are characterized by high mobility;
thus, it has been assumed that few employers will spend time and money
on training young workers who will not stay with the company, and will
take their training somewhere else. At the same time, while unions in
Germany are strong and play a central role in operating
apprenticeships, in the United States the unions have been weaker,
particularly in areas where coop programs have been most prominent,
and they have not been part of the design of coop.
According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (1991, p. 30), the
major barrier to employer participation has simply been a "lack of
awareness about programs." However, a close second has been the image
of coop as a dumping ground for academically-poor high school
students. In the 1970s, when employers were paid 100 percent wage
subsidies to provide part-time jobs to disadvantaged students under
the Youth Incentive Entitlement Pilot Project, only 18 percent of
employers were willing to participate (Ball & Wolfhogan, 1981). During
the 1980s, the Targeted Job Tax Credit (TJTC) perpetuated the stigma
of coop as a program for low-income students, since this program only
allowed tax credits for those students on welfare or with other
serious disadvantages. In fact, because of the stigma, many employers
actually underestimated the skills that TJTC participants could bring
to the job (Bishop, 1986).
If either coop or youth apprenticeships are to succeed, they must
throw off the image of offering employers less than the best. All
adolescents today can be considered at risk of not becoming successful
workers, but coop's screening process makes it a good choice for those
employers who decide to participate in a school-based work-training
The Effects of Coop on Students
To understand the effects of cooperative education on students, it is
useful to begin by comparing coop or other supervised work experiences
to unsupervised jobs that adolescents might otherwise have.
Adolescent Work and Coop
Although over 90 percent of all high school
students have worked by the time they graduate, most of this work is
unskilled and repetitive, as well as segregated from adult workers.
Indeed, one study found that less than 10 percent of adolescents' time
in unsupervised work is spent reading, writing, calculating,
exercising judgment or making decisions (Greenberger & Steinberg,
1986). Given these conditions, it is not surprising that unsupervised
youth work experiences offer students few technical skills and are
apparently unrelated to school learning. Moreover, working more than
twenty hours a week is associated with reduced school
completion--although it is not clear whether or not those students who
work more are already alienated from school (Stern, Hopkins, Stone,
McMillion, Cagampang, & Klein, 1992). Finally, while some youth in
unsupervised work develop "worker virtues," especially in the area of
social skills, they actually show a higher incidence of petty theft,
tardiness, and so on than students who do not work (Hamilton, 1990).
If coop only provided students with money, it would be no better than
these unsupervised youth employment experiences. However, one
five-year longitudinal study comparing students in unsupervised jobs
with students enrolled in school-supervised work (predominantly coop)
programs found that students in supervised programs have
higher-quality jobs with more contact with adults. These coop and
other school-supervised work experiences provide students more
supervision on the job, more challenge, and more work that is
meaningful (Stone, Stern, Hopkins, & Mcmillion, 1991). Both students
and employers in these supervised jobs more frequently report that the
students' work involves assuming responsibility, as well as reading,
writing, problem-solving and other practices related to school
learning (Stone, Stern, Hopkins, & McMillion, 1990). As Berryman,
Flaxman and Inger conclude, although no coherent vision of the
curriculum and pedagogy of the work place has emerged from cooperative
education, "on average, the quality of cooperative education jobs is
superior to the standard jobs that students not in cooperative
education obtain" (1993, p. 80, 81).
Does this higher quality work experience influence the students'
social development, school persistence and economic future?
Cooperative education students usually express
more satisfaction with school, and a more positive attitude toward
work, but they do not necessarily have more occupational knowledge or
"affective competence" (Stern, Hopkins, Stone, & McMillion, 1990). There
is also no consistent evidence that cooperative education students
show less delinquency or higher voting rates (Berryman, et al., 1993).
Nevertheless, relative to students in regular classrooms, students in
experiential education programs like coop make gains on moral
reasoning, self-esteem, social and personal responsibility, attitudes
towards adults and others, career exploration, and empathy/complexity
of thought. Equally important, the single strongest factor explaining
these changes is the weekly reflective learning session in their
related class, during which students integrate their learning on the
job with classroom learning (Armstrong, 1988).
It is commonly believed that relating education to
work "enhances motivation to perform well and increases school
retention and the likelihood of pursuing postsecondary education" (U.S.
General Accounting Office, 1991, p. 4). It has been argued that
vocational education in general lowers the dropout rate (Bishop, 1988)
and that students in "high quality" coop programs are more likely than
other vocational education students to stay in school and pursue
additional education (U.S. Government Accounting Office, 1991).
Indeed, because students in work-supervised jobs are more likely to
connect what they learn at school with what is and will be needed at
work, these jobs are "more likely to reinforce, or less likely to
undermine the students' commitment to school" (Stern, Hopkins, Stone,
McMillion, Cagampang, & Klein, 1992, p. 10). Not surprisingly,
cooperative education students also tend more often to claim that
their jobs have positively affected their decisions to stay in school,
and to attend classes during their senior year (Herrnstadt, Horowitz,
& Sum, 1979).
As for postsecondary education, only a quarter of all coop students
are in two- and four-year colleges two years after high school, which
is a lower rate than all seniors. However, three-quarters of coop
students are working for pay, which is significantly more than those
seniors who were not in a supervised work program. Obviously,
information is needed on how these students fare five or ten years
While having a job may be beneficial to students'
short-term earnings, jobs which interfere with schooling have a
negative effect because educational attainment has a much more
powerful and long-lasting influence on employment than actual work
experience (Hamilton, 1990). Generally, the economic benefits of a job
are insubstantial if the student does not enter a job in the area in
which he or she was trained, and less than half of all high school
vocational education graduates get training- related jobs (Bishop,
1988). Moreover, earnings and labor force participation rates are not
consistently better for cooperative education graduates than for other
vocational education students, even though cooperative education
students tend more often than regular high school vocational education
students to find jobs related to their training, have a better work
orientation, and more marketable job skills (Herrnstadt, Horowitz, &
Sum, 1979). In fact, one of the primary weaknesses of cooperative
education has been the absence of any systematic way for students'
work-experiences to be converted into credentials or actual job
placements (Berryman, et al, 1993). Fortunately, this problem may be
soon be solved, since the Perkins Act of 1990 requires states to
develop standards and measures of performance for vocational
The Components of a Quality Coop Program
Accepting that the quality of a coop program can vary because of local
financing arrangements and initiatives, we can ask what makes a good
coop work experience. The insights of several studies suggest a number
of features (Laycock, Herman, & Laetz, 1992; Lynch, Price, & Burrow,
1992; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991):
- Quality coop placements in which the student is allowed to perform
work that both provides opportunities to develop new competencies and
contributes to the productivity of the organization.
- Teacher/coordinators with appropriate occupational experience
related to the industry associated with their program, as well as
professional preparation for operating a school-supervised work
- Close supervision at the worksite by a training supervisor, as well
as a mechanism by which the supervisor can share his own professional
expertise with the coop student.
- At the onset, an accurate and realistic description of the job for
the student as well as accurate expectations by the employer of the
skills the student brings to it.
- Strong links between job training and related instruction, which
might include an individualized, written training plan that is
correlated to the students' in-school curriculum.
- Frequent and specific informal and formal evaluations of the
students' progress by the teacher/coordinator, with feedback and
follow-up to improve performance.
- Involvement of parents or guardians.
- Placement of graduates in full-time positions, or referrals for
additional instruction, and follow-up of graduates after three and
- Strong administrative support for the program.
The recent drive to create apprenticeships and work-based education
for high school students makes it imperative that the long and largely
fruitful experience of cooperative education be taken seriously. This
experience has shown that worthwhile coop programs have not been
cheap, that there must be money for promotion and recruitment, as well
as training of both teacher/coordinators and employers. Teachers need
to know how to work with industry, and employers have to understand
the benefits of hiring--and working with--these students. Although
strong evidence supports the benefits of school-supervised work
experiences, we know little about what learning goes on in the
workplace and how to maximize it. Finally, some form of certification
must recognize skill attainment in coop education or any new
school-supervised work experience program for it to be part of a
school-to-work transition strategy.
James R. Stone III, Associate Professor, Department of Vocational and
Technical Education, the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,
provided generous assistance with this brief.
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