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Integrating Academic and Industry Skill Standards (MDS-1001)

T. Bailey


This report focuses on the relationship between academic and industry skill standards and assesses the current state of coordination between them. It also explores how better integration between the two sets of standards could strengthen both and could ultimately have a positive influence on education as a whole. Although not a conference summary, this report draws on the experiences and discussion from a 1996 conference sponsored by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. The conference brought together individuals who had worked on developing the two types of standards to discuss the potential for integration and how that integration could take place. The conference and the content of this report focus on the academic standards developed in five disciplines: mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, science, and history. Industry skill standards are represented by the following skill standards pilot projects sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor: electronics, retail, bioscience, photonics, automotive repair, health care, and metalworking. The U.S. Departments of Education and Labor sponsored two projects in the electronics industry and both sets of skill standards were represented at the conference.

Why Coordinate Academic and Industry Skill Standards

The paper presents four broad arguments for better coordination between academic and technical skill standards. First, educators, policymakers, and employers have emphasized the value of creating stronger connections between academic and vocational education for several years. Integrated skills are needed in new, more demanding workplaces and provide better pedagogic and social opportunities for all students and educators. Second, research has increasingly shown that relating learning to work can strengthen academic learning by giving a coherence to academic studies that is difficult to create when subjects are taught independently or in the abstract. Third, given that the workplace now demands better academic skills across all occupations, increasing the rigor of academic preparation for all students is especially important. Fourth, by working together, academic and vocational educators and employers can strengthen both sets of standards. At the same time that educators often do not possess a strong understanding of the workplace, employers and workers are not in the best position to evaluate the academic content of the skills they need. A strong working relationship between educators and employers in developing skill standards eliminates potentially misleading messages delivered through standards.

The Current State of Coordination

Although slowly beginning to change, academic and industry skill standards have been developed largely in isolation from each other. To be sure, most industry skill standards make references to academic standards and most of the academic standards call for some types of work applications. In general, however, the workplace applications offered by the academic skills are rarely explicit. Students are sometimes offered ad hoc or isolated examples of applications, but they can meet the academic standards without necessarily being able to apply their academic skills to realistic work-related problems. Similarly, industry skill standards often include academic standards but do so as abstract lists of skills that are left unconnected to their use in the workplace.

The required performance levels of both academic and industry-related skills also needs much more attention. Even though there is a broad-based consensus that standards need to be set at a high level, most of the academic standards offer no absolute normative benchmarks against which to measure student performance. Most of the academic standards were set by educators based on their judgment about what students should know, usually to proceed to the next level of education. These judgments were not based on objectives from outside the disciplines or the education system. While the industry skill standards do call for academic skills, those academic standards were usually set very low. For the most part, the academic component of the industry skill standards call for skills that can be achieved well short of high school graduation. Employers, however, may not understand the advanced academic skills that their standards require. This lack of understanding and the potential for misrepresented academic skills further supports the need for collaboration with educators so that actual academic competence can be determined.

The most significant area of overlap or common ground between the two sets of standards was their use of process-oriented or SCANS-type skills. Both types of standards call for strengthened problem-solving, teamwork, inquiry, and communication skills. They emphasize the use of a variety of sources of information to investigate issues and arrive at answers and solutions and they advocate the use of different means and media to communicate those solutions. Nevertheless, recognition of consistent skills across the standards is only a first step toward integration. Defining and evaluating crossfunctional skills such as these generic skills offers many opportunities for academic and industry skill standards developers to work together. First, standards setters must dissect the generic components from specific components of these process skills. Ultimately, generic standards will only be meaningful to the extent that they can be assessed so both academic and industry groups have a large stake in the success of those efforts.

Using Standards To Develop Projects and Curricula that Integrate Academic and Vocational Instruction

The conference was organized in such a way as to give employers and academic and vocational educators a chance to work together on specific pairs of academic and industry skill standards. For example, the developers of the English standards were paired with representatives of the standards for retailing. As a group, they were charged with reviewing each other's standards, discussing strengths and weaknesses, and identifying opportunities for using standards to promote integrated instruction and curriculum. Despite initial skepticism, the group did develop several projects. For example, the English standards call for mastering critical writing that contrasts and compares alternative points of view. The retailing standards expect students to understand alternative approaches to marketing. The retailing teachers asked whether having retailing students write an essay contrasting the different marketing strategies of two major corporations-Nike and Reebok-would be an acceptable means of addressing the English standard. Without hesitation, the English teachers endorsed that approach. Other sessions at the conference and at workshops organized by NCRVE held since the conference have yielded other similar examples. Many of the participants at the conference and at the workshops were convinced that this approach had great potential to strengthen both academic and vocational education.

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