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School-to-Work Opportunities in the Middle School: Concepts and Issues
C. R. Finch, M. Mooney
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of senior high school
educators have provided comprehensive and meaningful school-to-work (STW)
opportunities for their students. Unfortunately, these opportunities may be
offered too late in some high school students' studies to have much impact
on them. By the ninth or tenth grade, many students have already become
turned off to education and made up their minds to quit school or just
comply with minimum requirements for graduation. Other students may not
have received much parental and peer encouragement to study and/or do not
view schooling as an avenue to future occupational and career success
(Kennedy, 1996; Lichtenstein & Blackorby, 1995). In response to these and
other concerns, a number of school districts across the United States have
created STW opportunities for middle school students. Examples range from
including career exploration activities in individual middle school courses
to school- and school-district-wide incorporation of STW opportunities in
the curriculum. In some school districts, educators are providing middle
school students with meaningful experiential learning related to
occupations and careers.
Although educators are continuing to gain experience at
implementing STW opportunities in the middle school, these activities have
largely been conducted on an ad-hoc basis with little knowledge about how
and why they should be included in the middle school curriculum as well as
the impact they are designed to have on students. This report has been
designed to address these concerns and issues. More specifically, within
the middle school context, answers were sought to a series of questions
that were posed to middle school educators who had implemented STW
curricula in their schools (Questions 1-5) and to representatives of
selected national associations (Questions 4-6):
- Why was the STW curriculum implemented?
- What conceptual, organizational, and operational reasons exist for
implementing the curriculum?
- What is the focus of the curriculum and how was it determined?
- What benefits does the curriculum provide to students?
- What issues and concerns are associated with implementing a STW
curriculum for middle school students?
- What are selected national associations' views on the inclusion of
STW curricula at the middle school level?
Based on an initial manual and computer-based literature and
research search, interview protocols were developed to gather in-depth
information from middle school educators and association representatives.
Concurrently, exemplary locations where STW opportunities for middle school
students have been implemented were identified. State STW coordinators,
selected association representatives, and VocNet subscribers were asked to
nominate middle schools where exemplary school-to-work/careers programs had
been established. Thirty-six middle schools were nominated for
participation in the study. In-depth telephone interviews were conducted
with contact persons from 28 of these schools. The remaining eight schools
either did not meet the criteria established or were unavailable to
complete the interview within the time constraints of the study.
Using the interview information gathered and a set selection
criteria, six schools were selected for more detailed examination. At each
of these middle schools, the contact person was asked to select three to
five individuals, including themselves, to participate in a taped in-depth
phone interview. At least one principal, one counselor, and one teacher
directly involved in the STW middle school program were to be included on
the list. At these six middle schools, interviews were conducted with a
total of 26 persons, including ten administrators/coordinators, six
principals, four guidance counselors, and six teachers.
It was also deemed important to gather information about the views
national organizations had about STW opportunities in the middle schools.
Project time and dollar constraints necessitated obtaining information as
rapidly and efficiently as possible. This situation precluded conducting
interviews with all education-related associations-an especially
time-consuming task since many associations would not be able to respond to
our focused middle school questions. Thus, a small number of national
associations that had some involvement with and/or concern about STW
opportunities in the middle school were identified. Information was sought
from these associations since they tend to view STW opportunities from a
macro- (national) rather than a micro- (local school) perspective.
Additionally, since most associations' purposes and philosophies reflect
the views of their membership, the information gathered would not only
reflect what associations support but what their constituents (members)
view as important to them. Further, official association "doctrine" may be
easily located in association publications, brochures, and internet home
pages. Using a multi-level screening process, a total of six associations
were selected to be interviewed. Of the six, five associations had
knowledgeable representatives available during the time period we had
established to conduct interviews. Associations from which information was
gathered thus comprised a small, purposive sample of the universe of
potential associations nationwide that might have views about and/or
involvement with STW opportunities in the middle school.
Results and Discussion: Middle Schools Why a School-to-Work Curriculum?
Middle school educators we interviewed were pleased to describe why
they chose to implement STW curricula in their schools. Some of their
reasons were not entirely unexpected since, based on our literature
searches and involvement with other STW projects, we anticipated that
middle school educators would include enhancing curriculum relevancy,
better serving the needs of at-risk students, and enhancing student
development among their reasons for implementing STW curricula. The
remaining groupings of reasons (developing career awareness and exposure,
supporting systemic change and school reform, building community linkages,
and improving the transition to high school and beyond) were less obvious
in the literature but appear to be of no less importance. All seven of the
implementation reasons were to some extent a function of school context.
That is, schools' reasons for implementation were based on the particular
school and community setting, student population, school district and/or
state involvement in educational reform, and so forth. The reasons
educators gave for STW implementation were to a varying degree compatible
with suggestions provided in several recent reports advocating change in
the middle schools. For example, among its recommendations, Turning Points
(Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989) supports the
implementation of personalized and cooperative learning for students and
making meaningful connections between middle schools and their communities.
These statements parallel several of the categories of responses that were
drawn from the interview text. Other implementation categories we
identified are either generally or specifically supported in the middle
school literature (e.g., see Dougherty, 1997; Mac Iver, 1990; Marshak,
1995). Unfortunately, even though a number of people we interviewed
commented that their middle school STW programs were implemented at least
in part to meet the needs of at-risk students, there is little discussion
in the literature to support this focus. A plausible reason for such a
mismatch is that the people we interviewed were at the cutting edge of
educational reform but their exemplary efforts had not as yet been
recognized in the professional literature. Another possible reason might be
that middle school educators do not want to note in formal communication
that some students begin to develop their at-risk characteristics while
enrolled in middle schools.
Conceptual and Organizational/Operational Reasons for Implementation
About half of the middle school educators interviewed offered
conceptual reasons for implementing their STW curricula. Some referenced
Turning Points and/or general middle school concepts as a foundation for
curriculum development efforts. One principal implied a mismatch between
Turning Points and the STW curriculum; inferring that Turning Points
de-emphasized academics in favor of affective behavior development. Several
educators saw the STW curriculum as an excellent fit with the middle school
philosophy of assisting students to transition from child to young adult.
Comments made by several other educators supported the need to prepare
students for the future as well as the present. Interviewees' comments
about the value of the STW curriculum ranged from "relevant to real life"
to "produces lifelong learners" and "embedding basic skills into a
thought-provoking curriculum." The statement made by a middle school
principal that "it is never to early to address future needs" seemed to
capture the essence of why it is important for the middle school to focus
on preparing students for their futures.
Interviewees mentioned a small number of organizational and
operational reasons for implementing STW curricula in the middle school.
Interdisciplinary teaming, which was discussed most frequently by middle
school educators as an organizational reason for implementing STW
curricula, is quite visible in the literature (Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development, 1989, 1995; Keefe, Valentine, Clark, & Irvin, 1994;
National Middle School Association, 1995). However, it is not very clear
who should be members of these teams. Should teams include all the
educators in a middle school or just a subset of these educators?
Collectively, middle school educators we interviewed indicated that
their curricula focused on five different but interrelated areas (career
exploration and awareness, self-awareness, contextual learning, service
learning, and integrated themes). It was in this area that STW curricula
appeared to differ most from curricula advocated in the general middle
school literature. However, the actual difference is quite subtle. Whereas
the literature focused more directly on development of academic knowledge
and skills within a framework of adolescent youngsters' current development
needs, educators we interviewed sought to assist their students in
developing for the future as well as meeting their present needs. For
example, interviewees mentioned that career exploration and awareness
experiences could assist students in evaluating their current interests and
abilities and expanding their future career horizons. Several educators
noted that contextual learning should be used to connect basic learning
with realistic applications in real life community and workplace settings.
Educators also discussed how the focus of their curricula were
determined. Implicit in the literature is a view that educators are the
source of content knowledge and organization for middle school curriculum
development. In contrast, several educators we interviewed indicated that
at their schools a broad net was cast to capture content that should be
included in their curricula. Through approaches such as faculty
brainstorming, student input, district-wide needs assessments, advisory
committees, and community conversations, educators were able to bring a
real world focus and view into their curricula. Curriculum development
processes discussed by interviewees were much more comprehensive and
dynamic than what we noted in the literature on middle school education.
Interviewees described a broad range of benefits that the STW
curricula had provided to their students. These educators' comments
underscored the contributions of STW experiences to middle school student
development. Middle school educators noted that the middle school STW
curriculum enhanced their students' personal development in areas such as
individual growth, self-understanding, confidence, self-esteem, and
motivation and responsibility to learn. Interviewees linked these outcomes
directly to the STW curriculum process. Examples of the curriculum process
include ways it appeals to students at their developmental level and ways
it focuses on issues that are relevant to middle school students. Teachers
we interviewed were very sensitive to student outcomes and how they related
to the process used to structure the curriculum.
For the most part, implementation issues and concerns expressed by
the middle school educators we interviewed paralleled those associated with
general change and reform in the schools. However, the process of
implementing a STW curriculum should be viewed as much more holistic than
what is viewed as traditional individual teacher-centered change. Several
interviewees noted that "buy-in" was sought from virtually everyone from
the schools, the community, and the workplace who might make contributions
or provide meaningful input to the curriculum. These potential contributors
were viewed as partners in rather than merely providers to the STW
curriculum effort. This contrasts to some extent with recommendations for
curriculum change described in several recent middle school publications
(Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989, 1995; National Middle
School Association, 1995). For example, even though in Turning Points it is
recommended that teams of teachers work with the same students, the notion
of all teachers in the middle school working as teams is not addressed. In
contrast, interviewees seem to view the STW curriculum as being every
educator's responsibility since it is meant to be implemented by all
teachers in the middle school.
Results and Discussion: Associations
Literature gathered from selected associations revealed a range of
views on STW efforts. Some associations made mention of STW efforts, and
others did not. Most of the association literature focused on career
development needs of secondary school students but not specifically middle
school students. Discussions with association representatives confirmed the
wide range of views found in the literature. However, the persons we
interviewed provided more expansive views of STW efforts in the middle
school than was identified in the association literature. For example,
representatives collectively spoke much more directly and positively about
the merits of STW activities in the middle school than what was formally
documented. STW curriculum issues and concerns expressed by association
representatives appeared to highlight philosophical differences among the
various associations and their members. The differences in views expressed
by association representatives provide a meaningful starting point for
resolving these differences so more uniform STW opportunities can be
provided to middle school students. Questions drawn from this area of
discussion that need to be answered include
- Are the middle school years the best to time to introduce STW
- Is there a best time to introduce STW opportunities in the middle
- How should STW opportunities be defined as they relate to middle
- How can potential STW image problems be dealt with?
- Are STW opportunities a quick fix or a long-term investment in
- How can educators cope with external groups that do not support the
inclusion of STW opportunities in the middle schools?
Possible Future Directions
Based on the results and discussion, several suggestions are
offered for consideration by those interested in directions that may lead
to peaceful coexistence between STW curricula and the middle school agenda.
As a starting point, consider the direction STW opportunities in some
middle schools appear to be taking. As described by middle school educators
in exemplary middle schools where STW curricula are being provided to
Thus, there appears to be a clear connection between what the
middle school literature says middle schools should do and what a number of
STW-oriented middle schools are doing. Even though STW opportunities in the
middle school may not be a mainstream focus for middle school
professionals, these opportunities have the potential to meet students'
developmental needs in new and exciting ways. It is therefore important to
better understand and document exemplary STW opportunities that are
occurring in many middle schools across the United States so their
successes can be shared with other middle school educators.
- these students can prepare for their futures in addition to
satisfying their current needs.
- teaching and learning focus on both the educational process and its
- every educator in the school can team with each other as well as
with community and workplace representatives to provide students with
authentic learning experiences.
- the context for teaching is proactive and dynamic rather than
reactive and static.
- the curriculum can be developmentally responsive to students and
concurrently provide them with a wide range of opportunities such as career
exploration and awareness, contextual learning, service learning, and
integrated learning themes.
It also appears that middle schools where STW opportunities are
being provided to students may indeed be exemplars of best practice as
envisioned in the middle school literature. Broadly-based teacher teaming,
extensive linking with the community, providing students with opportunities
for contextual learning, enabling students to explore the real world, and
providing students with meaningful development experiences are all
suggested in the middle school literature and can all be accomplished
within a STW opportunities framework. Descriptions about STW opportunities
that can be provided to middle school students, and their potential value
must be communicated to the middle school educator community. Middle school
educators should have access to this information before they begin to
implement major curriculum changes.
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