While the restructuring efforts continue, reformers have increasingly sought ways to strengthen the links between schools and workplaces through curricular and pedagogical innovation as well as through increasing the emphasis on the educational value of actual experience on the job. One indication of the shift in focus is the role in the current education reform discussion of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 (Perkins II). This act consisted of amendments to previous Perkins legislation, which served as an impetus for federal involvement in vocational education. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, vocational education was increasingly viewed as an anachronistic and inferior educational strategy. Thus, while Perkins legislation was never central to education reform, its significance seemed to fade even more during the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, Perkins legislation is very much at the center of the education reform discussion. Strategies and practices emphasized by the Perkins II such as integrating vocational and academic education, Tech Prep, and enhanced skill certification have all been emphasized by the Clinton administration, as well as educational strategies that are designed to place students in learning experiences on the job such as apprenticeships and cooperative education. It is an indication of the significance of the shift in focus that these strategies would have seemed foreign or even misguided to the authors of A Nation at Risk.
This shift in focus has emerged from a growing conviction that there is a chasm between students' experiences in school and their future experiences in the workplace and in other nonschool environments. While schools and workplaces have always been different, many reformers believe that recent changes in the economy and the nature of work have significantly intensified the problem.
This disparity between school and work has several unfortunate consequences. For many students, schools fail to prepare them adequately for future roles. According to this perspective, many young people fail to acquire the skills needed in the modern economy and workplace, which weakens the competitiveness of the country's economy and threatens its standard of living. The disconnection between schooling and postschool experiences also robs schooling of meaning, failing to provide strong motivation for learning. Cognitive scientists have also concluded that learning is more effective when it is embedded in the use to which that learning will be put.
Thus, education that is connected more directly to postschool activities is believed to be more effective pedagogically and better prepares students for a faster changing world and workplace. Certainly one way to connect learning to the outside world is to actually conduct some of that learning in the workplace, as in apprenticeships or cooperative education. Another approach is to attempt to reform the schools themselves so that students gain experiences that more closely reflect broader activities.
This study looks at one educational reform strategy called for by Perkins II and designed to broaden student experiences. In outlining the guidelines for program funding under the legislation, Perkins II says that vocational education programs should be evaluated according to their capability to provide vocational education students with "strong experience in and understanding for all aspects of the industry [emphasis added] the students are preparing to enter (including planning, management, finances, technical and production skills, underlying principles of technology, labor and community issues, and environmental issues)" (Section 113(a)(3)(B)).
Typically, programs that emphasize all aspects of the industry (AAI) start from traditional vocational skills and develop an educational program that explores the context in which those skills are used. Thus, carpentry is taught as part of a broader housing or "built environment" program, and auto mechanics is taught as part of a transportation program. In addition to vocational skills needed for a particular occupation, students are taught the history of the industry and general technological principals important to it. Generally, an effort is made to get students to understand basic aspects of the other occupations in the industry. There is also an emphasis on planning, project development, teamwork, communications, and other generic social and work-related skills. This approach seeks to connect traditional vocational skills to broader knowledge and competence associated with the context in which those traditional skills are used.
The AAI approach has three broad justifications. The first is pedagogic: integrating vocational education with instruction about the context in which graduates will work is a superior pedagogic approach and promotes more effective learning. AAI is a different method of teaching vocational and academic skills. Rather than splitting learning up into the traditional vocational and academic subjects, AAI covers related material through integrated projects that include social studies, math, English, and science competencies as well as what are usually considered vocational skills.
A second justification for AAI is that given changes in the macroeconomy that effect the types of careers young people can expect to have, those young people need broad skills that will prepare them to do a variety of jobs. According to this perspective, long-term employment with one firm is increasingly unlikely. Fast-changing technology also forces students to be prepared to undergo significant changes in their work over the course of their careers. Many workers who have lost jobs in large firms as a result of corporate restructuring have tried to develop their own businesses, and AAI advocates argue that the strategy is particularly effective in giving students the background needed for entrepreneurial activities.
The third argument for AAI also involves the nature of the changing economy, but while the previous argument focused on the needs of employees in a volatile marketplace, this one emphasizes the interests of the employers and their changing demand for higher skilled workers?students educated in AAI will be increasingly more effective employees given the particular evolution of the nature and organization of work. Thus, an AAI approach will both serve the learning needs of students and the particular evolving needs of their future employers.