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Family Matters . . . in School-to-Work Transition

A Research Update for Policymakers and Educational Leaders


Wendy L. Way
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Marilyn R. Rossman
University of Minnesota
National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California at Berkeley
2030 Addison Street, Suite 500
Berkeley, CA 94704-1058

Supported by
The Office of Vocational and Adult Education
U.S. Department of Education

February 1996


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The Importance of Families

As never before, the nation is focused on improving the school-to-work transition for youth and adults. Families play a crucial role in the workplace readiness of their members. Education leaders and policymakers need to understand how families contribute to readiness for work, and to explore ways to enhance and improve families' participation.

Leaders such as the U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley have recognized the importance of family, characterizing it as "life's first teacher," and emphasizing its place in nurturing educational success. As Marshall and Tucker wrote in Thinking for a Living, "it will do the country little restructure schools unless we make families better learning systems and include families as integral components of restructured schools." Since the family is in a position to exert influence both before and after job prep interventions by schools, it makes sense to improve our understanding of its role.

Yet the family is usually overlooked or downplayed as a contributor to school-to-work programs. The 1994 School to Work Opportunities Act targets families, for example, for just two roles: contributors to career exploration and choice, and partners in designing and administering educational programs. Despite establishing a national education goal for parental involvement in schools, Goals 2000: The Educate America Act of 1994 makes no specific connection between education for work and parental involvement in education.

Changing Families

Why is the family's essential role in enhancing education for work not better understood? One reason is that Americans are used to isolating family life from work life. Many of today's adults grew up in the 1950's when the typical family was comprised of a male breadwinner, children, and a stay-at-home wife and mother.

This configuration now represents only about 7% of all U.S. families. Today, two-thirds of all women work outside the home, including about two-thirds of all mothers with children and almost half of all mothers with children under a year old. Clearly, workforce education policy and practice cannot continue to separate family and work according to a model of the family based in the past.

Gender Roles

Society's gender roles have a strong effect. Male experience is often taken to be the standard, and therefore policy is often designed primarily from the male viewpoint. In male experience, it's easier to separate work from family. For instance, it is still more socially acceptable for men to put occupational work ahead of family work (e.g. staying late at the office or plant; traveling on business) and for women to put family work ahead of occupational work (e.g. staying home with a sick child). This male experience standard is frequently applied in developing educational policy related to work. In addition, several unexamined assumptions limit the recognition of the family's role. These include: Recent research has revealed that these assumptions are by no means valid across the board. Lessons from Life's First Teacher: The Role of the Family in Adolescent and Adult Readiness for School-To-Work Transition, a recent study from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, paints a richer picture of the complex family roles in influencing school-to-work transition readiness.

The Study

Readiness for School-to-Work Transition has been analyzed as consisting of career maturity (vocational identity and career decision) and work effectiveness skills (past work performance, ability to compete for employment, and future capacity for advancement in a chosen occupation). NCRVE's study analyzed how relationships among individual and family background characteristics, family functioning styles, and individual learning strategies affect these work readiness indicators.

Policy aimed at enhancing parental involvement in schooling usually targets parent-to-child interactions about children's career exploration, and activities like participation in schoolwork. These authors discovered that in reality, the day-to-day background functioning style of the family has as direct an impact on the work readiness of students as more obvious activities.

Proactive Families

Families which maximize work readiness operate in proactive ways. These families: Behaviors like these encourage members to explore their world more broadly by developing a sense of personal security, developing confidence in expressing oneself and making one's own decisions, and developing organizational skills and ways to manage conflict. All these qualities are essential for work readiness.

Proactive families also help children develop learning skills which are useful in their school careers. In order to learn well, individuals need personal characteristics such as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation; self-efficacy; and critical thinking. And work readiness itself depends on these learning capacities.

Inactive Families

Families which are more inactive have a poor effect on school-to-work transition. These families seem unable to function well either because they cannot set guidelines, or because they don't pursue interests that involve places and persons outside the family, or because they use a laissez-faire rather than proactive approach to family matters. Such habitual ways of functioning make it more difficult for adolescents to develop self-knowledge and to differentiate their own goals from their parents' goals.

Authoritarian Families

Authoritarian families seem to encourage students to indicate plans to continue with education beyond high school, perhaps as a response to family pressure. However, these families make no contribution to school-to-work transition readiness, defined as career maturity and work effectiveness skills.

Strong Work Values

The study also found that strong work values in a parent's family of origin improve school-to-work readiness in both youth and adults. These values may include:

Adolescents' Voices

Some of the ways families influence work readiness are clear-cut. Parents can: As discussed, the day-to-day functioning style of the family is also a powerful influence. Qualities such as support, interest, and openness can give kids a tremendous boost. One adolescent reported: My parents are behind me no matter what I do. It's basically whatever I've decided. Just when I need to talk to them, they're always there. If I need their help, like with a decision, I'll ask them like, what they think, and then from there like I can decide what I should do.

Other behaviors can be experienced as pushing or controlling. Another adolescent complained:

"It got to that point where they were pushin' me just a little too hard and a little too fast. Change is hard...for awhile there I was really, you know, reconsidering, am I doing this for them or am I doing this for me."

In other experiences, the family serves as a context for interpreting realities associated with work. This occurs through:

"My mom was very determined to get into what she wanted to do, which was the airline. It was kinda neat to watch her, you know, struggle to get where she wanted. And she ended up getting what she wanted. And that kinda helped me. If you try hard enough for long enough, you'll get it."

Policy Recommendations

Today's educational reform initiatives are largely focused on improving work skills. Work skills which will upgrade socioeconomic status are not, however, a magic gateway to bright occupational futures. An individual's success is mediated by the family and how it functions. Therefore, initiatives designed to aid school-to-work transition must pay more heed to involving and strengthening the family.

In order to improve the parental role in work readiness, policy needs to work on linking home and school by nurturing parent involvement in education. But since the day-to-day functioning of families has a powerful effect on the school-to-work transition readiness of students, policy must also consider strategies to help parents become more proactive in their day-to-day functioning at home, as well as ways to insure that families help establish good work values.

Today's unparalleled discussions regarding educational reform provide an ideal context for giving more attention to linkages between family and work readiness. The time seems appropriate to extend these discussions into the arena of workforce education policy and practice.

The summary information contained in this update has been extracted from other manuscripts developed by the project directors, Wendy L. Way, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Marilyn Martin Rossman, University of Minnesota-St. Paul.

For further reading on how parents can help nurture work readiness, see the following works:

Way, W.L. and Rossman, M.M. (1994). The interrelation of work and family: A missing piece of the vocational education research agenda. Journal of Vocational Education Research, 19(2), 1-24.

Way, W.L. and Rossman, M.M. (1995). Lessons from life's first teacher: The role of the family in adolescent and adult readiness for school-to-work transition. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Way, W.L. (1991). Frameworks for examining work-family relationships. In G. Felstehausen and J. B. Schultz (eds.), Work and family: Educational implications (pp. 1-23). Peoria, IL: Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.

Way, W.L. (1994). Family, work, and human development: An approach to developing curricula. In F. M. Smith & C.O. Hausafus (Eds.), The Education of Early Adolescents (pp 119-129). Peoria, IL: Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.

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