Aug. 26, 2015



Issues  Challenging Education

Preparing Students for Life:  The School-to-Work Reform Movement

Jennifer Donaldson Richard Hinton Linda Nelson

"We are living in a world where what you earn is a function of what you can learn."

- Bill Clinton, January 1994

What is the Issue?

School to work programs, by definition, link students and schools with the workplace. This is accomplished through school partnerships with employers, unions, civic groups, and other public and private sector organizations.  Together, these organizations  help students develop the skills needed for the competitive job market while making their educational experience relevant to the world they will experience as adults. 

School to work programs are becoming increasingly important in school reform movements. They encourage curricular restructuring towards a contextual learning environment.  This approach to learning is defined as "application learning". With such a restructuring,  the universal complaint of students,  "Why are we learning this when we won't ever use it" will be laid to rest. Application learning makes formal education relevant to life. 


Since the early 1900's, our school systems have differentiated between the vocational and academic tracks.  Traditionally, schools have used the vocational track to prepare non-college bound students for the job market, while the academic track prepared o ther students for post-secondary studies.  This division of purpose has evolved into two distinct educational approaches.  Vocational studies were taught by the application approach, while academic studies were taught by a more theoretical approach.  Seco ndary schools relied upon the institutions of higher learning to provide the application experience for students.  

Today, this differentiation has resulted in the widely held belief that vocational programs are for the low-achieving students, while academic programs are for the higher-achieving students who will probably seek post-secondary education for training in t heir profession.  It should be noted, however, that those who do attend college often prolong their studies due to an unfamiliarity with the variety of career paths.  Even these students could have benefited from secondary career exploration

Most students will eventually enter the job market, even though three-fourths of them will not receive a four-year college degree (Pauley, 1995).  All students need to be prepared to enter the job market, and this should begin long before graduation.  Th e school-to-work movement will encourage the linking of education to preparation for a well-chosen career path. 


Early attempts at school-to-work programs were attempted long before the recent "School to Work Initiatives Act" was introduced by the national government in 1994.  These included a variety of approaches, ranging from simple job-placement to distinctive i nstructional methods and multiyear education and training activities (Pauley, 1995).  Five basic models of innovative school-to-work programs have been identified: career academies, occupational-academic cluster programs, restructured vocational and coope rative learning education programs, tech prep programs, and youth apprenticeship programs. A brief description of each modal follows:

  • career academies are school-within-a-school programs that integrate academic learning with a study of an industry and on-the-job training.  These typically provide students with a three or four year program and are offered to a limited numbers of stud ents.
  • Occupational-Academic cluster programs offer all students in a high school a choice among several career pathways.  Each pathway integrates a sequence of related courses to a cluster of occupations and provides work experience.  This approach is favor ed by the National Center for Education and the Economy (Pauley,1995), as it integrates academic and vocational learning and makes these available to all students.
  • Restructured vocational education programs include early career exploration and job shadowing before the student chooses the area in which he will receive job skills training and school-supervised work experience.
  • Tech prep programs upgrade the general and vocational tract curricula to include technology-related instruction in science, math, and other courses.  These are often aligned with local community colleges so that students receive college credit toward an associate's degree.
  • Youth apprenticeship programs use the workplace as a learning environment, but also integrate academic and vocational learning in the classroom.  These apprenticeships usually go to the more talented students, and students are given a diploma of recog nized occupational credentials upon completion of the program.

These models served as alternative approaches to traditional academic and vocational tracking.  They introduced the concept of cooperation between schools and the business community regard to preparing students for the job force.  They may have been the d riving force behind the present movement to integrate school-to-work transition programs into all of our classrooms today.

Driving Forces

Faced with a fast changing job market through which there seems to be no discernible pathway to economic survival, non-college-bound students often exit high school with a diploma and no marketable skills.  College graduates often find themselves forced t o take jobs for which they are overqualified. The fact that many students exit high school with few work skills and with the required skills becoming increasingly complex, has produced a crisis in business and schools.   The following groups have proposed some solutions to the problem of workforce preparedness.


With other nations systematically basing their economic strength and growth on improving the skills of their developing workers, the United States may find itself unable to compete in the global market.  That is, unless its educational policies change.  T here has been no systematic connection in the United States between economic growth and labor force skills improvement.  Ultimately "the nation becomes weakened because productivity lags and hampers our ability to compete in world markets.  

Employers are becoming frustrated because there are not enough workers adequately prepared for today's demanding jobs.   Employers hope to benefit from the school-to-work movement through an expanded pool of qualified applicants and involvement in curriculum development.  Ultimately their involvement in education will contribute to the quality of life in their local communi ty.  In addition, this will provide students with opportunities to develop a good work ethic, benefiting everyone in the future.

Federal government

Government motivation for the initiation of this movement came at the national level from reports of well established "employment prepatory systems" in most European nations and Australia.  There has also been a proliferation of literature on the absence  of such systems in the United States

During the Spring of 1994, President Clinton signed the "School to Work Initiatives Act", calling for the creation of  a national system of school-to-work transition programs.  According to Secretary of Labor, Robert Riech,  A school to work transition sy stem is critical to improving the economic opportunities of our young people and will help us all on the road to better jobs and greater economic security." The school-to-work initiatives act is jointly funded by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education.  Essentially it provides "venture capitol" to states and local communities to use towards developing systems and partnerships that are designed to prepare young people for further education and careers. There are four major types of grants to help states and local communities build a system which meets their personal needs. 

  • Development:  Non-competitive planning grants to all states.
  • Implementation:  Competitive grants to states for implementing nationwide systems.
  • Local partnerships:  Competitive grants to local partnerships within states.
  • High-Poverty Areas:  Competitive grants to localities defined as   high poverty areas.

While there is a national bill supporting this movement, it should be emphasized that this is not meant to be a "top-down federal program".  It is an invitation to individual communities to develop school-to-work programs that are specifically tailored to meet local needs.  Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, supports limited  government involvement when he said,  "By raising education standards, developing partnerships within comm unities, and establishing a link between school and work, we can help our youth compete in an increasingly complex global economy"  Programs will grow from community to community and state by state.  Eventually, a strong national system of individualized  cooperative programs will emerge.  Research has found that those systems that have successfully implemented school-to-work transition programs have been supported by a recognized need for such a program on the part of all players (Pauley,1995).  Most programs began, however, by the recognition of the need for better career preparation by the parents, students, and administration.  

State initiatives

National support for this movement is filtered down to the state level.  Eventually individual state programs will become a cooperative national network of individual systems working together into the next century.  By allowing the system to develop in th is manner,  no one program will be the standard.  Room will be  provided for individual needs to be met at the local level, while experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, can be shared nationally to develop better programs all around.  North Carolin a has developed its own school-to-work program, entitled "JobReady:  Pathways to Career Success" which will focus on the three R's while adding a fourth, workforce "Readiness".  This will emphasize both basic academic skills and job skills.  Over the next five years, state leaders will work hand-in-hand with local leaders in every region to plan and implement "JobReady" in a manner that satisfies the needs and characteristics of each region.  Local partnerships will be funded through a competitive grant p rocess.  The aim is to have these partnerships all across the state by 1998.  A State JobReady Partnership Council will oversee the new system.  This council is comprised of employers, employee representatives,  school representatives, colleges, state age ncies, and other community leaders(JobReady:  Pathways to Career Success, 1995).

Student Incentive

By connecting the school environment to long-term job goals and earning potential, educators will be providing students with a motivating incentive previously lacking from most realms of secondary education.[KC:  link to STWGLOSS ( /MAINGLOS.HTM) Many of the young people leaving our high schools today are not equipped with the skills they need to perform the jobs our modern competitive economy is creating.  In our communities, economic prospects for young people who lackhighly marketable knowledge and skills are dreary.  When this happens, everyone loses.  Young workers become discouraged when they receive low paychecks and find only meaningless job opportunities.  Employers lose because they cannot find qualified employees.  This is because there have been no established programs facilitating the connection of the schools to the business community.  Our young people need more and better preparation for their lives in the labor force (Pauley, 1995). 

With school-to-work reform, the emphasis is moved towards applied learning, and away from short lived, rote memory exercise.   Additionally, students gain actual work experience in school, while developing potential contacts that may broaden employment op tions.  Ultimately, students experience a boost in self-confidence through success at both school and work.  This will equip student with the means with which to obtain jobs in their community.  

Where is the Issue Going?

The federal governments involvement in the school-to-work reform movement has served as the catalyst for the implementation of many ongoing programs throughout the country.  The school-to-work reform movement has become a reality, and will continue to be  an influence in the educational environment.  As a result, research has begun to look at what constitutes a successful school-to-work program.  

Research Findings

In 1993, the School-to-Work Transition Project, under the direction of Edward Pauly, began studying school-to-work programs which had been successfully implemented. Sixteen high schools were selected for the study, representing each of the different model s.  Although each high school had developed its own unique approach to school-to-work education, all had some elements in common which produced successful programs.  These elements are discussed below as issues which school systems must consider as they a ttempt to design a school-to-work program.

Content and Design

  • Although each program should have some broadly specific  components, such as work-based instruction, these components should be combined with other locally identified elements. This will customize the program to the local interests and needs.  
  • Planners should take into account that there is no single, simple transition from school to work.  These programs should provide extensive career counseling and wide career exposure so that students can make informed choices before they select a part icular career area to prepare for.
  • Programs that do not prepare students to meet college entrance requirements can become stigmatized as catering to only the lower-achieving student. States and school systems should develop curricula that provides the learning needed for post secondar y studies.


  • In order for a program to encompass a wide variety of students, open eligibility requirements should be developed, with pre-employment screening of students to be done by employees. 
  • Programs should use exit standards to assure that the students have mastered important skills.
  • The program should begin in the ninth or tenth year of school, with career exploration and counseling.  Training and work-based learning should take place in grades eleven and twelve.
  • The screening for the workplace learning slots should focus on work readiness, not on academic performance.

Resource Requirements

In conjunction with research efforts, the federal government has also attempted to define what is required to implement a successful school-to-work transition program.  Recently the government provided national guidelines which highlight three essential c omponents for an effective school-to-work program.  

  • There must be school based learning.  This requires classroom         instruction in both academic and occupational skills.  
  • There must be worked-based learning, which includes actual       work experience, training and mentioning.  
  • These two domains must be connected through       integration of classroom and on-the-job instruction. 

The U.S. Department of Labor has also attempted to  identify some basic skills necessary to enter the job force.   Included are:

  • managing and using information
  • allocation of resources
  • understanding systems
  • using technologies
  • working well with others
  • critical thinking skills 

All of these skills are essentially obtained by those who proceed on to college(Pauley, 1995)  All students, however, need to obtain these skills if we are to ensure their success in an increasingly competitive international marketplace.  It is imperative that we begin introducing these higher order thinking skills at a much earlier stage of  education for our youth and future workers.  Local programs in North Carolina have attempted to address this need and has provided an effective example of school-to- work program in action.


Many local Job Ready Partnerships in North Carolina have been planning for several months; some have already implemented their programs or are about to implement their program.  Three local systems that have already began implementation are: Guilford Coun ty Schools, Davidson County Schools, and Durham Public schools.  The latter will be used to describe a good implementation model for a school-to-work program.

It is the mission of the school to work initiative in Durham Public Schools to ensure that all students are provided an education pathway which combines career development and counseling with a "rigorous integrated academic and technical preparation, desi gned to maximize their post secondary study and work options in a highly skilled and competitive work force."(Do you Know: Durham Public Schools, 1993). 

Therefore, they have meshed together a very successful and integrated school to work opportunity for their young students.

The program actually begins in the sixth grade with a great deal of career counseling and pre-assessments to determine where the student's interests lie.  After the assessment, a career portfolio is created for the student which contains career interest i nventories, aptitude assessment profiles, career and personal goals and a four year plan of study for his/her high school education. These portfolios are reviewed regularly by the student and the career counselor for updates and changes as the student gro ws and develops his/her own career path. The only stipulation is that the student is asked to remain in his/her career choice for one year.  Thus, there is a flexibility mechanism in place for the student if he/she changes  career paths.

Upon entering high school students are offered a choice of a comprehensive high school program focus which is the typical college preparatory track, or they can enter into the college/technical preparatory classes which will prepare them for both the work force and college. In the latter, students will follow an integrated and accelerated sequence of courses in career areas such as: Health Sciences and Medical Profession, Law and Governance, Engineering Technologies, Business and Finance, and Environmenta l Sciences.  Students are also given the chance to work and learn outside the classroom. Internships, apprenticeships, and co-op opportunities are planned for and made available to these students to help make their learning and instruction more real and r elevant to them.

This well conceptualized school to work program offers an integrated approach at the secondary level and erases the separation of a vocational and academic education which highlighted the failure of the vocational education programs of earlier times.


Implementing school-to-work transition programs will have a variety of implications for educators, students, community leaders and our nation as a whole.  Changes will occur, and in many cases have already begun.  Among those implications identified are:

  • Higher expectations and standards will be set for all students.
  • There will be a need for additional career counselors to aid all students in selecting a career path.
  •   Measurement tools for academic and job skill standards will be created for grades k-12.
  • The curriculum must be restructured in order to integrate vocational and academic learning.
  • Professional development and job shadowing opportunities must be provided for educators, employers and others involved in school-to-work activities to help them understand the system and their role in it.
  • Employers must cooperate with the school systems to make available the many work-based learning experiences that will be needed for the studens.
  • A partnership between employers and educators must be formed to develop and implement a school-to-work  curriculum.

What benefits could a school system find in implementing a school-to-work program?  Many students find that high school has little meaning for them, other than a place to go before they report to their part-time jobs, or a place to meet their friends.  Th ese students either drop-out of school or continue, but are only doing the minimum amount of work required to pass.  They are often the students who cause the majority of discipline problems and interfere with the learning process in the classroom..   For these students, knowing they were being taught skills which would enable them to make a decent living upon graduation will give meaning to their high school careers.  Thus, the dropout rate and discipline problems would be lowered.

The average college graduate changes their major three times before graduating.  If they were given a chance to explore the careers they were interested in before attending college, they would have an informed base on which to make their decisions about c areer choice and major course of study.  This would save them both time and money in preparing for their career.

Finally, the long-standing problem of how to prepared the physically or mentally disadvantaged for a self-sufficient adult life could also be addressed.  They would also receive the career exploration and counseling, job preparedness training, and the on- the-job experience needed so that they would have marketable skills upon completion of high school.  At present, there are programs which address this segment of our student population, but they set these students apart and this often creates a stigma for such programs.  This would provide these students  with greater inclusion.

What Should Educational Leaders Do Now?

The macro environment of our educational system is demanding that the schools produce a better-prepared work force.  If we are to respond to this demand, an entire restructuring of curriculum and pedagogy at the secondary level will be required.  This is  an enormous task, but one in which some school systems have succeeded.  However, research has found that those systems that have successfully implemented school-to-work transition programs have been supported by a recognized need for such a program on the part of all involved.  Most programs began by the recognition of the need for better career preparation by the parents, students, and administration.  This implies that such a reform requires both bottom-up and top-down demands to be successfully address ed and acted upon.  It also demands that the entire community get involved. With businesses getting involved with the schools and supporting such programs, with additional start-up funds for the staff-development and additional equipment needed for implem entation, and an understanding that any reform evolves as it happens, successful implementation of the school-to-work program will occur.  In addition, flexibility must be built into the program so that adjustments can be made as needed. 

In addition to these long-term goals, there is a short-term goal that could have a great impact on student achievement. Educational leaders should address local businesses and urge them to request a transcript of grades and attendance record from job app licants.  This information could be used by the employer as an indicator of job performance and of the skills possessed by the applicant.  Not only would this be useful information for the employer, it would give students an incentive to earn better grade s and improve attendance.

Although high school has always been considered the final preparation for entering the world of work or college, we have not prepared all of the students to make good career choices.  The school-to-work reform offers all students a chance to be economica lly competative in the future job market.


Durham Public Schools Vocational Education Dept. (1994). Do You Know: There is a way To Prepare Tomorrow's WorkForce Today.  [Brochure]. Durham, N.C: Author.

.  Evans, Karen and Heinz, Walter R.(1994) .Becoming Adults in      England andGermany. Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society.London, England

Hoye,J.D. (1995) School to Work Glossary of Terms. [On-line]. Available: gloss/mainglos.htm.

Lankard, Bettina A.(1993). Parents and the School to Work Transition of Special Needs Students . Office of Education Research, Washington, D.C.

Law, C., Knuth, R. and Bergman,S. (1992) What Does Research Say About School to Work Transition ?. [On line]. Available: 

Mithaug, Dennis E.(1991). Equity and Excellence in School toWork .Centerfocus. Vol.6 1994

Pauly, Edward, Kopp, Hilary, and Haimson, Joshua.                             Homegarown Lessons:Innovative Programs That Link School                 and Work. Jossey-Bass , San Francisco, 1995.

Sarkees, Mitchelle D. (1990).  Meeting the Needs of the At RiskLearner in Rural Areas. TASPP. Bulletin Vol.2 pg 1-4

U.S. Dept. of Education (1995) School to Work Opportunities: An Owner's Guide. [On line]. Available: gopher://

All material within the HORIZON site, unless otherwise noted, may be distributed freely for educational purposes. If you do redistribute any of this material, it must retain this copyright notice and you must use appropriate citation including the URL. Also, we would appreciate your sending James L. Morrison a note as to how you are using it. HTML and design by Noel Fiser, ©2006. Page last modified: 2/25/1999 6:09:01 PM. 22274 visitors since February 2000.