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School-to-Work: Connecting Schools and Career Decision-Making

Read about The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. Included: Descriptions of a handful of exemplary school-to-work programs across the grades!

On May 4, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, establishing "a national framework within which all States can create statewide School-to-Work Opportunities systems thatoffer opportunities for all students to participate in a performance-based education and training program." As a result of that act, schools across the country instituted programs designed to actively prepare students for the future job market.


Passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act was based in part on Congressional findings that:

  • In 1992, approximately 3,400,000 U.S. youths aged 16 through 24 (representing 11 percent of that population) had not completed high school and were not currently enrolled in school.
  • Seventy-five percent of U.S. youths do not graduate from college.
  • Heightened international competition and new technologies have lessened the demand for, and shrunk the earning power of, unskilled laborers.
  • Students learn better and retain more when they learn in context rather than in the abstract.

In addition, national studies reported that:

  • More than 50 percent of employers in the United States say they can't find qualified applicants for entry-level positions.
  • U.S. employers say that 20 percent of their workers are not fully proficient in their jobs.
  • U.S. businesses spend nearly $30 billion a year training and retraining their employees.
  • U.S. employers do not rely on public educational institutions for training their employees.

In short, students did not see a connection between the classroom and the workplace, and few schools or businesses were providing that connection. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act was an attempt to address those issues.


The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 did not establish a program for career-based education. Rather it provided the funds that allowed states to develop their own programs. Consequently, though many programs shared common elements, each was unique and each was determined by the needs of its own students. Some school-to-work programs focused on teacher training, technology education, or the use of technology for distance learning. Others provided direct student instruction, including specific career information and the administration of interest and ability inventories. Many provided those resources as well as work-based activities and employment opportunities.

The National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center cited some exemplary school-based and community-based programs that represented the various types of experiences available to students. They included --

  • Oregon's Montrose and Olathe Chambers of Commerce "Adopt-a-classroom" program linked third- and fourth-grade classes in seven elementary schools with community employers in a variety of industries to develop awareness of careers in those industries. For example, a local bank sponsored a tour of the bank and sent employees -- including tellers, the CEO, the head of security, loan officers, and maintenance workers -- to the school to share information about their backgrounds and responsibilities with students. The Water Users Association invited science students to see where their water comes from and how irrigation works.
  • Winston Churchill High School in Eugene, Oregon, established Lancer Communications, a technology-based student corporation. Businesses within the corporation included a Video Production/Duplication Division, which provided multimedia and production services; a Radio/TV Division, which broadcast through a local radio station; a Community Service Division, which maintained the school's computers and provided Web page development for local non- profit organizations; a Graphic Communications Design Division, which produced the school newspaper and yearbook and participated in real client projects; and a Computer Refurbishing Division, which tested, refurbished, and inventoried computers for the county.
  • Shawnee High School's Aviation Magnet in Louisville, Kentucky, provided students with opportunities to fly planes, arrange travel reservations, calculate flight patterns and time zones, run a cruise ship, and repair technical equipment as they learned the concepts and concerns of their chosen field. Students in the Aviation program participated in flight training and could earn a Federal Aviation Administration Certified Pilot's License or Federal Communications Commission License. Students in Travel & Tourism participated in domestic and international internships in which they were responsible for all aspects of hotel, travel agency, and cruise-ship operations.
  • The Alamo Navajo Community School in Magdalena, New Mexico, maintained a school-to-work program encompassing all the grades. Students in grades K-5 participated in career awareness activities in the classroom, field trips to local organizations, and an annual career fair. Students in grades 6-8 completed an interest inventory, developed a plan for career preparation, and rotated through various areas relating to their career path. Eighth graders also took a class on career skills. High school students participated in school-based enterprises, summer youth programs, and paid after-school service projects. First-semester seniors also took a mandatory Life Communication class which dealt with job readiness, placement skills, consumer education, interviewing skills, time management, and general life skills.
  • The Fox Cities Alliance for Education in Appleton, Wisconsin, managed The Career Connection, a career exploration center, located in a local shopping mall. The facility provided computer workstations and VCRs, videos, books, software programs, games, and CD-ROMs. The Center, targeted at students ages 12 to 21, was open during the school day, two evenings a week, and Saturdays. The Center also provided an outreach program, which brought games and learning activities into area classrooms.
  • The Back to Industry project in Marion, North Carolina, provided summer internships for teachers and counselors in McDowell County schools. The internships allowed teachers and counselors to observe workplace skills, discover employer expectations, learn about entry-level job requirements, study team-building strategies, and observe leadership and communication skills -- and then to develop curriculum to integrate those requirements into their academic and vocational lessons.


Whatever form they took, all school-to-work programs were directed toward helping young people see a connection between their performance in school and the opportunities that available to them after graduation. Not all components of the programs were greeted with equal enthusiasm, however. Some parents claimed that, by the use of interest and ability inventories, school-to-work directed students into careers they did not want or would not enjoy. Others claimed that the programs encouraged students to make career decisions too early, thus forcing them into educational paths that could make later, different decisions difficult. Labor leaders warned that school-to-work programs focused on the needs of businesses and ignored the rights of workers. And some educators feared that a curriculum based too-rigidly on career skills robbed students of knowledge and activities that foster their growth as individuals and as citizens of a free society.

Despite those objections, the overwhelming majority of Americans who knew about school-to-work programs appeared to support them. A nationwide poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, a workforce training research group, found that three-fourths of those who knew about the school-to-work initiative were in favor of it. And 96 percent of respondents to a survey on education and workforce issues believed "a system of education that would provide a strong academic foundation for every student, hands-on learning experiences, and a learning opportunity for every student to practice what he/she learns in a work-based setting to be desirable."

Early reports on the success of several school-to-work programs appeared to support that viewpoint. A study of high school students in Philadelphia found that students involved in their school-to-work program achieved higher GPA standings than students not involved. And Boston students who participated in that city's program were found to have a higher employment rate and higher earnings after graduation than students who did not participate.

The students themselves agreed. More than 90 percent of teens who participated in a Teen Attitudes Toward Work survey said school would be more interesting and meaningful if it were taught in connection with careers.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Updated 1/19/2005