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

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

On May 4, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the 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. Now, Education World offers you a look at some of those results.


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.

Today, school-to-work programs are operating in every state in the union. A recent employer survey, conducted by the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, found that 25 percent of U.S. businesses are now involved in school-to-work partnerships and that more than 90 percent of those businesses are providing students with onsite learning experiences, such as job shadowing, mentoring, internship, and apprenticeship programs. In addition, classroom activities now include career awareness lessons and community speakers, aptitude and interest testing, student-run enterprises, and career-based curricula, as well as technology education and character education that emphasized the development of interpersonal skills and the ability to work as a team.


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

The National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center cites some exemplary school-based and community-based programs which represent the various types of experiences available to students. They include --

  • Oregon's Montrose and Olathe Chambers of Commerce "Adopt-a-classroom" program links 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, has established Lancer Communications, a technology-based student corporation. Businesses within the corporation include a Video Production/Duplication Division, which provides multimedia and production services; a Radio/TV Division, which broadcasts through a local radio station; a Community Service Division, which maintains the school's computers and provides Web page development for local non- profit organizations; a Graphic Communications Design Division, which produces the school newspaper and yearbook and participates in real client projects; and a Computer Refurbishing Division, which tests, refurbishes, and inventories computers for the county.
  • Shawnee High School's Aviation Magnet in Louisville, Kentucky, provides 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 learn the concepts and concerns of their chosen field. Students in the Aviation program participate in flight training and can earn a Federal Aviation Administration Certified Pilot's License or Federal Communications Commission License. Students in Travel & Tourism participate in domestic and international internships in which they are responsible for all aspects of hotel, travel agency, and cruise-ship operations.
  • The Alamo Navajo Community School in Magdalena, New Mexico, maintains a school-to-work program encompassing all the grades. Students in grades K-5 participate in career awareness activities in the classroom, field trips to local organizations, and an annual career fair. Students in grades 6-8 complete an interest inventory, develop a plan for career preparation, and rotate through various areas relating to their career path. Eighth graders also take a class on career skills. High school students participate in school-based enterprises, summer youth programs, and paid after-school service projects. First-semester seniors also take a mandatory Life Communication class which deals with job readiness, placement skills, consumer education, interviewing skills, time management, and general life skills.
  • The Fox Cities Alliance for Education in Appleton, Wisconsin, manages The Career Connection, a career exploration center, located in a local shopping mall. The facility provides computer workstations and VCRs, videos, books, software programs, games, and CD-ROMs. The Center, targeted at students ages 12 to 21, is open during the school day, two evenings a week, and Saturdays. The Center also provides an outreach program, which brings games and learning activities into area classrooms.
  • The Back to Industry project in Marion, North Carolina, provides summer internships for teachers and counselors in McDowell County schools. The internships allow the 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 take, all school-to-work programs are directed toward helping young people see a connection between their performance in school and the opportunities that will be available to them after they graduate. Not all components of the programs have been greeted with equal enthusiasm, however. Some parents claim that, by the use of interest and ability inventories, school-to-work directs students into careers they did not want or will not enjoy. Others claim that the programs encourage students to make career decisions too early, thus forcing them into educational paths that might make later, different decisions difficult. Labor leaders warn that school-to-work programs focus on the needs of businesses and ignore the rights of workers. And some educators fear that a curriculum based too-rigidly on career skills robs 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 know about school-to-work programs appear to support them. A recent 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 appear 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 agree. 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.


Part 2 of this story focuses on a handful of successful Florida School-to-Work programs that work! Watch for this Education World story in the weeks ahead.

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Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 1998 Education World

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