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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

School-to-Work: Present and the Future

A conversation with Richard Kazis, senior vice president of Jobs for the Future.
By Richard Kazis

Richard Kazis, Senior Vice President of Jobs for the Future

This article is adapted from an interview conducted in April 2001.

Q. School-to-work advocates cite many benefits: increased student engagement in school, increased motivation to study, easier transitions to the working world, increased financial security for future efforts to attend college. There are many more. What is the most important justification for school-to-work programs for you, and why?

For so many high school students in this country, motivation is the biggest block to success. It is true that many young people have learning deficits that hold them back from economic and career success. But how can we hope to boost learning without a key that unlocks motivation -- through interaction with caring and competent adults, responsibilities that are real and are rewarded, mastery of different kinds of skills, opportunities for leadership, and demonstration of competencies not valued in traditional classrooms?

School-to-work is not the only way to help young people become motivated -- for some, a focused, demanding academic course can work; for others, community service might do it. But I have seen enough young people check in through these programs after years of checking out that there is no doubt that something important is going on.

I think that the programs that will most embody the values and principles of school-to-work in the coming years will be small career academies that are multi-year efforts to personalize high school education and provide focus by "learning through careers," as John Dewey wrote long ago. There will be learning programs that recognize that, for many young people, "schools can't do it alone."

Q. What do you think will happen when the current federal funding for school-to-work runs out? What should happen? Some states have passed bills to fill the gap. Is it better if the states do this?

When federal funds run out, as they have already done in some states, only a few states will try to sustain school-to-work as such -- and they will not do so with resources anywhere near the level that federal funding provided at its height. A few states, including Massachusetts, California, and Michigan, have dedicated resources to sustaining aspects of school-to-work. But in most states, school-to-work as a discrete effort will go the way of other, time-limited federal initiatives.

That said, the kind of experimentation and innovation that led to passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 in the first place -- local innovation designed to update career education, improve the relationship between schools and local employers, and motivate young people through a taste of responsibility in the real world -- will continue. It may have a different name; it may be done primarily through career academy models, small-schools initiatives, and other high-school-level innovations. The innovators may not even see themselves as descendants of the school-to-work family tree. But there will continue to be efforts that look a lot like school-to-work.

Except in those districts that make a significant budgetary commitment to do things differently, what will likely fade away is the level of energy and collaboration -- the thick connections -- between schools and community resources that developed as local businesses engaged with school districts and crafted initiatives that served their particular needs. It will be harder for work-based learning efforts to continue to grow and harder to sustain and improve the quality of the learning experiences provided outside the classroom.

Q. What do you think of critics who say school-to-work programs distract from efforts to raise educational standards and cite studies showing that school-to-work does not raise test scores?

The arguments against school-to-work are unconvincing. Our ultimate goal in high school education should be to ensure that all young people have a decent shot at a good career or at further education. Whether we can raise single test scores a few points may not be the best measure of how well schools are preparing young people to achieve their longer-term goals.

There is, of course, great variation in quality and effectiveness among school-to-work efforts, as in all reform efforts; but what impresses me about solid school-to-work programs is their ability to help kids who were unlikely to get into or succeed in college or careers -- help them to be better prepared for the future, make sounder decisions about their lives, pursue postsecondary learning, and advance.

The ultimate test is not what happens to people in tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade; it's where they end up ten years out. What kind of life are they leading? What choices have they made and what choices do they have? Until we have longitudinal evidence on where different kids end up, I wouldn't judge a program's success or failure on the basis of test-taking by participants.

It does not surprise me that programs in which the primary focus is not standardized tests have greater trouble raising test scores. But I think the evidence on attendance, motivation, course selection, and, in particular, college-going speak well for the school-to-work approach to secondary school learning. This is not an argument for complacency: too many programs have emphasized work connections to the exclusion of accelerated academic achievement. However, it is a plea not to jettison prematurely one of the few approaches to high school reform that has been able to excite young people, teachers, employers, and other community stakeholders.

Reprinted with permission from Jobs for the Future.

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