Revitalizing High Schools: What the School-to-Career Movement Can Contribute

Article excerpt

The authors propose a school-to-career approach that is inseparable from a strategy for high school reform. They feel that this proposal, which is based on their research and experience assisting schools, can accommodate the rising ambitions of adolescents and can also carry the reform banner of contextual experiential learning further into the schools.

Much of the recent impetus for improving the transition from school to work has come from outside the schools. Employers concerned about the quality of entry-level employees have been active proponents, as have policy makers and analysts from fields outside education, particularly economic development and employment and training. Often drawing international comparisons, these observers argue that economic well-being depends increasingly on the quality of human resources and that our nation cannot afford to act as if only those competing for entry into four-year colleges need a rigorous high school education.

Promotion of this reform strategy by "outsiders" has prompted resistance in some quarters. Teachers of academic disciplines fear that moving toward a more applied, project-based curriculum and having students spend significant time outside the classroom will make it impossible to cover the required curriculum. Many within the vocational education community see a threat to their jobs and fear that they will be asked to add academic rigor to their courses that goes beyond their training. Some administrators are concerned about spending scarce time and resources on "boutique" programs that do not help them achieve their primary goal of creating a schoolwide environment conducive to high-quality learning. Moreover, throughout public education, there tends to be an ambivalence about the vocational purposes of schooling and a fear that an increased focus on occupation-oriented learning might compromise academic standards and achievement.

At the same time, though, the school-to-career approach(1) resonates well with some of the most promising and energetic reform movements within public education. This strategy is consistent with the desire to move away from the "shopping mall high school" and toward a more coherent and integrated curriculum. It strengthens the argument for elimination of the general track, which prepares young people neither for college nor for productive work. School-to-career strategies encourage breaking high schools into smaller learning communities. They are consistent with the use by magnet schools and charter schools of thematic approaches for organizing instruction. The pedagogy of school-to-career strategies - emphasizing project-based instruction, active and experiential learning, and the shift to "teacher as coach, student as worker" - is also in line with current reform movements.

In fact, in a growing number of communities, superintendents and other district leaders are seizing on the potential for using the school-to-career notion as a lever for serious, systemic education reform. In Boston, Oakland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, the school-to-career approach - characterized by the integration of academic and vocational learning, an emphasis on closer links between schools and employers, the design of learning experiences outside the classroom, and the use of careers and occupational clusters as a way to organize the high school curriculum - is emerging as a strategy for restructuring the high school experience so as to better prepare young people for both academic and occupational advancement. National networks involving hundreds of urban, suburban, and rural schools and districts - including the Hands and Minds Collaborative of the Center for Law and Education, the Benchmark Communities Initiative of Jobs for the Future, the urban Schools Network of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the network of the National Academy Foundation, and the High Schools That Work Initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board - are advancing parts or all of this agenda. …

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