Aaron Javian*

Abstract:  The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (STWOA) encouraged schools across the country to implement educational curricula that explicitly linked the worlds of school and work. Legislators hoped that integrating work-based learning with traditional classroom instruction would make education more relevant to all students. This Note examines whether STWOA succeeded in encouraging schools to integrate school-to-work programs into traditional classroom instruction. In particular, it explores school-to-work programs in Massachusetts to determine their effect on minority and low-income students. Although STWOA has largely failed to integrate work-based programs into the mainstream of educational curricula nationwide, this Note contends that STWOA helped to catalyze the implementation of school-to-work programs in key school districts such as Boston. After evaluating the benefits of work-based curricula to students in general and minority and low-income students in particular, this Note concludes that the federal government should reauthorize funding to school districts that have shown a commitment to school-to-work education.


Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau consistently demonstrate that, on average, the earnings of working Americans increase with their level of educational attainment.1 Moreover, the impact of educational attainment on the earning capacity of American workers has increased [*PG334]over time.2 For example, the difference in earnings between workers with advanced degrees and high school graduates increased by over 40% from 1975 to 1999, with advanced degree holders currently earning an average of 2.6 times more than high school graduates.3

The numerical relationship between educational attainment and earnings is clear, but for too many Americans, particularly minorities and the poor, diminished expectations4 and fewer job opportunities5 have obscured the connection between education and future earnings. Census statistics indicate that race is a significant factor in the American education system.6 In terms of educational attainment, white Americans consistently achieve higher levels of education than blacks and people of Hispanic origin.7 In 2000, 88% of white Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 had graduated from high school;8 only 79% of blacks and 57% of Hispanics had done so.9 In terms of earnings, white Americans earned, on average, more than their similarly situated black and Hispanic counterparts at every level of educational attainment.10 Moreover, although more education generally leads to higher earnings, in 2000, only 26% of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 had completed a four-year college degree.11

In a macroeconomic environment that places a premium on highly skilled workers,12 secondary school, for the vast majority of Americans, provides one of the last formal opportunities to acquire the skills needed for success in the workforce.13 More importantly, since so many Americans do not pursue higher education, secondary school represents the last chance to demonstrate to all students the relationship between educational attainment and future earnings.14 In order to clarify the connection between school and work and in response to the perception that Americans too often entered the workforce without the basic skills they needed, Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) in 1994.15 STWOA, which was enacted with bipartisan support, created a national program that provided states with the “seed” money necessary to integrate workplace learning into the educational curriculum.16 The Act authorized federal outlays to participating states through 2001.17

Now, ten years after its passage, this Note examines whether STWOA has succeeded in encouraging states to integrate school-to-work curricula into their systems of secondary education. In particular, this Note explores school-to-work programs in Massachusetts to determine how these programs have affected minority and low-income students.18 This Note contends that although STWOA encouraged schools to offer more work-related curricula, it has largely failed to integrate work-based learning into students’ academic experience on the national level.19 In Boston, however, STWOA proved to be an effective catalyst for the city-wide implementation of school-to-work curricula.20 Boston’s school-to-work curricula have improved the workplace and academic skills of participating students, particularly among low-income and minority students,21 offering a promising example of the potential for school-to-work education to benefit students and their surrounding communities.22 In order for other school districts to replicate Boston’s school-to-work experience, the federal government should (1) ensure that school districts hire learning coordinators to integrate school-to-work curricula with community partners, (2) provide a stable source of funding to districts demonstrating a commitment to school-to-work education, and (3) promote [*PG336][*PG335]accountability by requiring states to monitor the progress of school-to-work participants.23

Part I provides a broad introduction to the federal, state, and local role in the public education system as well as background information regarding the School-to-Work Opportunities Act.24 Part II discusses in greater depth Massachusetts’ implementation of the Act with respect to minority and low-income students.25 Part III explores the efficacy of school-to-career education curricula in Massachusetts specifically and across the country more generally.26 Part IV concludes with policy recommendations on ways to improve school-to-work programs to prepare low income and minority students either to obtain post-secondary school education or to enter the workforce.27

I.  The School-to-Work Opportunities Act in Context

A.  The Legal Framework: Local, State and Federal Roles
in Administering Education Policy

STWOA combined the federal government’s previously distinct approaches to education policy on one hand, and job-training policy on the other, in order to integrate more fully the lessons of the work environment into the classroom.28 STWOA empowered state and local governments to design and implement programs that satisfied the Act’s broad goals of promoting career awareness and the development of workplace skills.29 Depending on whether one characterizes STWOA as primarily an education or a job training policy, the statute’s high degree of state and local autonomy reflects either traditional federal deference to state and local concerns in the name of education or a noteworthy departure from a pattern of federal oversight of job training.30

Historically, the federal government has played a subordinate role in matters of education, often supplementing and supporting state and local initiatives to improve schools.31 While the Constitution does not explicitly elucidate government’s responsibility over education, constitutional boundaries have nonetheless defined the federal role.32 The Supreme Court has generally interpreted the first clause of Article I, Section 8, which grants Congress the power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the general welfare,33 to include the congressional power to provide states with conditional funding for education.34 Pursuant to the Tenth Amendment, however, which reserves for the states all powers not delegated to the federal government, the Court has never recognized, nor has Congress ever claimed, the power to control educational curricula directly.35 Notably, the act creating the modern-day U.S. Department of Education expressly disavowed the notion of federal control over educational curricula, stating that “[n]o provision of a program administered by the Secretary . . . shall be construed to authorize the Secretary . . . to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, [or] administration . . . of any educational institution, school, or school system.”36

Although the Constitution does not require states to offer a free system of public education for their residents,37 as a practical matter, all states do offer such a system.38 Decisions regarding the provision and availability of public education to all of a state’s residents, including the allocation of funds among various school districts within a state, are nevertheless subject to constitutional scrutiny under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.39 In addition to scrutiny on the federal constitutional level, is[*PG338][*PG337]sues regarding the provision of public education may also raise claims under state constitutions.40

In Massachusetts, for example, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education that the Commonwealth has a duty under the state constitution to “provide an education [to] all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town . . . at the public school level.”41 Moreover, the court concluded that “[t]his duty lies squarely on the executive . . . and legislative branches of this Commonwealth.”42 According to the court, the Commonwealth failed to meet its obligation because the education afforded to sixteen public school children from sixteen cash-poor school districts was so inadequate that it did not satisfy minimum constitutional standards for the provision of public education.43 McDuffy, therefore, holds that Massachusetts will fulfill its duty to provide public education to all children only when every public school student has the opportunity to obtain an “adequate” education.44

The adequate education standard, however, has raised a number of unresolved issues.45 Foremost among them is the extent to which the court will tolerate inter-district differences in the quality or adequacy of education in Massachusetts.46 On its face, the application of a pure “adequacy” standard suggests that inter-district differences in the quality of education are constitutional so long as each district individually provides its students with a satisfactory baseline of educational opportunities.47 As the facts in McDuffy bear out, however, the decision over whether a school district provides its students with an “adequate” education necessarily involves substantive comparisons between wealthy and poor school districts.48 It remains to be seen whether the application of the adequacy standard will continue to affirm the constitutionality of disparities between wealthy and poor districts.49

In terms of contributing actual dollars to schools, the federal government has traditionally played a limited role.50 The General Accounting Office reported that in fiscal year (FY) 1997, federal funding accounted for only 6.8% of total education funding, compared with 47.6% provided by states and 45.6% provided by local governments.51 In FY 1997, the federal government spent approximately $37 billion on elementary and secondary education.52 In that year, Congress authorized approximately $400 million under STWOA.53 From 1994 through 2001, Congress allocated a total of $2.3 billion to states under [*PG340][*PG339]STWOA,54 which represented only 6.2% of the federal expenditures on public education in FY 1997 alone.55

While the federal government’s influence over educational curricula has been somewhat circumscribed by constitutional constraints and the primary role of the states, federal influence over job-training programs has historically been more sweeping because of the close relationship between job-training programs and the commerce clause, Article I,  8.56 Programs designed to teach adults practical, employment-related skills are likely to fall within “those activities [that have] a substantial relation to interstate commerce.”57

From the 1960s and the passage of the Manpower Development and Training Act58 through the 1980s and 1990s and the passage of the Job Training Partnership Act59 (JTPA), the federal government has provided the majority of its job training programs using federal funds subject to federal administrative oversight.60 Federal job training initiatives often provide skills and training akin to those taught in vocational education programs.61 Job training initiatives, however, unlike education programs, which tend to reach children across socio-economic class, are usually narrowly targeted to individuals who are either unemployed or poor because federal job training programs have customarily sought to reduce poverty.62 Moreover, federal job training programs tend to be relatively brief, typically several weeks in duration, compared to education programs, which span many years.63 This difference can be explained, in part, by the relatively narrow scope of job training programs, which aim simply to prepare participants for work.64 Education programs, in contrast, encompass broad goals such as intellectual, moral, and political development, as well as furthering occupational ends.65

As the political environment shifted away from the large, federal programs of the Johnson years, the emphasis of job programs changed from public sector employment to private sector job placement.66 Under the JTPA, for example, job training programs were run not by local governments but by local Private Industry Councils (PICs) comprised of representatives from the local private sector.67 These PICs exercised a great deal of discretion in determining which type of job placements would be most beneficial to local employers.68

STWOA represents a melding of the federal educational and job training paradigms.69 Under STWOA, Congress called upon state and local governments to promote partnerships between schools and employers and to develop a curriculum to enhance the connection between participating employers and students.70 STWOA encourages states to use PICs, which have already forged ties with local employers in designing and implementing school-to-work curricula.71 Moreover, by providing exposure to the workplace through educational curricula, STWOA not only extended the duration of traditional job training programs,72 but also broadened the potential beneficiaries to include more affluent individuals.73 STWOA, therefore, necessitated the integration of existing state and federal channels for administering education and job training to the population.74

[*PG342][*PG341]B.  Congressional Intent

Congress passed STWOA with bipartisan support in 1994 to help prepare young people for their careers and to enhance the productivity of the American workforce.75 STWOA’s approach to work-based learning generally followed the “youth apprenticeship” model, which encourages school systems to develop school-to-work transition systems for career orientation, academic and occupational education, high school and postsecondary schooling, work-based learning, and skill credentialing.76 STWOA divided these elements into three major components: (1) school-based learning; (2) work-based learning; and (3) connecting activities.77 School-based learning consists of counseling interested students beginning no later than seventh grade on potential career paths.78 Work-based learning entails on-site job-training and workplace mentoring.79 Connecting activities involve encouraging employers to participate in school-to-work programs and matching students with the most appropriate work-based learning opportunities offered by employers.80

Although Congress broadly outlined the type of programs STWOA was meant to encourage, Congress gave individual states the ultimate authority to design and implement the type of school-to-work curricula that best fit the unique needs of their students and local communities.81 Congress authorized a $300 million appropriation to the Department of Education for distribution to the states in FY 1995 as well as additional amounts as necessary for FY 1996 through 1999.82 The Act stipulated that a majority of federal dollars should be allocated directly to states that submitted approved plans of action for implementing school-to-work curricula.83

In determining the amount to award individual states, STWOA gave priority to states whose applications displayed the highest level of collaboration between governmental actors and private sector employers.84 The statute also gave priority to applications that featured paid, high-quality, work-based learning experiences as an integral part of the school-to-work system.85 Moreover, the Act required states to provide opportunities for a diverse array of students, including students from low-income families, students with limited English proficiency, low-achieving students, school dropouts, and academically-talented students.86

Congress envisioned the federal government as a quasi venture capitalist, distributing money necessary to encourage states to start up school-to-work programs and then leaving the continued operation of such programs up to states and localities.87 Once initiated, Congress intended state school-to-work programs to continue indefinitely, providing the long-term benefits of an increasingly skilled workforce, such as productivity gains and a more hospitable business climate.88

In order to ensure compliance with its stated goals, STWOA contained provisions requiring states to provide progress reports when requested by the Secretary of Education.89 STWOA conditioned government grants upon a state’s ability to demonstrate that it provided interested students the opportunity to connect with local employers.90 In addition, Congress required states to implement STWOA in accordance with the guidelines contained in the National Skills Standard Act of 1994 and the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Goals 2000 Act), which encourage states and local school districts to recognize the con[*PG344][*PG343]nection between curriculum and instructional materials, assessment practices, and professional development.91

At the time of its passage, STWOA appealed to political conservatives and liberals alike.92 First, by encouraging partnerships between schools and employers, it simultaneously furthered the interests of students seeking greater opportunities and businesses seeking competent new hires.93 Second, because STWOA provided a substantial amount of federal funds to states in a way that gave them the flexibility to design their own school-to-work programs, it appealed both to advocates of local control and believers in the federal role in shaping educational trends.94 Moreover, by targeting all students instead of singling out particularly needy groups, STWOA short-circuited criticism from the Right that it amounted to inappropriate redistribution of wealth and from the Left that it would stigmatize participants and prematurely discourage them from continuing their education.95 In short, a cursory review of the statutory construction suggests that STWOA means any number of different things to any number of different interest groups.96 Despite its potentially broad-based appeal, however, STWOA never became a catalyst for systemic change in national education policy, as its architects had hoped.97

C.  STWOA’s Legislative Backdrop

STWOA was frequently overshadowed by other federal education initiatives.98 For example, STWOA’s emphasis on teaching students “real world” knowledge departed from the approach of the majority of federal education programs that promoted teaching static knowledge, or basic academic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic in the classroom.99 In addition, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA),100 passed in 1965 and periodically reauthorized by Congress, provides the most substantial source of federal funding for public education.101 The ESEA is the prime legislative tool through which the federal government engages in “standards-based” reform,102 which seeks to raise student performance and maintain accountability for schools and teachers by measuring students’ performance on objective examinations.103 Because student acquisition of static knowledge, as a practical matter, is easier to test than acquisition of applied knowledge, programs that focus on enhancing applied skills, such as STWOA, do not readily lend themselves to the type of monitoring and testing required under the politically popular standards-based approach.104

The text of STWOA indicates the prevalence of the standards-based approach by repeatedly referring to the Goals 2000 Act.105 As discussed above, Goals 2000 promoted the development of a measurable national system of skill standards and certifications in public education.106 Various provisions of STWOA, including the design of state school-to-work plans and the content of school-based learning components, were only to be implemented in accordance with the standards set out in the text of the Goals 2000 legislation.107 The tension between the standards-based model of education reforms and the experiential-[*PG346][*PG345]learning model has created a legislative environment that is less hospitable for school-to-work programs implemented under STWOA.108

II.  Implementation of STWOA

Perhaps, in part, because of the less hospitable climate that pervaded Congress and the states following STWOA’s adoption, the statute has, for the most part, failed to bring about meaningful school-to-work education on a national scale.109 Too often, when schools across the county implemented school-to-work curricula, they did not devote sufficient resources to creating connecting activities that linked students with local employers.110 As a result, school-to-work curricula in these communities failed to become a significant part of students’ academic experience.111

The school-to-work experience in Massachusetts, and particularly in Boston, however, diverged from the less promising national trend.112 School-to-work education has flourished in Boston, even amidst increased calls for accountability among students, teachers, and schools.113 Consequently, the Boston Public Schools’ experience with school-to-work education serves as a unique but promising indication of the potential for success of school-to-work education.114

A.  The National Experience

Although the passage of STWOA has increased the number of secondary schools nationwide that offer school-to-work related activities, few of these programs have afforded the type of coordination between schools and local businesses envisioned by STWOA.115 In its 2001 annual report, the National School-to-Work Office indicated that a vast majority of responding schools (81% in 1999) offered work-related curricula in the classroom setting, which frequently took the place of external work opportunities.116 These curricula, which are modeled on real, working-world problems,117 are relatively easy to implement because they require very little coordination outside of the classroom.118 Although the spirit of the school-to-work movement certainly informs work-related curricula, schools often use work-related curricula as an excuse not to match students with community employers, which provide first-hand work opportunities as part of the educational experience.119

Compared with the percentage of schools that provide school-based, work-related curricula, far fewer schools provided students with the option to engage in work-based learning.120 For example, 43% of schools provided mentors and 15% placed students in apprenticeship programs in surrounding communities.121 Moreover, the national percentage of students who actually participated in these programs was negligible.122 Just three percent of students nationally participated in mentoring programs and less than one tenth of one percent of students participated in apprenticeship programs.123

Across the country, school districts showed different levels of interest in pursuing school-to-work education.124 Predictably, schools offering more school-to-work programs established stronger partnerships with local employers than schools engaging in fewer school-to-work initiatives.125 Schools that succeeded in forging community partnerships [*PG348][*PG347]created paid positions for school-to-work program coordinators, encouraged teachers to engage in connecting activities with local businesses, allowed employers to help design work-related curricula, and took into account employer feedback in evaluating student performance.126

One commentator’s multivariate analysis of the effects of school characteristics on the level of school-to-work involvement reveals that several characteristics (such as school size and location) have affected the intensity of school-to-work offerings, as measured by the degree of student, school, and community involvement.127 Most significantly, the intensity of school-to-work offerings was highly correlated with the size of the school.128 Moreover, a school’s location in the South and the Midwest was significantly correlated with increased levels of school-to-work intensity.129 Holding all variables equal, vocational, technical, and career academy schools were more likely to provide intensive school-to-work education than other schools.130 Interestingly, a school’s location in an urban or rural environment did not significantly affect the intensity of its school-to-work offerings, nor did characteristics such as student-teacher ratio, student-computer ratio, or graduation rates.131

The percentage of minority students, however, negatively affected the intensity of school-to-work offerings; in other words, minority students were less likely to be exposed to a broad array of school-to-work offerings.132 Although the relationship was not strong, one interpretation of this result is that poor schools, where minority students are more likely to be concentrated, have more difficulty affording school-to-work programs.133 Another interpretation is that schools with significant minority populations choose to focus on more traditional aspects of the curriculum.134

Given the discretion left to state and local communities by STWOA to design and implement school-to-work related programs, there has been considerable variance in the type and intensity of school-to-work programs implemented across the country.135 An overview of the type of work-based programs implemented nationwide reveals a range in intensity of student involvement from job-shadowing, where students observe adults at work, to internships and apprenticeships, where students learn and apply skills in both the classroom and the workplace.136 School-based enterprises provide another work-based learning strategy that allows students to learn about a business by actually operating one.137

In order for intensive, school-to-work offerings to be successful, work-based alternatives must match student preferences with existing employer needs and community resources.138 Since the local economic environment is beyond the control of school personnel, administrators must be proactive in forging relationships with the community sufficient to sustain meaningful work-based education.139 Moreover, educators and administrators must be willing to come up with creative financing schemes that draw upon public and private money in order to continue school-to-work activities in the absence of targeted federal funds.140 Finally, educators and administrators must be able to craft a work-based educational curriculum that reinforces skills tested on standardized exams in order for school-to-work to remain a politically viable education reform.141 A detailed examination of the way schools in [*PG350][*PG349]the Boston area have confronted some of these challenges in attempting to implement school-to-work programs will shed light on ways to improve the system.142

B.  The Massachusetts Experience

School-to-work education has had a long history in Massachusetts, far longer than the period during which federal grants have been available under STWOA.143 For example, the Boston Compact, an agreement between business leaders, higher education institutions, and Boston Public Schools to improve educational and employment prospects for Boston’s students, laid the foundation for present day school-to-work education in 1982.144 Thus, when STWOA passed in 1994, the Boston Public School system was already well-positioned to avail itself of the partnerships it had forged with local businesses and institutions of higher learning.145

Following the passage of STWOA, employers amended the Compact by promising to support the implementation of a structured, work-based learning curriculum.146 To that end, the Boston PIC, a partnership of business, government, labor, and community leaders charged with implementing the Compact,147 placed school-to-career coordinators at four high schools identified as having the most to benefit from work-based learning education.148 The Boston Public School system signaled its support for the school-to-career initiative by assuming the salaries of the school-to-career coordinators.149 In addition, the school district created a high-level leadership position, the School-to-Career Director, charged with overseeing the coordinators and advocating for implementation of school-to-career programs at other secondary schools.150

The willingness of local employers and educational institutions to engage in school-to-work, coupled with Boston’s urban setting, offered an attractive environment in which to implement school-to-work programs.151 Boston’s health services industry provided a ready partner, as many of its major hospitals already integrated substantial teaching and training programs through affiliated medical schools.152 The financial services industry also participated in educational initiatives, as did Boston’s many colleges and universities.153

Boston Public Schools designated certain schools as pilot or flagship locations for work-based learning.154 This enabled the system to target funds into a small number of schools where administrators could learn the nuances of building successful school-to-career curricula.155 Brighton High School, one of the designated flagship schools, offers a glimpse of the potential for school-to-work programs in Massachusetts and beyond.156

Brighton High School is one of nineteen comprehensive public high schools in Boston.157 Its 1,105 students reflect greater racial di[*PG352][*PG351]versity than Boston as a whole.158 Brighton High School was one of the first secondary schools in Boston to provide school-to-work opportunities.159 In 1990, it collaborated with neighboring St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to provide medical industry internships for interested students.160 The internship, offered in tandem with two classes in the sciences, constituted the first “career pathways” program in the Boston Public School system.161

Building on its existing partnerships with the local community, and following the school’s receipt of a school-to-career coordinator through the Boston PIC, Brighton High School, in 1998, opted to provide career pathways to all of its students.162 Currently, the school offers four career pathways: law, government, and public service; school of health professions; media, arts, and communication; and business and technology.163 The program is designed to allow students to switch into different pathways each year so they may observe a broad range of careers before they graduate from high school.164

The health professions pathway is unique among those offered by Brighton High School in that the vast majority of students who matriculate remain in the program until graduation.165 Approximately 230 students are currently enrolled.166 In addition to core courses in english, history, math, and science, enrolled students are required to register for a competency course designed to strengthen the connection between academic instruction and work-based learning.167 In their sophomore year, students are expected to gain exposure to the health care industry by participating in field trips and job shadowing.168 In their junior year, students are selected to participate in twelve-week clinical assignments at local health care providers.169 Finally, by their senior year, students are matched with participating health care businesses for employment or internship opportunities.170 Participating businesses include Boston Medical Center, New England Medical Center, Genzyme, Wingate Rehabilitation Center, Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, and St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center.171

The law, government, and education pathway caters to students with interests from teaching, through programs such as TeachBoston,172 to the legal profession, through a partnership with the Boston law firm of Burns and Levinson.173 Brighton High School’s partnership with Burns and Levinson has been enormously successful in part because of the firm’s willingness to engage teachers in meaningful discussions about curricula and learning strategies.174 In addition to providing students with an opportunity to shadow lawyers and paralegals in their daily jobs, attorneys agreed, under the guidance of faculty, to train students to take part in state-wide mock trial competitions.175 Thus, approximately fifteen high-school seniors in the law and government career pathway now compete on Brighton High School’s mock trial team.176

[*PG354][*PG353] Brighton High School’s partnership with Burns and Levinson has been particularly fruitful not only because of the career-based learning opportunities the firm has provided, but also because of its attorneys’ willingness to help students prepare for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). This exam, which all public high school students in the Commonwealth must pass to graduate serves as one basis of accountability for students, schools, and school districts.177 Teachers often have difficulty teaching basic skills and exposing students to a variety of career settings; meeting standardized exam goals can itself become an all-consuming challenge, especially in inner city schools.178 The more time that teachers spend “teaching to the test,” the less time they have to combat student disengagement by working to make school more relevant to struggling students.179 Brighton High School’s partnership with Burns and Levinson helps to address this dilemma wholly within the context of school-to-work education by reinforcing students’ relationships with employers while facilitating their acquisition of testable skills.180

Brighton High School’s other two career pathways expose students to media, arts, and communication, and business and technology.181 The media, arts and communication pathway provides students the opportunity to learn oral, written and visual communication skills through hands-on activities ranging from producing student performances to interning with local media outlets.182 The business and technology career pathway is divided into a business cluster, where students learn the skills they would need to create and run their own businesses, and a technology cluster, where students learn the technical skills to solve complex, real-world problems.183

Several other Boston high schools offer additional career pathways programs.184 These include construction, transportation and design, environmental and agricultural sciences, hospitality, and tourism and recreation.185 In all, these seven pathways represent the overarching manner in which schools within the Boston School District have successfully begun to implement school-to-career education.186

In order to measure objectively the success of school-to-work curricula, the Massachusetts Department of Education articulated nine learning competencies that may be implicated depending on the type of school-to-career assignment.187 Employers, teachers, and program staffers identified and developed these competencies through their experiences with students in order to shape school-to-work assignments.188 The competencies emphasize the acquisition of individual and team skills as well as personal and professional development in the following categories: (1) communication and literacy, (2) organizing and analyzing, (3) problem solving, (4) using technology, (5) completing entire activities, (6) acting professionally, (7) interacting with others, (8) understanding all aspects of the industry, and (9) taking responsibility for career and life choices.189 Schools and employers offering school-to-career programs also must complete “work based learning plans,”190 which serve as a useful source of data to compare the effectiveness of disparate school-to-work programs.191

[*PG356][*PG355]III.  The Effectiveness of STWOA and School-to-Work Education

The efficacy of STWOA can be evaluated on a number of grounds.192 For example, even though Congress included all public secondary schoolchildren within the scope of the statute, STWOA was, in an important sense, an indirect form of anti-poverty legislation.193 By using the public school system to encourage students to participate actively in the working world, STWOA at least implicitly embraced the sociological hypothesis that a mismatch between the skills of the jobless and the skills necessary for employment explains much of the occurrence of poverty.194 Despite this underlying motivation, it would be unfair to judge the success of an indirect program like STWOA on whether it has led to an appreciable decline in poverty because the scope of the problem is so vast and the resources allocated to STWOA are, in comparison, so small.195

An alternative and seemingly less ambitious perspective from which to evaluate the success of STWOA is to measure whether it has had an appreciable effect on the early labor-market experiences of young adults.196 One reason that STWOA sought to create an integrated system of youth education, job training, and labor-market education was to reduce initial successions of “dead-end” jobs or periods of joblessness experienced by young adults at the onset of their working careers.197 Measuring the effectiveness of STWOA in this respect, however, is more complicated than it first might seem because of the difficulty of identifying and controlling for other relevant variables such as changing economic conditions and additional government programs that influence early work experience.198 Furthermore, there is considerable disagreement among industrial economists over whether promoting job stability in young adults is desirable given empirical evidence suggesting the benefits of early-career job shopping.199

A third perspective from which to evaluate the efficacy of STWOA is to examine whether school-to-work education as envisioned by the Act is beneficial to students, employers, and teachers in the local communities that choose to provide it.200 This approach entails a rough accounting of whether the benefits derived from school-to-work education outweigh the implementation and opportunity costs incurred.201 Although the research on this point is sometimes mixed, and despite the strong opposition of school-to-work detractors, school-to-work education arguably affects students positively in general and low-income and minority students in particular.202

Unfortunately, with the exception of regions such as Boston, which enjoyed significant support for school-to-work policies prior to the implementation of STWOA, the Act has not delivered on its promise of integrating work-based learning into the mainstream academic curriculum.203 Part of STWOA’s failure to take hold in the curriculum of reform-minded school systems can be attributed to criticism raised by vocal opponents to the statute, who began questioning the premise of the [*PG358][*PG357]law soon after it was passed.204 These critics have raised concerns that resonate with the fears and anxieties of many parents about their children.205 Certain criticisms, such as deriding STWOA as an improper intrusion by the federal government into state and local educational affairs, are ideological,206 while others, such as concern that STWOA would crowd out the teaching of basic skills, are rooted in philosophical differences over the purpose of education.207 As the Massachusetts experience and other structural features of STWOA demonstrate, however, school-to-work education can motivate students to learn while effectively preparing them for college and careers.

A.  The Case Against STWOA

Foremost among critiques of STWOA is the assertion that school-to-work education is incompatible with standards-based educational reform initiatives.208 Since STWOA was enacted in 1994, the most powerful movement in education reform has been state-led efforts to raise academic achievement through higher standards and greater accountability.209 The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which re-authorized the ESEA, provides a recent example of ongoing federal support for standards-based reform.210 The Act increased accountability by requiring states to test students in grades three through eight to assess their proficiency in reading and math and created school report cards to allow ready comparisons across schools.211

Opponents of school-to-work education argue that the type of skills learned in the workplace, such as time management and interpersonal skills, interfere with the teaching of basic reading and math skills that are stressed in proficiency exams.212 Unlike basic academic skills that may be defined and measured objectively, workplace competencies are often affective in nature and subjective in evaluation because students themselves take an active role in shaping what they learn.213 Moreover, there is no empirical support for the proposition that school-to-work education increases the academic achievement of students as measured by standardized test scores.214

Critics argue that school-to-work education fails to improve academic achievement because its underlying reliance on applied learning theory is flawed.215 In contrast to traditional teaching methods that focus on transmitting an accepted body of knowledge to students, school-to-work education emphasizes process-learning over content-learning by relying on students to attain workplace competencies through their experience in different workplace environments.216 Opponents argue that contextual or applied learning is therefore likely to be highly variable and uncertain.217 Thus, even if school-to-work programs attempted to incorporate basic skills in addition to workplace competencies, the procedural emphasis on applied learning prevents the universal and secure transmission of substantive knowledge.218

School-to-work opponents further charge that school-to-work education stems from a misapprehension of workplace needs.219 They argue that the business community’s dissatisfaction with recent high school graduates arises from their lack of basic skills and academic knowledge, not inadequate workplace skills.220 To the extent that students obtain workplace education in secondary school, they prematurely miss out on the benefits of liberal education, to the detriment of their future employers.221 In addition, preliminary research suggests that the adult labor market outcomes of school-to-work alumni are un[*PG360][*PG359]related to their early labor market experiences, casting doubt over the lasting benefits of the school-to-work experience.222 Only a solid grounding in fundamental skills, say critics, will enable students to adapt to rapidly changing business environments in the long term.223

School-to-work opponents also fear that the proliferation of partnerships between schools and local businesses could allow businesses to capture public education for their private benefit.224 They argue that the local labor market should not dictate academic curricula because schoolchildren should be encouraged to become thinkers rather than workers.225 Moreover, to the extent that schools and local businesses select the industries suitable for school-to-work programs, the selection process will be hopelessly skewed to the short-term.226 This problem is exacerbated as school-to-work education is introduced into lower grades by teaching students industry-specific, workplace skills many years before they will graduate from high school.227

Opponents argue that school-to-work programs implicitly discourage children from pursuing higher education and ultimately reduce their career choices by narrowing their options prematurely.228 These critics characterize school-to-work education as a means not only of steering students into a general career field, but, when possible, into a particular sponsoring company.229 In addition, they note that employers tend to view the quality of students in school-to-work programs as lower than the high school population more generally.230

Finally, opponents attack the breadth of STWOA in particular, perceiving language that seeks to extend the availability of school-to-work education to all children as a mandatory requirement that infringes on parental choice.231 Moreover, to these critics, the extension of STWOA to all children overreaches the particular applicability of its more structured programs to non-college bound youths.232 Opponents charge that STWOA represents an effort to vocationalize public schools.233 As such, they argue that public funds allocated to implementing STWOA would have been better spent on strengthening the existing vocational education system.234 Opponents, therefore, question not only the educational philosophy upon which school-to-work curricula are based, but also whether such curricula are even necessary at all.

B.  The Case in Favor of STWOA

Regardless of the underlying reasons for the criticism, much of the concern over the efficacy of school-to-work education is misplaced.235 First, school-to-work education complements standards-based education reform by motivating students to learn.236 Second, school-to-work education prepares students to make informed choices about potential careers.237 Third, school-to-work education prepares students to attend college.238 In sum, school-to-work education is an effective alternative to traditional teaching methods.

In contrast to the claims of opponents, school-to-work education is not only consistent with standards-based reform, it also has the further potential to reach the at-risk populations that traditional teach[*PG362][*PG361]ing methods have had little success penetrating.239 School-to-work education advances the student-performance objectives sought by advocates of standards-based reform by helping motivate students who had no plans to attend post-secondary educational institutions.240 Studies indicate that school-to-work students, particularly those at a high risk of failing to graduate, are less likely to drop out of school than non-school-to-work students.241 Moreover, empirical evidence indicates that school-to-work students are more likely to attend school and graduate on time than their peers.242

Further, the work-based competencies transmitted through school-to-work education are meaningful, measurable, and, therefore, consistent with the accountability claims of standards-based reforms.243 For example, as discussed above, Massachusetts sought to measure the relative effectiveness of school-to-work placements by requiring participating employers to complete a work-based learning plan.244 The standardization of the work-based learning plan allows system administrators to track students’ acquisition of skills, evaluate the quality of the school-to-work projects, and identify areas needing improvement.245 School-to-work education also promotes standards-based reform by furthering academic achievement.246 Although research has not shown a conclusive relationship between school-to-work education and students’ performance on standardized tests, studies have shown that school-to-work students maintain GPAs at least as high and often higher than non-school-to-work students.247 Furthermore, empirical analysis indicates that school-to-work students take challenging courses that prepare them for content-based examinations.248

In addition to complementing standards-based reform, school-to-work education gives students a new-found perspective on careers and prepares them for successful entry into the job market.249 Research demonstrates that students who participate in school-to-work education are able to define their career interests and goals for the future.250 Moreover, students’ school-to-work jobs tend to be of a higher quality than the jobs they otherwise would have secured.251 Graduates of school-to-work programs have better labor market outcomes than other high school graduates, as measured by post-graduation employment rates and wages.252

Partnerships between local businesses and schools enable schools to teach skills that will be relevant in the current and future workplace.253 In addition, since as many as 42% of young people will not enroll in any form of post-secondary education, developing stronger ties with business is essential to creating programs that help all students, not just those who will eventually graduate from college.254 Furthermore, developing close relationships with businesses gives students ample opportunity to forge meaningful mentor relationships with positive adult role models.255

Pairing students with adult mentors in careers they find interesting provides them with a greater understanding of the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the field and enables them to plan their education accordingly.256 Youth apprenticeship programs represent more formalized mentoring relationships designed to lead students into a related post-secondary program, an entry-level job, or a [*PG364][*PG363]registered apprenticeship.257 It comes as no surprise to STWOA proponents that school-to-work students report feeling that their teachers and peers make up a supportive “second family.”258

Rather than narrowing career opportunities and reducing the likelihood that students will complete post-secondary education as STWOA opponents contend, school-to-work education broadens career options and encourages post-secondary education.259 Research indicates that school-to-work helps young people prepare for the working world by exposing them to many different career development activities.260 A recent study found no significant difference in post-secondary school aspirations between school-to-work participants and graduates of conventional programs.261

In addition to exposing students to career choices, school-to-work education also prepares students for college.262 The process of exploring career possibilities in a supervised setting outside of the classroom helps college-bound students clarify their personal reasons for attending college.263 Moreover, the reliance of school-to-work education on experiential learning is a powerful way for any student to develop knowledge and skills.264 The skills acquired by students through school-to-work curricula, such as workplace competencies regarding communicating with others and taking responsibility for life choices, are particularly useful in college, where students will increasingly be asked to shape their educational endeavors.265 The best business, medicine, and law schools use the same techniques when they offer students internships and opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.266 Whether offered to students attending Harvard Law School or Brighton High School, work-based curricula reinforce academic learning while providing psychological and developmental benefits not typically associated with learning in the classroom.267

Finally, contrary to the fears of school-to-work opponents, there is a considerable difference between making school-to-work available to all students and mandating that all students participate in work-based learning.268 School-to-work education should be available to all students because of the potential for contextual learning opportunities to benefit non-college bound and college-bound students alike.269 Moreover, the participation of both college-bound and non college-bound students in school-to-work education counteracts the negative stigma frequently associated with vocational education.270

C.  The Effectiveness of School-to-Work Education in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, although preliminary research indicated that school-to-work programs generated positive results for students and communities,271 school-to-work education has nonetheless been overshadowed by the Commonwealth’s increasing preoccupation with standards-based reform.272 The MCAS, and not workplace competencies, dominates educational discourse in Massachusetts.273

[*PG366][*PG365] Although STWOA has not led to sweeping change, there have been a number of positive developments in school-to-work education in Massachusetts.274 For example, the state legislature enacted the Massachusetts School-to-Work Connecting Activities Act in 1997 as a line item in the budget to supplement federal school-to-work dollars with state funds.275 By the end of 1999, federal and state money had funded enough school-to-career coordinators to connect over 10,000 students with over 3,900 employers as part of the Massachusetts Work-Based Learning Plan.276

The work-based learning plan has been particularly effective in Boston, where school-to-work connecting activities progressed from a pilot program initiated in 1991 at Brighton High School to a full-blown reform effort that is now the centerpiece of district-wide high school reorganizing.277 The number of schools providing career pathways has increased from four in the mid-1990s to fourteen today.278 More importantly, data collected in 1999 indicate that Boston‘s school-to-career students were more likely than non-school-to-career students to score higher on reading achievement tests, to graduate, to be in postsecondary education one year after high school, and to get a college degree.279 In addition, African-American students who graduated from ProTech, Boston’s career pathway that emphasizes technical skills, obtained greater relative benefit than other non-career pathway graduates.280 For example, 79% of African Americans who graduated from ProTech between 1993 and 1995 attended college and 74% earned a degree or certificate, compared with just 53% and 65% of non-ProTech, African-American graduates.281 Non-school-to-career graduates were half as likely as school-to-career graduates to be working or in school one year after graduating from high school.282

Although Massachusetts as a whole has not pursued the strategy of integrating school-to-work education into all of its reform efforts,283 Boston’s public schools have taken important steps in that direction.284 On the state level, Massachusetts has targeted specific school-to-work practices that are popular and valuable but vulnerable without continued state funding.285 The work-based learning plan is instrumental to the Commonwealth’s effort to oversee and adjust the multitude of workplace learning programs offered across school districts.286 Without it, the Board of Education would have difficulty evaluating which programs to expand and which to cut in the future.287 Indeed, the emphasis on measuring the success of students in school-to-work programs has greatly contributed to the overall success of school-to-work education in the Commonwealth.

IV.  Policy Recommendations Regarding Low-Income and Minority Students

Boston’s experience offers a promising indication of the potential for school-to-work education programs to motivate hard-to-reach students and to enhance school-community connections.288 It is also a powerful example of the systemic, curricular change that results from a strong commitment to school-to-work principles.289 It is no small accomplishment that the Boston Public School system was able to undertake a system-wide shift to school-to-work education during a time of increasingly strict state-wide standards-based requirements in the form of mandatory testing.290 STWOA played an important role in this tran[*PG368][*PG367]sition. To its credit, STWOA was instrumental in providing the funds that Boston needed in order to create and staff positions necessary to implement the school-to-work curriculum across the city.291

STWOA, however, was able to catalyze the expansion of school-to-career education in Boston because Boston Public Schools, unlike many other school districts, had already forged relationships with local employers.292 Perhaps unsurprisingly, for the vast majority of communities in which school-to-work was largely unknown or misunderstood, the passage of STWOA did not lead to a paradigmatic shift in educational curriculum.293

Nonetheless, STWOA has raised awareness of school-to-work education in school districts around the country.294 While the effectiveness of some school-to-work offerings is unclear,295 at a minimum, they provide a foundation upon which to build more sophisticated school-to-work curricula in the future.296 In order to achieve work-based educational reform in more school districts across the county, and to continue to increase the accessibility of school-to-work education for minority and low-income students, the federal government should pursue several additional policies with respect to school-to-work.297

First, the federal government should encourage school districts to hire work-based learning coordinators by allocating federal dollars to districts that demonstrate a commitment to school-to-work education, like Boston.298 Work-based learning coordinators act as intermediaries, bridging a critical gap between employers, teachers, and students.299 Teachers, who are burdened with considerable daily classroom demands, are ill-equipped to implement work-based learning without external support.300 Similarly, employers, without guidance from schools, are not well suited to creating work experiences that benefit students seeking work-based competencies and a greater appreciation of the working world.301 Staffers devoted solely to implementing school-to-work curricula would be better able to manage the day-to-day work of building, maintaining, and growing successful school-to-work partnerships.302

Furthermore, the school-to-work intermediaries would represent a class of employees in the school system that could consistently monitor the progress of children in school-to-work education.303 As it currently stands, teachers do not have a significant stake in students’ completion of school-to-work programs because they are ultimately more concerned with performance on content-based exams taken in the classroom.304 Similarly, employers tend not to have a great stake in students’ completion of school-to-work externships in their offices because past practice indicates that a majority of participating students will not work at those positions in the future.305 Thus, the creation of school-to-work coordinators would introduce actors who are devoted to establishing partnerships and improving the quality of work-based learning.306

Expanding existing jobs programs currently funded through the Department of Labor may provide a further means to bridge the gap between students, schools, and employers.307 Youth Opportunity Boston, for example, has been able to draw upon existing public and private partnerships in order to provide services very similar to school-to-work education.308 Explicitly connecting Department of Labor programs such as Youth Opportunity with local high schools would establish a strong intermediary network of staff to facilitate school-to-work programs.309 Since Department of Labor job programs are means-tested and are currently only available to “at risk” youths who qualify [*PG370][*PG369]for federal assistance, they would be readily available to low-income and minority youths in the school system.310

Second, the federal government should update its pattern of fund disbursement in order to provide greater support to states embarking on school-to-work initiatives. Rather than providing one-time federal grants,311 the Department of Education should provide a steady supply of funds to school districts as long as they remain committed to implementing work-based curriculum.312 By allocating funds annually, rather than adhering to strict sunset provisions, the federal government could signal to states that it intends to provide long-term support for school-to-work initiatives.313

In addition, rather than allocating funds to programs for elementary through high school,314 federal funding should be targeted solely to high schools.315 Focusing school-to-work education in high schools would avoid some of the problems associated with the passage of STWOA.316 For example, limiting federal dollars to high school programs will help to prevent spreading already insufficient resources too thin across grade levels.317

Moreover, the federal government should target funds to urban school districts.318 Because of population density, the close proximity of potential employers, and the availability of public transportation, urban centers present the most realistic environment within which meaningful school-to-work education partnerships may take root.319 Urban school districts also contain a high percentage of low-income and minority students.320 Thus, by encouraging urban school districts to pursue school-to-work strategies, such a funding scheme would free up other funds to create programs that benefit low–income and minority students most of all.321

A third recommendation, which will increase the accessibility of school-to-work education to minority and low-income students, is to provide incentives directly to employers, particularly small businesses, willing to take part in school-to-work activities.322 Under STWOA, states received nearly all of the federal, school-to-work implementation grants.323 There was very little incentive, however, for employers to participate in school-to-work education because of the cost of collaborating with school officials and of training students.324 Only in exceptional cases were employers able to recoup the cost of participating in work-based education.325 Moreover, large employers were more likely to see a return on their investment in school-to-work education because their size supported a greater number of apprenticeships and their budgets already included funds for sophisticated training programs.326 Smaller businesses, however, were less likely maintain training budgets or to hire student trainees.327 Offering participating small businesses a percentage of matching funds for the costs they incur in participating in school-to-work programs would enrich the number and diversity of potential community partners.328

Finally, the federal government should subsidize studies to record and evaluate the success of students participating in work-based education.329 In addition to tracking the outcome of school-to-work participants, studies should assess the impact of school-to-work education on content-based exam performance.330 Only through continued documentary evidence of the success of school-to-career programs in helping all students amass substantive and testable knowledge will [*PG372][*PG371]school-to-career remain a viable educational alternative in an atmosphere increasingly dominated by standards based reform.331

By recognizing the important role of school-to-work learning coordinators, providing a stable source of funding for school-to-work initiatives, and measuring the success of school-to-work curricula, the federal government can encourage school-to-work programs to take root in more communities nationwide.


Despite the failure of STWOA to engender systemic change, school-to-work education remains a promising, if often overlooked, avenue for future educational reform in the United States.332 Research concluding that school-to-career education motivates students to take an interest in school and work, encourages them to pursue and acquire postsecondary education, and provides them with workplace competencies suggests that career pathway programs are worth the risk.333 Boston’s educational system provides an instructive example of the potential for school-to-work programs under STWOA. Boston’s urban setting, its diverse population of students, and its proximity to a multitude of large employers, many of whom have maintained a relationship with the Boston Public Schools over the past twenty years, make it a suitable location for a sustainable and systemic approach to school-to-work education, and an ideal prototype for programs nationwide.334 The continued reorganization of the Boston Public School District into career pathways, although risky given the premium placed on MCAS results, will greatly benefit all urban students, poor and minority in particular, because it will provide a real world context for academic learning and the development of high performance skills.335

To a large degree, Boston is in the position to implement the type of systemic education reform that STWOA sought to encourage because of its twenty-year head start in forging school and business partnerships.336 To be effective on a systemic level, school-to-career education requires community knowledge, strong public and private partnerships, and a system of monitoring to promote accountability.337 With continued community collaboration and increased governmental support, school-to-work education may yet find a place in the mainstream of American education.338 Until then, school-to-work education efforts should be focused in the low-income and minority communities where programs have the greatest potential to make education more relevant.339

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