IEE Insider — Issue 3, June 1998

Director's Column

The Institute on Education and the Economy is now over twelve years old. The context of education reform has changed significantly in those years. When the Institute began its work, only three years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, calls for education reform were motivated by a drive for increased international economic competitiveness. Economic events of the last five years have muted that argument, but serious educational problems remain. Inequality in incomes and particularly in wealth continue to grow, and persistent disparity in the quality of education means that many young people have little chance of benefiting from the current or future prosperity. Our work at the Institute has continued to focus on how to strengthen education, both in schools and on the job, in order to improve opportunities for all young people.

Since its inception, the Institute has conducted research in two broad and related fields; studies of education with an emphasis on its relation to work, and studies of work with an emphasis on its relation to education. We are continuing that dual focus.

Our work on education reform includes research on employer participation in education reform, work-based learning, and career magnet high schools. Last year we conducted a second conference focussed on the relationship between academic and industry skill standards—this one specifically on mathematics. Our Community College Research Center is also conducting over ten projects on the role of community colleges in workforce preparation and access to higher education. We also continue to participate in the activities of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Our research on work has sought to understand how changes in the workplace have influenced the opportunities for earnings and occupational mobility. Indeed, both our quantitative and qualitative research on work has suggested that it takes longer for many young people to settle into high quality jobs and that post-education opportunities are more restricted for workers at the lower levels of the occupational hierarchy. We have tried to understand how education and employment policies might improve the opportunities for these workers.

This newsletter describes some of the findings from our ongoing projects. Full reports are available from the Institute. We very much appreciate your comments, criticisms, suggestions, and questions as we continue to work with you to strengthen educational and employment opportunities for all young people in this country.

Expanding School-to-Work: Will There Be Enough Employers Willing to Participate?

The federal school-to-work legislation of 1994 calls for the creation of a school-to-work transition system through new partnerships between employers and educators. Employers are asked to provide work-based learning opportunities for students, and educators are asked to better integrate workplace experiences and career information with the classroom curriculum. There has been a great deal of debate over the likelihood of employer involvement on a sufficient scale and level of intensity.

IEE has addressed this potential problem through a three-year study, now concluded. The study combined case study fieldwork at thirteen programs around the country with two telephone surveys of employers: one of employers participating in several of the case study programs, and one of a comparable group of employers not participating. The study provides new insights regarding employer motivations, employer participation rates, and the quality of employers’ participation.

Employer Motivations

Why do firms participate in school-to-work programs? The majority of the participating firms who responded to the survey say that they participate for philanthropic reasons, although a strong minority report that bottom-line considerations are the most important reasons for their participation. The firms not currently involved in school-to-work programs indicate that they would need more bottom-line arguments to convince them to join. Since public-sector and not-for-profit organizations have been the mainstay of the participant pool, it appears that in order to penetrate the for-profit world more successfully program operators will have to convince employers that participation will be in their firms’ interest.

In face-to-face interviews with participating employers across the country, the employers gave varied reasons for their involvement, such as to help youth, to "try out" a young worker before hiring him or her, or to gain positive public relations. Educators gave examples of employer recruitment strategies and shared employer retention information. Overall, the field research found that the programs were having success in recruiting and retaining employer partners. Some programs were having more difficulty recruiting students than employers.

Participation Rates

Many firms in the U.S. have been providing internships, apprenticeships, and other forms of work-based learning for many years. How many employers are now participating in some form of internship? According to the employer survey, almost 25 percent of employers already provide internships, although this estimate is probably higher than a national participation rate would be, given that the regions studied have large and well-established internship programs.

Quality of Work-Based Learning

The employer survey finds that students’ work-based learning experiences are for the most part not in the occupations and sectors that traditionally employ youth—service occupations in the retail sector. Nearly one-half of the internships are in administrative support positions—entry-level jobs in office and business employment. Thus the programs are not relying on typical jobs for youths. It also appears that firms that take the interns more seriously, in terms of paying them and expecting them to stay at the firm, provide higher-quality experiences.

IEE Director Thomas Bailey and Research Associate Donna Merritt presented results from this work in a keynote address at the 14th annual Work Now and in the Future conference held in Portland, Oregon, November 2 to 4. Katherine Hughes, Senior Research Associate at IEE, also presented research results at the 1997 National Leadership Forum on School-to-Career Transition, held in New Orleans from July 31 to August 2.

This work was conducted by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Spencer Foundation. The employer surveys were conducted by RAND. Achieving Scale and Quality in School-to-Work Internships: Findings from an Employer Survey, by Thomas Bailey, Katherine Hughes, and Tavis Barr, is now available from NCRVE, MDS-902. An IEE working paper on the field research is also available.

Pedagogy for Work-Based Learning: What and How Do Student Interns Learn?

IEE is in the process of completing the third phase of the Pew Charitable Trusts-sponsored research on school-to-work programs. The earlier field visits to programs and surveys of participating employers gave us a good account of how employers are recruited to participate in these initiatives, and their reasons for doing so. The objective of the pedagogy part of the project is to examine what and how students learn at the workplace.

While considerable research has focused on on-the-job learning for adults, there has been little work in this area with regard to adolescents. In addition, there is extensive literature on youth development, but it has not been applied to the workplace. In order to investigate the nature of pedagogy for young interns, IEE researchers have observed several students from four different schools at their internships, and conducted before-and-after in-depth interviews with them.

IEE has also been bringing together learning and training specialists and developmental psychologists from Teachers College and other area institutions in monthly workshops. These workshops serve as forums for the exchange of ideas and information regarding the learning theories behind the school-to-work model, and assist us in developing a sound conceptual foundation for our fieldwork. David Moore, Associate Professor at the Gallatin School, New York University, is a member of this group and has also been serving as a field research consultant. Contact Katherine Hughes, IEE Senior Research Associate, for more information on this project.

Career Magnet High Schools Show Positive Effects on Students

Magnet schools have been part of the nation's educational system for a number of years, originally as a desegregation strategy. There are now an increasing number of career magnet schools, which have a curriculum theme and specific pedagogy. Led by Robert Crain, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, researchers have been conducting studies to learn whether urban career magnet high schools give students a better chance to achieve academically and occupationally than neighborhood comprehensive high schools.

In one large school district, all eighth graders can apply to any high school in any area, including many career magnets. The high schools admit students by lottery, which results in a natural experiment through which researchers collected data on the different effects of career magnet and comprehensive high schools. The researchers were able to select, from a database, pairs of student subjects in which one was randomly admitted and graduated from a career magnet school, while the other was randomly rejected from the same school and subsequently attended and graduated from a comprehensive high school.

School Outcomes

Many of the career magnet student graduates benefited from attending the schools. They earned more credits toward graduation than their comprehensive high school counterparts. However, the academically weakest students, those with the lowest test scores, did not succeed. The researchers found, for example, that comprehensive high schools are graduating four students for every three graduated from a career magnet high school, and suggest that this may be due to the higher standards in the traditional academic subjects in the career magnet high schools, which do not invest sufficient resources in remedial services.

At-Risk Behaviors

IEE researchers found that the career magnet graduates were significantly less likely to engage in behaviors associated with poor school performance. The career magnet high school graduates were less likely to have been in a fight, to smoke, to use drugs, to drink alcohol, to be pregnant or have made someone pregnant, or to have been arrested by police on serious charges. These findings suggest that the characteristics of the career magnet high school experience—a strong academic and career curriculum, the belief in the importance of work, the acceptance of the legitimacy of the social requirements of the workplace—motivated the students to avoid or reduce any high-risk behaviors.

Peer Influences

The graduates of the career magnet schools reported that most of their friends were fellow students in their classes, and did not live in their neighborhoods. More of their social life was centered in the school, in contrast with the graduates of the comprehensive schools, who identified their social life with their neighborhood. The career magnet graduates reported that pressure from their peers influenced them not to cut classes; positive peer influence may then account for the higher attendance rates found at magnet schools. In addition, the friends of the career magnet graduates had more plans for the future, including college, but especially for future careers, than the friends of the comprehensive graduates.

Parental Influences

The graduates of the career magnet high schools reported that their parents were more interested in their educational future. More than the comprehensive graduates, the career magnet graduates believed that their parents thought that going to college was the most important part of their plans for the future. The comprehensive graduates reported that while their parents thought going to college was a good idea, they said that their family had few financial resources to send them to college, and that they should not expect to be supported if they chose to attend. The career magnet graduates felt that their parents believed that it was important for the family to make sacrifices to send them to college, and that they would pay their expenses and support them if they attended a state or city college (there was no difference in the actual economic status of comprehensive and career parents). Of all the students' feelings about their high school experience and its possible contribution to their career development, parental support was most powerfully associated with the students' career magnet experience.

Future Plans and Post-Secondary Success

IEE researchers also found that the comprehensive graduates had less clear plans for the future. More of the graduates of the career magnet high schools planned to go to college than graduates of the comprehensive schools. Of those students who attended college after graduating from high school, the career magnet graduates took more college credits and were more likely to have declared a major. While both sets of graduates were concerned about their financial future, the comprehensive graduates tended to feel a greater need for security in any job they held. The career magnet graduates appeared more ambitious: they were more willing to forego security in a job if it led to higher-level work later. More career magnet graduates wanted to follow professional careers than did the comprehensive graduates.

This work was conducted by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. IEE researchers are Robert Crain, Erwin Flaxman, Anna Allen, and Robert Thaler. Contributors to this study and related research are Gail L. Zellman and Denise D. Quigley of RAND, Judith Warren Little and Debora Sullivan of the University of California at Berkeley, and James Stone III and Christine Bremer of the University of Minnesota.

A Workshop on Mathematical and Occupational Skill Standards

On November 7–9, 1997, the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE) convened fifty people from the mathematics, industry, and skill-standards policy communities for a workshop on mathematics and occupational skill standards. Participants included employers, high school and postsecondary-level teachers, educational researchers, occupational skill standards developers, curriculum content developers, and state and federal policy leaders. The workshop, held at the Arden House Conference Center in Harriman, NY, was a sequel to a 1996 conference on Integrating Academic and Industry Skill Standards.

The goals of the workshop were to:

  • strengthen the case for rigorous academic standards in vocational education and authentic workplace applications in traditional academic programs,
  • help the mathematical and vocational education communities understand each other’s standards so they can work together to improve teaching and learning, and
  • dispel minimalist views about the mathematics required for work by highlighting the rich mathematics embedded in everyday tasks required for tomorrow’s workplace.

What Mathematics is Needed?

Workshop participants agreed that high school mathematics needs to be broad enough to keep students’ options open and that it should include more of the essential skills needed for life and work.

Employees need two kinds of mathematics not now emphasized (or taught) in schools. They need to recognize and use core concepts of middle-school mathematics such as ratio, proportion, and percentage. They also need to understand advanced topics such as statistical inference, data analysis, and process control that are hardly ever included in the required part of school mathematics. Participants agreed that the singular focus on calculus in schools is premature, unwise, and an impediment to a more desired focus on statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics. Since college is not an alternative to work, but one route to work, there should be no difference between mathematics for college and mathematics for work.

Mathematics in Context

There was widespread agreement on the need to provide teachers with authentic problems in which students would learn to ask, "What mathematics do I need now?" Determining what mathematics is needed is often as important (and as difficult) as actually doing the mathematics. Context makes problem-solving possible and enjoyable. Although most participants believed that students learn more when they learn mathematics in context, the evidence so far has come from special situations—motivated teachers, experimental curricula.

Even as industry calls for mathematics to be taught in context, the occupational skill standards decontextualize mathematics to present it. As a consequence, the occupational standards present mathematics as lists of topics that appear to be less challenging than the vision of mathematical power conveyed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). However, mathematics is embedded throughout the standards under other headings (problem solving, quality control, or planning).

Differing Perspectives

Differences in perspective between industry and education were apparent in every session.

  • In school, students learn to do mathematics; at work they are expected to use it.
  • In mathematics class, numbers have an artificial absolute reality; at work numbers are used for measurement and are always accompanied by uncertainties.
  • In school, students rarely see mathematics used in complex ways; at work many tasks involve considerable complexity.
  • In industry, tasks involve many complex facets simultaneously; education treats concepts sequentially.


Following are some of the recommendations that emerged in the workshop:

  1. Convene a meeting of representatives of the various skill standards projects to develop a process by which occupational perspectives can contribute to revising the NCTM Standards.
  2. Encourage university admissions processes to be receptive to high-quality applied programs.
  3. Encourage governors and state education agencies to coordinate academic and occupational skill standards in the development of state frameworks.
  4. Validate occupational and academic standards against external criteria.
  5. Encourage industry to provide mathematically rich workplace scenarios that teachers can use in the classroom and that curriculum developers can incorporate in textbooks.
  6. Develop a mechanism to provide feedback from employers to schools on how graduates do after they enter the workplace.
  7. Build workplace applications into the early grades, not just in high school.

This work was conducted by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. A follow-up report, based on the findings at this conference, will be available after September 1998.

New Employment Policies for the Emerging Post-Industrial Labor Market

The William T. Grant Foundation convened a small group of academics and representatives from business, labor, government and foundations to discuss the need for new labor-market policies in the emerging economy. The workshop, held on May 16 in New York City, focused on identifying programs and proposals that go beyond education and training and address demand-side issues of job quality and career opportunity. The initiatives that were considered form a diverse group, and include union-run programs, industry trade group and multi-employer alliances, worker-owned businesses and organizations, job-matching agencies, and public-sector interventions and regulations. The discussion focused on the problems and barriers encountered in implementing the initiatives, as well as the legal and legislative reforms that are required, if such initiatives are ultimately to succeed. Several of the main points of this workshop are discussed below.

American workers have witnessed striking changes in their jobs and wages during the last three decades. Wage inequality has grown, job stability has declined for vulnerable workers, and the chances for upward mobility have deteriorated among low-skill workers. These trends continue to the present, despite a strong economy and tight labor market. Forces deeper than the business cycle are at work, in particular the globalization of markets, new technology, and changes in wage-setting institutions. These are not short-term effects that will disappear once the transition to a post-industrial economy has been completed.

Thus the very character of the American workplace is changing—in how work is organized, in how workers are matched with jobs, and in how wages and the terms of employment are set and who has a voice in that determination.

In the past, employment was modeled on the life-long job. Ideally, workers were guaranteed yearly raises and informal job security. In return, employers got a committed workforce and a customized training system that automatically prepared workers for jobs higher up the career ladder. But starting in the mid-70s, the terms of this trade-off began to deteriorate for American employers. In order to reduce costs and gain flexibility, some firms have adopted high-performance work systems that can benefit workers as well as raise productivity. Other firms, however, now forego the motivation and firm-specific knowledge of long-term employees. They instead minimize the number of full-time employees, reduce training of entry-level workers, and rely on the external market for skilled, educated workers. In the process, the traditional paths to upward mobility are broken down.

The new employment relationship—while successful in terms of restoring America’s productivity and competitiveness—has not been beneficial to a growing number of workers. The policy question then becomes: What types of public, private, and community-based policies are required to stem and reverse the growth in inequality? What types of institutions, laws, and regulations are needed to improve worker welfare, while at the same time maintaining the flexibility that employers require?

To date, policy makers have largely focused on education and training as remedies. This is the traditional approach of workforce development, but by itself, it does not suffice to address the myriad of problems currently in evidence in the labor market. The supply-side approach must be balanced with demand-side policies that ensure workers access to quality jobs, economic security, and employment stability. As a society, we have not yet created the institutions, laws, and regulations to buffer the effects of flexible employment.

What would such a demand-side labor market policy look like? In our minds, there are four specific goals that a comprehensive national policy should try to meet:

  • The creation of multi-employer career ladders—so that upward mobility can occur across a series of firms.
  • Stronger internal labor markets—in those sectors where a promotion system can be advantageous.
  • Improvement in the quality of low-wage jobs—since these will continue to serve as the mainstay of employment for low-skill workers.
  • A stronger system of labor market coordination—given a more volatile economy and rapidly changing skill needs.

These four goals are straightforward, but designing labor market policies to meet them is not. What are the best strategies for pursuing these goals, and which are feasible for widespread implementation? Are there policies that can increase the quality of employment for workers and at the same time benefit firms and raise productivity?

Two strategies emerge as the most effective in meeting the above goals, although they are also the hardest to implement. First, joint initiatives between employers and unions have the greatest potential to yield a "win-win" situation, boosting both firm productivity and worker welfare. But such initiatives depend heavily on unions (or other forms of worker representation), since in their absence employer participation and collaboration can be difficult to come by. Even when collaboration is arguably in the long-term interests of employers, short-term considerations often militate against their participation.

Second, legislative and legal reform is an equally important strategy. Any attempt to improve the condition of workers in today’s employment system needs to be supported by new laws and regulations in one or more of the following areas: raising the wage floor, creating portable benefits, and reforming unemployment insurance and labor laws. For example, next to wages, portable benefits are the most important issue for workers today, yet the current structure of health care and pension benefits is an obstacle to portability. Similarly, only a third of the unemployed currently receive unemployment insurance benefits; in particular, temporary employees, part-time workers, and contractors are often not eligible for benefits.

A third model that holds promise is that of worker-based organizations. These organizations pool resources among workers who do not have strong ties to an employer and thus lack access to training, unemployment benefits, and group rates on health insurance. While this strategy gets around the problem of employer participation, bringing it to scale would be difficult. There are few legal structures to nurture and protect the formation of such organizations, which also face the challenge of being competitive in the open market.

Finally, intermediary labor market institutions simply focus on making the free market more efficient. The goal is to provide better information about job openings and labor supply, and then to coordinate the process by which the two are matched, thereby reducing the costs of hiring and job searches. This approach is relatively easy to implement but limited in its power, because it does not directly address problems of job instability, low-wage jobs, and lack of mobility opportunity.

In short, broad institutional and legislative changes are necessary if we are to see significant improvements in wages and employment stability. While such changes are not likely at present, recent events are encouraging and suggest that we may be entering an era of greater sympathy for national policy initiatives. In the meantime, it is important to pursue the type of policy developments that we have discussed in this report. It is particularly important to continue work on joint union-employer initiatives, since these ultimately hold the most promise. The more examples that can be found of employers and unions working together to improve both firm performance and job quality, the easier it will be in the future to convince other actors that these efforts deserve more than moral support.

IEE researchers Annette Bernhardt and Thomas Bailey have written a report, Making Careers Out of Jobs, that examines the issues raised at the workshop and also highlights several of the programs discussed. A summary of this report is also available.

Work and Opportunity in the Post-Industrial Labor Market

The Institute has recently completed a major project that examines how economic restructuring in the United States has affected the career development and mobility paths of young workers. The project was supported by a generous grant from the Russell Sage and Rockefeller Foundations.

The investigators examined how young workers have fared in two very different time periods: the 1960s and 1970s, at the tail of the economic boom, and the 1980s and early 1990s, after the onset of economic restructuring. The findings show that career development has become a more volatile and less stable process in recent years. Partly as a consequence, wage growth early in the career has been hit on two fronts – it has stagnated and at the same time become significantly more unequal. To the extent that wage gains tell us something about upward mobility, we have seen a deterioration and growing polarization in that mobility. Those with fewer skills and less education have clearly gotten hit the hardest, but education has not proved the buffer it once was; workers higher up the skill and education ladder have shared in these trends, albeit in dampened form. Deindustrialization has had an impact as well, and the traditionally unionized industries that once provided stability and solid wages cannot do so to the degree they once did.

In combination, these findings suggest that there has been a marked shift in the American employment relationship – that the rules of work and career mobility have changed. A new generation is entering a transformed labor market, and especially for those without a college degree, the prospects for a living wage, stable employment, and upward mobility are not at all guaranteed.

For a more detailed overview of this project, see IEE Brief No. 19. In addition, the following related papers will be available from IEE this summer:

Annette Bernhardt, Martina Morris, Mark Handcock, and Marc Scott. 1998. Job Instability and Wage Inequality Among Young Men: A Comparison of Two NLS Cohorts. Presented at the Russell Sage Conference on Changes in Job Stability and Job Security, February 27, New York, NY.

Marc Scott and Mark Handcock. 1998. Random Effects Models for Wage Profile Heterogeneity. To be presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, August, San Francisco, CA.

Martina Morris and Annette Bernhardt. 1998. The Transition to Work in the Post-Industrial Labor Market. To be presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, August, San Francisco, CA.

Service Sector Restructuring: A Case Study in Banking

At the annual meetings of the Industrial Relations Research Association in January in Chicago, IEE Senior Research Associate Annette Bernhardt helped to organize a session with a focus on firm restructuring in the service sector, one of the first ever sessions on this emerging field of inquiry. The session was titled The Impact of Restructuring on the Labor Market: Evidence from Firm-Level Studies in the Service Sector. Dr. Bernhardt also presented preliminary findings from a case study in banking, which has been carried out by her and IEE researchers Douglas Slater, Katherine Hughes, and Lea Williams. The case study addresses the following questions: How has the bank reorganized its retail business over the past two decades, and why? What role has technology played? And what have been the effects on skill requirements and job quality within the branch system, especially for tellers? Dr. Bernhardt finds that the reengineering at this bank has had important effects on the staffing, task content, and quality of jobs at the branch level. In simple terms, a market segmentation approach by the bank has led to a corresponding segmentation of work into high-quality and low-quality jobs.

Bernhardt and Slater (1998), What Technology Can and Cannot Do: A Case Study in Banking, will be forthcoming in the proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association. In addition, a working paper will be available from IEE this summer.


New Study

IEE has recently received a new grant from the DeWitt Wallace–Reader's Digest Fund, which will support a project titled School-to-Work and Academic Learning. Building on the school-to-work research already completed by IEE, and through a partnership with the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California at Berkeley, this project will explore the effectiveness of work-based learning in teaching academic skills. IEE will develop the theoretical argument that work-based learning can enhance academic learning and investigate this argument through new fieldwork.

Community College Research Center

The Community College Research Center, created in 1996 with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is continuing its mission to examine the fundamental purposes, problems, and performance of community colleges, and to chart a course for strengthening scholarly research on the future of these important institutions. For more information about the CCRC, visit our web site at ccrc.tc.columbia.edu, or call us at (212) 678-3091. We welcome all comments and suggestions.



Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University
525 West 120th Street, Box 174, New York, NY 10027
Phone: (212) 678-3091 | Fax: (212) 678-3699 | iee@columbia.edu