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Education for a Changing Workplace

In the 20th century, mass production was the core of U.S. business. It worked well in a world where products, services, systems, and technologies changed little, helping to standardize production and cutting costs. Workers needed little training and were not expected to be involved in the decision-making process.

In the 21st century, technology in the marketplace requires higher-skilled workers whose skills are both innovative and flexible. Young people who are unprepared for this new marketplace may find themselves stuck in a series of entry-level jobs with inadequate salaries and little or no benefits. Organizations, whether corporate, non-profit and especially academic, need to rethink the ways they meet their goals and challenges.

As concern grew that America's students were ill-prepared for changes in the workplace, the Clinton Administration, in 1994, initiated educational improvements throughout the country. It established the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, which laid out eight goals to be reached by the year 2000-including improvement in literacy rates and graduation rates, better learning environments, increased parental involvement and professional development of teachers.

That same year, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) was signed into law. With research showing that many young people spent their initial years in the workforce moving from one low-wage, dead-end job to another, STWOA encouraged new partnerships between educators and employers. These partnerships were designed to provide a school-to-work transition system through internships, apprenticeships and a classroom curriculum linking occupational and academic learning. Without such opportunities, many students would continue to enter the workforce unprepared. As a result, businesses would have to provide basic training to employees as well as training in high-level thinking and technical skills that are required more and more in the workplace. Through school-to-work initiatives, all students could receive the training and education necessary for entering into the workplace successfully.

Employers were not the only ones to benefit-the STWOA was designed to improve educational experiences for students, making it relevant to them by providing access to career opportunities. Research showed that such an environment would help increase in-school retention rates.

The Secretary's Commission on Acquiring the Necessary Skills (SCANS) developed a report for the U.S. Department of Labor that identified the abilities workers need to make a smoother transition from school to work. It also listed the different understandings and skills students need to compete effectively for high-skill jobs.

The report placed workplace skills and knowledge into two general classes-foundation or tool skills and generic workplace competencies. Foundation skills include "basic" skills, such as reading, writing, arithmetic, listening and speaking; "thinking" skills, such as creative thinking, decision making, problem solving, visualizing, knowing how to learn and reasoning; and "personal qualities," such as responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity and honesty.

The Commission reported that workers should be able to identify, organize, plan and allocate resources and develop interpersonal skills, such as working as a team member, teaching others, serving clients and customers. They need to know how to find and use information and then to evaluate, organize, interpret, and communicate that information with and without computers. A worker's knowledge of various technologies is just as important as the ability to understand complex social and organizational relationships.

The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), in its ERIC Digest No. 190, What's Happening in School-to-Work Programs?, reports that successful school-to-work programs represent a formal part of a secondary and/or a postsecondary curriculum. Employers are active participants, and students receive actual or simulated on-the-job experience as part of the program. An important result of these programs is that students receive a strong foundation of career information and they come away with a better understanding of how to plan their learning experiences throughout their school years to develop an awareness of their goals and abilities.

As with all programs, there are barriers to the success of school-to-work programs. These can come from the parents, teachers, schools and employers themselves. Some businesses have misgivings about the cost effectiveness of such programs. They worry about safety, liability, and time issues, as well as resistance from existing management and staff.

Parents sometimes view school-to-work initiatives as a threat to the academic achievement of their children. They believe that by introducing their children to the adult workplace, schools are taking them away from college preparation time.

Reluctance on the part of postsecondary institutions to collaborate with high schools often comes in the face of questions about cost, institutional control and accountability.

An important part of the success of these programs comes from the attitude of the teachers. Some teachers resist the necessary changes in their curriculum and classroom management and are hesitant to devote the time and effort required to learn the new ways of teaching that go along with these initiatives.

Teachers College has been looking at these issues for more than 15 years. The Institute on Education and the Economy (IEE), currently under the direction of Thomas Bailey, the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, was created in 1986. Much of the work done by the Institute over the following years led up to the passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act.

"Between 1988 and 2000 we were a member of the consortium of universities that made up the National Center for Research in Vocational Education," Bailey noted. "In that organization, we spent a lot of time advocating integration of academic vocational education. That was a crucial aspect of School-to-Work Opportunities. I certainly think we had an influence."

Bailey is also head of the Community College Research Center, a division of IEE, which looks at the changing role of community colleges as a means of workforce development-whether in providing remedial or preparatory education to secondary school graduates transitioning to post-secondary institutions or in offering certification for specific trades and vocations.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is funding the Center's research that looks at the changing role and the importance of these institutions in preparing students for a future career in a changing economy.

This issue of TC Reports examines these initiatives and their important role in bringing the goals of both education and the workplace into alignment.

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