Institute on Education and the Economy

IEE Insider — Issue 1, October 1995

Director's Column

During the last two years, the Institute has continued research in two broad areas - education reform with an emphasis on its relation to work, and work reform with an emphasis on learning on the job. We are initiating this newsletter to keep our audiences of educators, representatives of business, policy makers, and academics informed about our research and development activities and publications.

Some of our current work is closely associated with the implementation of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA). For example, this year we started a three year project with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, and the Spencer Foundation to study the involvement of employers in school-to-work-programs. We are also working on several projects associated with the development and implementation of industry-based skill standards.

We are now connected to state and local initiatives to implement the STWOA. As a site of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education as well as an independent organization, we are developing other projects involved with implementation and evaluation of school-to-work programs. Robert Crain, for example, has continued to direct our on-going project on the effectiveness of New York City's magnet schools.

We have also maintained an emphasis on analysis of changes taking place on the job and what those changes imply for education and more generally for the standard of living of workers. During the last two years as a site of the National Center for the Workplace, we have been conducting studies on employee ownership and the development, spread, and sustainability of high-performance workplaces. We have been particularly concerned about the quality of jobs resulting from the widespread restructuring taking place in the US, and are now developing a project focused on the changing quality of low-wage service industries.

The Institute's goals are to understand the implications of changes in the economy and labor markets for all levels of the education and training system in the US and to impact educational policies and programs at the local, state and national levels in regard to school-to-work transition. We take on these challenges eagerly, and we would be pleased to hear your ideas and your questions on these topics.

Making Sense of Industry-Based Skill Standards

Skill standards are part of a broad effort to strengthen the education system and, ultimately, the nation's economy. It is widely believed that an improved system of standards and certification is essential for improving the fit between what is learned in school and what is needed on the job, facilitating the movement from school to work.

As part of that broad effort, the Departments of Labor and Education have funded pilot projects to develop skill standards in 22 industries. Led by Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt, IEE analyzed the 22 pilot projects with two objectives in mind: first, to review the progress of these projects; second, and more importantly, to determine what contribution skill standards make to the broader efforts to reform schools and work.

The short-term goal of skill standards is to improve the information available to students and employers, letting employers know more about what job applicants can do, and telling students what skills they need for particular jobs. The long term goals are to develop and deepen the partnership between schools and employers so that education can be more in tune with current needs of the workplace, increase the learning that takes place on the job, and help move workplaces towards high performance work systems.

IEE's researchers found significant progress toward the short-term goal. They found, however, that the pilot projects still conceive of work as a narrow list of well-defined tasks performed under the direction of managers. Since one objective of skill standards is to contribute to a broad reform of schools and workplaces, standards need to be developed that are consistent with a more "professionalized" role for workers in innovative workplaces. In high-performance workplaces, workers have the autonomy to decide how a particular goal will be reached, which tasks to use, and when to use them. Although the ability to carry out specific tasks remains important, standards should be built around broad functions rather than a narrow set of specific tasks.

Other findings:

There is almost no systematic evaluation of the effects of skill standards projects. Evaluations tend to focus on implementation problems, but effective implementation does not necessarily mean that the model being implemented is effective.

Most of the pilot projects emphasize the involvement of employers, and educators have played a decidedly secondary role. Educators should be integrated into the standards design process, and employers should continue to be involved when curricula are developed.

Workers have played an advisory role in the pilot projects, often brought into the process only after a complete draft of the standards has been developed. Since standards are part of a strategy to promote greater worker autonomy, it is counterproductive to build a standards process based on a passive role for workers.

IEE's study of skill standards was funded by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE). The report will be published in full by NCRVE, which will also publish a non-technical distillation of the study.

Career Magnet Schools

For the last three years, under the guidance of Robert Crain and with the support of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the Institute has been looking at "what works" in programs designed to integrate academic and career education. New York City has built over one hundred such programs over the last two decades and has proved to be the perfect research site. Students are assigned to these programs through a lottery system, thus providing a ready-made experimental design situation. Moreover, other schools can replicate these results since the programs

  1. were designed to attract students with a range of academic ability,
  2. provide both a career focus and a college-preparatory education,
  3. do not receive special funding or technical assistance, and
  4. do not have much of an opportunity to hand pick their staff.

We have examined the school performance of all 10,000 students, surveyed 60 program heads, and done ethnographic interviews with 109 graduates. The evidence so far indicates that many of these programs are effective and that these programs seem to motivate students. Graduates of these career magnets earn more college credits after graduation than do students who attended traditional high schools, are more likely to be working in a field related to their high school major, less likely to have cut classes, and more likely to say that if they had to do it over they would choose the same high school program.

The magnet programs often have computer classes. One surprise on our list of "what works" is that these computer classes have led to gains in reading comprehension for students who enter high school with low reading scores. Another is that a strong career focus seems, ironically, to encourage students to attend college. This suggests that college-preparatory high school might use a career focus as a motivational tool.

There are negative findings as well, the most important being that schools with the strongest career focus also have high dropout rates. Policy makers applaud high standards, but there is a serious problem when high standards create dropouts.

Robert Crain, Amy Heebner, Yiu-Pong Si, Robert Thaler and Barbara Tokarska, all of Teachers College, were the research staff on this project.

Another project on career magnets—exploring school factors that hinder or support the development of a career identity in students—focuses on the different ways city-wide career magnets and zoned comprehensive high schools affect students' career development.

Students are considered to have a career identity if they (1) have an awareness of the necessary skills and responsibilities for a career and of the educational and training demands of work, (2) have a concept of themselves as a worker with the ability and self-esteem to carry out work-related tasks, and (3) have taken steps to become competent and begun career planning and exploration.

The staff has conducted and is now analyzing the responses to 110 two-hour interviews and 30 six-hour interviews with high school graduates, as well as interviews with family members, employers, and school staff identified by the students as having significant influence on them. In general, the analysis has shown that career magnet high schools may foster the development of a career identity better than the zoned comprehensive high schools. The critical factors seem to be the continuity of the program and the sense of community in the career magnets.

The findings of this project, which will be completed in the fall of 1995, will help educators rethink the guidance and counseling function in high schools so they can better support the formation of students' career identity.

Erwin Flaxman, Robert Crain, Anna Allen, and Robert Thaler at Teachers College, and Gail Zellman at The RAND Corporation are the research staff on the project.

Employer Participation in School-to-Work Programs

IEE has recently started a comprehensive research project designed to strengthen the role of work-based learning in educational strategies. Our focus is on two critical problems. The first involves employer participation in school-to-work programs. The second explores the conditions that would make learning on the job more effective.

In the employer participation component of the project, we are examining the range of incentives, disincentives and environmental constraints that influence employer participation, particularly employers' willingness to provide work-based learning job placements. This is a three-year project that receives financial support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Center for Research in Vocational Education and the Spencer Foundation.

In the first phase of the research, we interviewed program coordinators from eight states that won implementation grants from the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. We chose two types of programs for intensive study: a group of small intensive and innovative model programs, and several large-scale and well-established programs. We are now conducting in-depth interviews with counselors, teachers, students and employers at each site, focusing particularly on the methods used to secure employer participation. The second phase of the project is an extensive telephone survey of a sample of participating employers and a sample of non-participating employers in the same local labor market.

We will use the same sites for our on-the-job learning component of the project. This will involve intensive interviews with employers, teachers, and students as well as observations of students on the job. Our objective is to understand what learning takes place and how that can be monitored and improved.

We will produce a report that (1) gives a clear and detailed account of the incentives and disincentives for employer participation in these programs and (2) provides an understanding of the process of on-the-job learning. We plan to develop concrete policy initiatives that can elicit broad participation from the business community and enhance the learning that takes place in the workplace components of school-to-work programs. Our report will then be summarized in policy briefs targeted at educators, policy makers, and representatives of unions and private industry.

Research Grant: Work and Opportunity in the Post-Industrial Labor Market

The Institute has recently been awarded a two-year research grant, funded jointly by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. The project will examine how economic restructuring in the United States has affected the work experience and mobility of different groups of workers. Of particular concern will be whetther new business strategies being used by American firms are creating an increasingly polarized and unequal job structure. The principal investigators are Annette Bernhardt, a senior researcher at the Institute, Columbia University Professor Martina Morris, and New York University Professor Mark Handcock.

Publications of Note

Learning to Work: Employer Involvement in School-to-Work Transition Programs — Thomas Bailey, 1995

Using What We Have To Get the Schools We Need: A Productivity Focus for American Education — Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1995

The Double Helix of Education and the Economy — Sue E. Berryman and Thomas R. Bailey, 1992



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