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  Critical Issue: Developing an Applied and Integrated Curriculum 

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  ISSUE: The foundation of all efforts to improve high school students' transition to postsecondary education and/or careers is an applied and integrated curriculum that connects academic and vocational learning. This curriculum concept, supported by appropriate instruction and assessment, is designed to raise students' academic and vocational skills. It enables students to succeed either in securing higher paying and satisfying employment after high school or in having a general career focus when continuing their education in college or technical school. To a great extent, an applied and integrated curriculum embodies what research shows about meaningful, engaged learning. Although development of this curriculum may be more time-consuming than traditional methods of teaching, the benefits to students are great. Students acquire a broader, more in-depth understanding of academic material and apply what they learn to real-life situations, better preparing them to succeed in whatever endeavor they choose after high school.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts | References

  OVERVIEW: Changes in the workplace brought about by technology, downsizing, and restructuring have led to the realization that students need different skills to be successfully employed today than they did ten years ago. The skills necessary for successful employment include both academic skills and workplace skills. "Workers will need technical skills, academic proficiency, and the ability to solve problems, to work as team members, and to communicate effectively with a variety of people in a workplace setting," note Schmidt, Finch, Faulkner, and Kandies (1995).

Good jobs will go to people who can put knowledge to work, but more than half of the students in the United States leave high school without the knowledge necessary to hold those jobs (Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991). Neither academic nor vocational education by itself prepares students with the skills needed for either postsecondary education or high-wage employment (National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center, 1996b). Students in the vocational curriculum may not be challenged to develop the thinking skills and academic competencies that are necessary for future employment in high-skills occupations. Students in the college-prep curriculum may not learn practical, work-related applications of the academic subjects they are studying.

In order to provide students with the skills they need to succeed in college, technical school, or the work force, high schools must ensure that students acquire both academic and vocational skills in their courses. To emphasize the importance of this goal, federal legislation relating to school-to-work transition has called for an integration of academic and vocational education.

One means of integrating academic and vocational education is by developing an applied and integrated school-to-work curriculum. Roegge, Galloway, and Welge (1991) describe this curriculum:

"Integration [of academic and vocational education] is a rather broad concept that entails the blending together of concepts, principles, and content from academic disciplines (e.g., English, mathematics, science) with context, applications, and skills from vocational areas (e.g., industrial technology; agriculture; home economics; business, marketing, and management; health occupations).... It exhibits potential to reinforce students' acquisition of basic and higher-order academic skills, to enhance the rigor and completeness of occupational skill training, and to renew the way in which both academic and vocational education are delivered." (p. 1)

Audio Item: No Photo AvailableVicki Poole, former director of the Office of School to Work at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, discusses the importance of the applied and integrated curriculum in preparing students for both work and life. [252k audio file] Excerpted from the Rural Audio Journal (Vol. 2, No. 3), From School to Work--and Back Again: Apprenticeships for Rural Students (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

This curricular approach, which can be implemented in a variety of ways, results in improved learning for all students. It strengthens academic education by providing a vocational application that helps students consider future career paths and makes learning more relevant; it strengthens vocational education by improving the reading, writing, and computational skills of students who are bound for work after high school (Roegge & Ferej, 1995).

Practical strategies for implementation of an integrated academic and vocational education are based on eight models of integration proposed by Grubb, Davis, Lum, Plihal, and Morgaine (1991). These models may be used individually or concurrently:

Schools can implement the models that best meet the needs of their students and community. Regardless of the models chosen, an integrated school-to-work curriculum must be supported by appropriate instruction and assessment. Instructional methods for this integrated curriculum often include "applied teaching methods and team-teaching strategies" so that learning is "more contextualized, more integrated or interdisciplinary, student-centered, active, and project based," notes Phelps (1997, p. 43). A student-centered approach encourages students to be active participants in their own learning. Instead of emphasizing memorization and abstract learning, teachers focus on authentic instruction to promote contextual learning. Contextual learning refers to "learning that occurs in a real-life context or a close simulation of a real-life context," note Rogers, Hubbard, Charner, Fraser, and Horne (1996). These teaching and learning processes require students to solve problems and complete tasks that are found in real-life situations--especially, but not solely, in workplace situations. Students work in small groups to acquire and use information, make decisions, and apply academic knowledge to vocational or real-world frames of reference. Teamwork and hands-on approaches are emphasized. Such instructional practices make learning more meaningful, help students to see the applications of their knowledge and skills, and connect learning to the world outside the classroom. Because this type of learning is very different from learning that occurs in the traditional classroom, teachers need to develop new assessment practices. Approaches to authentic assessment may consist of student portfolios, presentations, or exhibits.

Besides implementing new methods of instruction and assessment, schools must have an openness to changing the structure of the school. Class periods may vary from the standard 50-minute period to allow time for project development and team-teaching activities. If teachers in different subject areas are teaching integrated units, classes must be scheduled so that the same students are in class with each teacher in different blocks of time (Walker, 1996).

Because most teachers have been trained to teach curricula that are school-based and subject-specific, professional development is necessary for teachers to adopt different roles and teaching strategies. Stasz (1997) states that teachers need to increase their knowledge of workplace practice and authentic applications of their subjects, to create high-quality integrated curricula that combine academic and vocational skills, to adopt teaching roles that support authentic learning, and to develop alternative assessments that provide meaningful feedback. A case-study approach may be helpful in preparing teachers to successfully integrate vocational and academic education.

Time must be provided for teachers to plan lessons, visit businesses or schools, and meet with the curriculum team. Some of this staff development time will involve going out into the business community to see what math, science, social studies, language arts, artistic, and occupational skills are required in the contemporary workplace. Faculty members also may wish to participate in teacher externships, short-term experiences at a business or industry in which teachers spend time in a work environment that reflects their fields of interest. (For further information, refer to the Critical Issue "Providing Professional Development Activities for School-to-Work Initiatives.")

The task of choosing the most appropriate models can be accomplished by a planning team comprising school administrators, vocational and academic teachers, parents, and representatives from the business community. The involvement of community businesses and industries is essential to the development of an integrated school-to-work curriculum.

Audio Item: No Photo AvailableVicki Poole, former director of the Office of School to Work at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, talks about educators and businesspeople working together to ensure that the school curriculum is adequate for life and for work. [280k audio file] Excerpted from the Rural Audio Journal (Vol. 2, No. 3), From School to Work--and Back Again: Apprenticeships for Rural Students (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

Representatives from business, industry, and labor should be encouraged to provide suggestions for curriculum redesign. These business people have a first-hand understanding of the skills that students need and the specific concerns and work opportunities in the area. They can supply opportunities for educators to visit businesses to obtain valuable on-site experience. Business partners can share the requirements and standards their employees must reach to be successful and provide insight into new opportunities that may become available. They, as well as parents, can be strong collaborators with educators in the effort to identify desired learner outcomes that represent what students should know as the result of their K-12 education.

Although an integrated school-to-work curriculum may seem difficult to implement, many high schools are making the effort. Some schools begin with less-complex models of integration that focus on improving academic and vocational classes but keeping them separate. In vocational classes, integration may involve incorporating more rigorous applied academic courses and problem-solving skills. Teachers may wish to emphasize higher order thinking skills in vocational education. Activities such as integrating science and math in vocational education help students make connections between what they learn in different disciplines and authentic activities.

In academic classes, the effort to integrate can begin by including tasks and assignments that have a career focus. Students in English classes, for example, can write a job application letter using correct grammar, research proper formats for the letter, and read and understand want ads or job predictions for the future. Students in social studies or economics classes can discuss how work relates to the needs and functions of the economy and society and what role that relationship will play in their future employment. To promote an integrated curriculum, some state boards of education have developed learning standards that integrate workplace skills and career development competencies into academic subjects such as English and language arts, mathematics, science, social science, physical development and health, fine arts, and foreign language. Hoachlander (1997) states: "By insisting that integration specify the knowledge and skill that a particular activity is designed to teach, we can avoid projects that, while probably fun and even challenging, are not well linked to the current curriculum and may merely repeat subject matter that students have already learned." He finds that using academic and industry standards to design integrated curriculum keeps the focus on educational objectives. This relatively fast and efficient way to develop integrated curriculum activities also makes assessment of the project or activity easier and more reliable.

More complex models of integration can change the way a school is structured. An example of a schoolwide integration project is the Blue Hills Manufacturing Partnership of Weyerhaeuser High School in Weyerhaeuser, Wisconsin. The project involved creating a solar-powered lumber-drying venture managed by the high school students and involving many school departments. Students in health classes developed first-aid and safety procedures for the project. Students in English classes researched logos and studied copyright laws; they also sent letters describing the project to apply for grants. Students in science classes worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to develop a forest-management study of the school's forests for future use; they also explored alternative energy use (Manor, 1995). Some of the objectives of the project were to give students the opportunity to experience an uninterrupted continuation of learning and experiences; to improve achievement in math, science, and communications; and to develop career goals and strategies to achieve those goals. (Further information on the Blue Hills Manufacturing Partnership at Weyerhaeuser High School can be found in the Illustrative Cases.)

Although this partnership was a large-scale project, the integrated curriculum ideas that were developed there need not be limited to projects of this scope but can be used to generate strategies for other schools. Regardless of the model of integration selected, the integrated school-to-work curriculum provides students with opportunities to work together, to solve problems using skills from different disciplines, and to learn through hands-on activities. When teaching and learning processes are based on meaningful situations to which students can relate, students can see the relevance of what they are learning. Because learning has become pertinent, lessons are more valuable to students and seen as a step toward their goals. The result is that students are more likely to put forth the effort to understand and use what they learn. By involving students in work activities or tasks performed by individuals in various occupations, students have an opportunity to reflect on different career fields. In addition, contact that students have with individuals in business, industry, or labor helps them understand options open to them after they finish their education. Offering students career guidance also supports their exploration of career options of interest to them.

An applied and integrated school-to-work curriculum also provides a cushion for students who are unsure about their future plans for school and work or who change their mind in midstream:

"Motivated to persist in academics by their career interests, some students pursuing a vocational program have opted at the last minute to go to college and found themselves fully prepared academically because of effectively integrated programs. Others have found entry-level jobs or apprenticeships and gone directly to work, and some in the college-bound cohort have developed skills they can apply in part-time work while they pursue their college degrees." (Policy Studies Associates, 1995)

Besides improving student outcomes, the benefits of an integrated academic and vocational curriculum relate to school reform through improvements in instruction, academics, teacher cooperation, and school climate. School-to-work curricular integration helps in strengthening and enriching the secondary school curriculum and can be an equitable way to prepare middle-level students for the future. But the importance of meeting the needs of all students cannot be overemphasized. Walker (1996) notes: "An integrative education emphasizes the interdependence of knowledge and processes. Educators who wish to implement an integrated curriculum must reflect its values by recognizing and benefiting from their own interconnection." The value to students in providing them with the integrated approach to learning is the connection they see between what they are learning and how they will be able use that information outside of the school. Teachers and community members combine their experiences and expertise to ensure that students are prepared for the workplace they eventually will be entering, making the learning experience valuable to all participants.


  ACTION OPTIONS: Administrators, teachers, business representatives and community members, and parents can take the following steps to develop an applied and integrated school-to-work curriculum.



Business Representatives and Community Members:


IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: A major barrier to developing an applied and integrated school-to-work curriculum is the stigma that often is attached to vocational education. Many academically oriented stakeholders (including students, parents, teachers, and administrators) believe that vocational education is appropriate only for the less-motivated, low-achieving student. In some schools, this concern is legitimate because vocational education is used as a catch-all for those students who are not college-bound. Further, academically oriented stakeholders may assume that applied learning is less rigorous than traditional academic learning and that academic quality will be compromised if the focus of the curriculum becomes school-to-work integration. To counter these viewpoints, schools should emphasize the benefits of school-to-work for the college-bound. Changing the perspectives of these stakeholders and encouraging them to accept an integrated school-to-work curriculum may require a marketing or public relations strategy to promote the value of vocational education for all students (D'Amico, 1997).

Another major barrier to developing an integreted school-to-work curriculum is turfism, or territorial conflict between vocational and academic teachers (Roegge, Galloway, & Welge, 1991). In many schools, vocational and academic education exist in two separate worlds. Vocational and academic teachers are "separated physically, socially, organizationally, and educationally," notes Inger (1993) and may be reluctant to collaborate. Some vocational teachers wish to maintain the integrity of the vocational curriculum; they may assert the importance of vocational skills and may be reluctant to add academic content. Similarly, academic teachers may resent the integration of vocational issues. Administrators should emphasize the importance of all teachers working together and sharing information within departments, disciplines, and schools to keep open lines of communication and pave the way for integration. Grubb, Davis, Lum, Plihal, and Morgaine (1991) note that turf conflicts often are resolved when teachers see the benefits of an integrated school-to-work curriculum:

"Vocational and academic teachers who have worked with one another are full of discoveries of mutual interest, of topics that both can cover, and of ways in which each can reinforce the work of the other. Cooperation can develop, then, particularly as teachers see the benefits, but the need to foster cooperation must be included in the vision of what integration between vocational and academic education entails." (p. 68)

Compared to urban communities, rural communities may have fewer financial supports to develop and sustain integrated vocational and academic programs. Rural communities also may have less business and industry available for making curriculum-design suggestions. Rojewski (1990) suggests the use of educational cooperatives to develop consolidated programs between school districts. He also notes that rural businesses and industry, though fewer in number and variety than their urban counterparts, may have more incentive to become involved in curriculum reform because "vocational education has been shown to play a pivotal role in arresting economic decline in some rural areas."

Some educators and parents may oppose an integrated school-to-work curriculum because they view work-oriented programs as a form of tracking. In fact, this curriculum bridges academic and vocational tracks by encouraging students to work together in heterogeneous groups based on exploring a career path. Grubb (1995) notes that schools using occupational clusters can engage students from diverse backgrounds who have similar career interests:

"If urban districts develop academies, clusters, or occupational magnet schools around broad occupational groups, then the health cluster can include would-be doctors as well as students who believe they might be medical technicians or licensed practical nurses; if a school emphasizes a program in manufacturing technologies rather than metalwork or welding, then students can receive the kinds of academic and technical training appropriate to engineers as well as assembly-line workers. With this kind of approach, work-centered education need not be considered appropriate only for the non-college-bound; after all, the most sophisticated professional schools are occupational in their emphases as well." (pp. 249-250)

There is a huge difference between tracking students and helping students develop interest in a career field. The link between academic and vocational competencies must be to provide students the opportunities to learn about work--not to prepare students for a specific job. To help parents become more receptive to change, administrators can include parents in the planning process and emphasize the need for all students to develop academic as well as vocational skills.

Teachers too frequently are expected to create a more applied and integrated curriculum without adequate skills, training, or time. Administrators should help teachers find time to meet as a team for planning, exploring other integrated programs, working with industry and business to identify workplace skills needed by future employees, and implementing the new curriculum.

If not developed with an understanding of the goals for authenticity and increased learning, an applied curriculum can result in decreased expectations for students. Using academic standards and content standards as guidelines in applied courses is one way to avoid this pitfall.

  DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some educators voice concern that involving businesses and industry representatives in curriculum planning will produce a watered down academic focus and an overemphasis on workplace skills and training. They believe that business and industry should not dictate what schools should be teaching to students.

Some educators view an applied curriculum as a series of stand-alone applied courses that are taken by students bound for work, associate degrees, or technical training but not necessarily by those bound for four-year colleges and universities. They may consider applied courses to be intellectually inferior to academic courses. This misperception often arises because low-level courses often are called "applied" even though they merely are watered down versions of academic courses (Paris, 1994).


Thomas Jefferson High School, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with the help of the local business community, developed Careers 101, a program that integrates career exploration and preparation into the curriculum.

Weyerhaeuser High School, Weyerhaeuser, Wisconsin developed its own business, the Blue Hills Manufacturing Partnership, and integrated workplace applications into the curriculum.

Through the New American High Schools Initiative, the U.S. Department of Education has recognized 10 high schools as exemplary sites in which students achieve high levels of academic and technical skills, prepare for college and careers, and learn in the context of a career major or special interest.


American Vocational Association
1410 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(800) 826-9972; fax (703) 683-7424

Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD)
P.O. Box 212689
Waco, TX 76702-1689
(800) 972-2766; fax (254) 772-8972

Center on Education and Work
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1025 W. Johnson St., Room 964
Madison WI 53706-1796
(608) 263-3696; fax (608) 262-9197
Contact: John Gugerty

High Schools That Work
Southern Regional Education Board
592 Tenth St. N.W.
Atlanta, GA 30318-5790
(404) 875-9211
Contact: Gene Bottoms, Senior Vice President, or Mary Johnson, Director of Communications and Publications
E-mail: or

National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium (NASCDVTEC)
444 N. Capitol St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 737-0303; fax (202) 737-1106

National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE)
University of California at Berkeley
2030 Addison St., Suite 500
Berkeley, CA 94720-1674
(800) 762-4093 or (510) 642-4004; fax (510) 642-2124

National Network for Curriculum Coordination in Vocational and Technical Education (NNCCVTE)
(This initiative comprises six regional curriculum coordination centers and is funded by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education.)

National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center
400 Virginia Ave., Room 150
Washington, DC 20024
(800) 251-7236; fax (202) 401-6211

Office of Vocational and Adult Education
U.S. Department of Education
4090 MES
330 C St. S.W.
Washington, DC 20202
(202) 205-5451; fax (202) 205-8748


This Critical Issue was written by Kathleen Paris, former director of the Leadership Institute for School-to-Work Transition, Center on Education and Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Lynne Huske, Pathways coordinator at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1998
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