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Critical Issue:
Developing Work-Based Learning Opportunities

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ISSUE: Schools are being asked to provide more rigorous and expansive work-based learning opportunities to a broader range of students. Work-based learning is one option that schools can consider for providing meaningful and engaged learning for students.To provide work-based learning experiences for all students, educators must develop an understanding of work-based learning options and facilitate the development of new partnerships between employers and schools.

OVERVIEW: According to the report America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! (National Center on Education and the Economy, Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 1990), many American students are not obtaining the educational skills necessary to compete globally or to become a high-skills workforce. The U.S. government and business community have called on public education to improve the academic and occupational skill levels of these students. Pressure from these groups has energized the national momentum for adoption of work-based learning experiences and youth apprenticeship options. It also has generated current interest in improving school-to-work transition for all students.

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 has placed new expectations on work-based learning. A quality work-based learning program:

Work-based learning programs include youth apprenticeship, cooperative education, school-supervised work experience, career academies, and work simulation. Although diverse in their goals and substance, these programs have common elements. They all respond to the national demands for students to attain strong academic and occupational skills and for schools to provide a more structured transition for students from secondary school to postsecondary education and to work.

Picture and Voice of Jerry PattersonJerry Patterson, District Administrator in the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wisconsin, talks about the technical preparation program as a combination of academics and real world hands-on experience. Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #7, Preparing Students for Work in the 21st Century (NCREL, 1992). A text version is available.

GOALS: One goal of school-to-work initiatives is to provide access to structured work-based learning experiences for all secondary school students, including academically talented students, disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and students of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. A second goal is to develop and provide a broad range of quality work-based learning options, including youth apprenticeship, cooperative education, and work simulation.

Picture of Joe D'Amico and Voices of Joe D'Amico and Ed JanusJoe D'Amico and Ed Janus, hosts of NCREL's Rural Audio Journal, discuss the Fox Cities Apprenticeship Program at the Fox Valley Technical Institute in Appleton, Wisconsin. Excerpted from NCREL's Rural Audio Journal, volume 2, number 3, From School to Work--and Back Again: Apprenticeships for Rural Students (NCREL, 1994). A text version is available.

A third goal of school-to-work initiatives is to establish productive partnerships between educators, business people, community members, students, and parents in order to plan and implement successful work-based learning opportunities.

ACTION OPTIONS: Administrators can take the following steps to develop work-based learning opportunities:

Teachers can take the following steps to ensure that their classes relate to the world of work:

The workplace mentor can take the following steps to facilitate the student's work-based learning experience:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Adequate planning is an essential first step in implementing any work-based learning program. All partners in the implementation process should have a thorough understanding of the time, effort, and cost involved in implementing a program. If this foundation is lacking, further problems may result. Students may be inadequately prepared to enter the program. Student outcomes may be misunderstood, and there may be no support for postsecondary education options. State and federal child labor laws may be incongruent, labor market needs may be ignored, and the roles and tasks of partners may be unclear.

Implementation of work-based learning programs requires a great deal of organization and coordination. If a program faces funding deadlines, decisions may be made in haste and cause the program to be inadequate or ineffective. A new organizational model for school-to-work transition is necessary to accommodate ongoing collaboration among a broad range of partners, including the school board, administrators, teachers, counselors, students, parents, postsecondary institutions, business, industry, labor, and the community. A core of quality work-based learning pedagogy, curriculum, and delivery structures needs to be fully developed and implemented. Substantial professional development is required for teachers, counselors, administrators, employers, and mentors.

Successful implementation of work-based learning programs requires strategies for identifying potential employers and for recruiting employers. Some employers are reluctant to provide paid work opportunities for students. They must be assured that they will be tapping into a new pool of potential employees, and that the training of those students will be a cost-effective measure. In addition, they will be providing a community service by acting as partners in the education process.

Recruitment is more likely to be successful if educators anticipate employer concerns and emphasize the economic benefits of the work-based learning program. Sometimes a business intermediary can be helpful in facilitating employer recruitment. Recruitment also is an ongoing process. Employers need to be encouraged and rewarded. Maintaining motivated, active involvement of employers is an essential part of any work-based learning program.


Two major issues underlie a debate often associated with work-based learning. The first issue relates to targeting. It questions whether work-based learning programs should be targeted for selected students or should be available to all students. Some educators view work-based learning as a way to prepare students for the world of work. They believe it should be an option for all students, regardless of whether or not they plan to attend college. Other educators say that work-based learning opportunities should be offered first to students who are not planning to attend college. They reason that students who will be entering the workforce earlier should be given job preparation opportunities earlier. Still other educators view work-based learning as a way to motivate hard-to-reach students. They believe it should be aimed at this population.

The second issue is related to the first and has to do with tracking. Some educators view work-based learning as a subtle form of tracking that unnecessarily limits student choices. They believe that by entering a program of work-based learning, youngsters cancel their chances to take college preparatory courses, fine arts courses, or any other courses that do not relate to their chosen vocational area.


Kalamazoo County's Education for Employment


Center on Education and Work
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Educational Sciences Building
1025 W. Johnson St., Room 964
Madison, WI 53706-1796
608-263-2714; fax 608-262-9197
Contact: Dr. L. Allen Phelps

Jobs for the Future
One Bowdain Square, 11th Floor
Boston, MA 02114
Contact: Mary Ellen Bavaro


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Sarah Mason, Outreach Specialist, Center on Education and Work, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date posted: 1996
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