JITE v32n1 - At Issue - The Rebirth of Cooperative Education

Volume 32, Number 1
Fall 1994

FROM THE EDITOR: This 'At Issue' includes two essays. In the first essay, Richard A. Walter expresses his concerns about the future of cooperative education and suggests that we now have an opportunity to strengthen those programs. In the second essay, Jeffrey W. Flesher responds to NAITTE President Thomas Walker's call for continued dialog about the role of NAITTE in shaping the future of vocational education. Flesher contends that the diversity of the NAITTE membership is its primary strength and that we should use that diversity to facilitate the integration of the various groups involved in "education for work." Responses to these or previous "At Issue" essays are encouraged. Instructions for authors are provided in the "Bits & Pieces" section of each issue of the Journal.

The Rebirth of Cooperative Education

Richard A. Walter
The Pennsylvania State University

Some policy makers have expressed the belief that the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (PL 103-239) has sounded the death knell for secondary level cooperative education, thus eliminating the need for teacher education programs to continue providing such courses. However, the Act not only provides an opportunity for cooperative education to rise from the ashes but also to become the key to successful implementation of the Congressional intent.

Cooperative education is not a new idea. In fact, support for co-op programs was included in the provisions of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917. Recognition of the value of cooperative education was further demonstrated by the federal vocational acts of the 1960s and 1970s with categorical funding for its implementation. But the situation changed dramatically with the 1990 Perkins Act. Not only was funding for co-op programs not provided; the act only briefly mentioned cooperative education while repeatedly stressing apprenticeship programs--despite the fact that cooperative education programs enroll far more students.

What happened? Why did the concept of cooperative education fall from favor in the eyes of policy makers?

First, categorical federal funding in the 60s and 70s proved to be a mixed blessing. The rapid development of co-op programs was effectively stimulated, but unfortunately, some were shams created solely to secure funds rather than as a means of providing students with the advantages gained through well run programs. Since the required program evaluation was primarily based upon assessing the number of students placed, coordinators were under great pressure to place as many students as possible, often without regard for the quality of the placement or its relationship to the student's career goals. Further, when federal support was withdrawn, many programs were terminated for being too costly.

A second factor was the improper selection and utilization of the co-op coordinator. Far too often, the individual responsible for the program had not been prepared through an appropriate teacher education/certification process, was an unproductive tenured staff member shuffled into a safe slot, or both. Even when those two problems were not present, another emerged as staffing pressures resulted in co-op coordinators being assigned additional, often conflicting, duties as quasi-administrators.

A third factor has been the labeling of all cooperative education programs with the negative stereotypes frequently applied to secondary level vocational education. Images of narrowly-focused entry-level training, with no opportunities for post-secondary study, do little to attract the interest of students or their parents.

A fourth factor was the elimination of the funds supporting research on, and the evaluation of, secondary level cooperative education programs. When a program does not warrant research and evaluation, it is very likely to be perceived as possessing little value. A final factor is the continuing quest of policy makers to implement their new vision rather than modify and enhance existing ones.

The combined negative effect of these five factors has caused many to perceive cooperative education as costly, inefficient, limiting, and appropriate for only a small portion of the secondary level student population. Yet, the School to Work Opportunities Act ( 1994 ) itself provides an opportunity for those perceptions to be reshaped. In Section #3, "Purposes and Congressional Intent," Purpose #8 charges us

to build on and advance a range of promising school-to-work activities, such as tech-prep education, career academies, school-to-apprenticeship programs, cooperative education, youth apprenticeship, school sponsored enterprises, [and] business-education compacts … that can be developed into programs funded under this Act. (108 STAT.571)

In order to capitalize on this opportunity, teacher educators and cooperative education practitioners must immediately implement a series of modifications, including the following:

  • Select Appropriate Work-Sites - Co-op coordinators must resist pressures to place every student without regard for the quality of the placement. The placement must also be aligned with the career goals of the student.
  • Capitalize on Career Awareness - The Act specifies an earlier beginning for work-based exploration and training. This provides the co-op coordinator with an excellent opportunity to become a critical part of the career education process for all students.
  • Expand the Target Population - Secondary level co-op programs have been targeted primarily at students who plan to enter the labor force immediately after graduation. That narrow focus must now be expanded to include those who plan to continue their studies at the post-secondary level.
  • Redesign Training Agreements - Work-based training plans must provide students with a broader range of experiences within the selected occupation. They must also prescribe clearly the progression of skill development the student will experience. In some cases, this will lead to immediate employment opportunities. In others, it will provide the student with a base from which to engage more effectively in post-secondary education.
  • Emphasize Post-secondary Options - Co-op students can and do go on to post-secondary education, and this must be communicated more effectively. Beyond that, opportunities to establish advanced standing evaluations for competencies mastered and formal articulation agreements must be pursued more diligently.
  • Document Skill Development - The creation and explanation of transportable skill certificates will facilitate the development of training plans and articulation agreements; assist students in gaining employment subsequent to their co-op experience; and demonstrate the value of the program to students, parents, school board members, employers, and legislators.
  • Revise Related Theory - The related theory class provides an ideal environment within which to advance the integration of academic and vocational education. Academic teachers and the work site mentor can collaborate in broadening and coordinating the content.
  • Establish Mentor Training - Vocational educators and industrial trainers have long recognized that an effective worker is not necessarily an effective instructor. The work-site mentor must be adequately prepared if the student is to attain the outcomes detailed in the training plan.
  • Involve All Stakeholders - The 1991 GAO study, Transition From School to Work: Linking Education and Worksite Training , identifies several problems that deter students from participating in cooperative education. These include a lack of awareness on the part of potential employers, lack of support from faculty and counselors, scheduling conflicts, lack of transportation, parents' desire for their child to study at the post-secondary level, students' ignorance of potential benefits, and on-the-job insurance issues. These problems highlight the critical need for a greater level of awareness and involvement by all stakeholders, since none is insurmountable if all stakeholders are committed to success.
  • Invest for Success - The higher level of stakeholder involvement can insure that the individuals responsible for the programs are well-prepared, qualified, motivated, and provided with sufficient resources.

Cooperative education, if it capitalizes on its strengths and rectifies its weaknesses via the suggested modifications, will not only survive the School to Work Opportunities Act but can emerge as the key element of its implementation.


United States Congress. (1994). The school to work opportunities act of 1994 . Public Law 103-239. Washington, DC: Author.

United States General Accounting Office. (1991). Transition from school to work: Linking education and worksite training . (GAO Publication No. HRD-91-105). Gaithersburg, MD: Author.