JITE v33n3 - Under Review - Learning to Work: Making the Transition from School to Work

Volume 33, Number 3
Spring 1996

Office of Technology Assessment. (1995). Learning to work: Making the transition from school to work. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, $7.00, 106 pp. (ISBN 052-003-01439-4).

Dan Brown
Murray State University

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) of 1994 was passed to assist states and local communities in establishing comprehensive transition systems designed to help young adults effectively connect school with further education and career opportunities. STWOA was planned around the implementation of three essential elements: school-based learning, work-based learning, and activities designed to connect school and work-based learning. Congress directed the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to assess the potential benefits and barriers to implementation of work-based learning, the heart of the School-To-Work Opportunities Act. This assessment looked for answers to three main questions:

  • What are the alternative models of work-based learning and how effective are they?
  • What new learning technologies could support work-based learning?
  • How can employers be persuaded to provide work-based learning experiences for students? (pp. 1-2).

Learning to Work is a synthesis of research studies by the Office of Technology Assessment and other researchers that focus on these aspects of implementing work-based learning. The target audience appears to be educators, administrators, and others who assume the responsibility for designing and implementing school-to-work systems, those persons responsible for encouraging business participation, and those who must assure that STWOA funded programs have impacts on students that are consistent with the legislative intent of improving the preparation of students for their careers while enhancing workforce productivity.

Learning to Work contains six chapters: (1) "Summary and Findings," (2) "Background and Introduction," (3) "Processes of Work-Based Learning," (4) "Structuring Work-Based Learning," (5) "Work-Based Learning Models and Evidence of Effectiveness," and (6) "Employer Participation in Work-Based Learning."

The first chapter contains descriptions of the Congressional request for the study, the rationale behind the STWOA legislation, and the definition of work-based learning that guided this assessment. The findings are organized around the following topics: (a) Effectiveness of Work-Based Learning, (b) Technology Assisted Learning, (c) Employer Participation in Work-Based Learning, (d) Possible Incentives for Expanding Employer Participation, and (e) STWOA.

It is reported that past work-based learning efforts have yielded mixed results. Most students and employers report that they are satisfied with the programs, but generally small positive effects have been reported on outcomes such as school attendance, grades, graduation rates, post-secondary enrollments, and earnings. Increased input from diverse stakeholder groups, required by the STWOA, is designed to increase the probability of success. Effective implementation requires considerable effort and coordination among these stakeholders. Career exploration and development of generic work skills were deemed best suited to secondary implementation, while development of occupational skills was identified as best suited to postsecondary implementation.

Studies on technology-assisted learning conclude that several types of technology-assisted learning appear to hold potential, but many of these require expensive educational technologies. Further, several of these instructional technologies are difficult for teachers to modify at the local level when the need arises.

Findings about employer participation in work-based learning indicate that growth in employer participation has been modest. Employer recruitment and retention has proved to be more time intensive than many expected, with only a few communities reporting success in recruiting large numbers of employers.

This chapter also includes a discussion of possible incentives for expanding employer participation. It is reported that a range of benefits and disincentives are associated with employer decisions about participation. Simultaneous policy changes aimed at increasing employer participation may need to include issues such as better student preparation, stronger connecting activities, reduction of employers' training costs, and address regulatory and insurance concerns. Further studies are recommended to learn about effective strategies to increase levels of employer participation.

Chapter 1 concludes with the prediction that implementation of work-based learning will be slow and difficult. There is ambiguity about which students should be included. It has taken time to build positive reputations and change old attitudes. Even the best prototype school-to-work sites have generally taken 5 years or more to implement and refine. Early indications are that many minority youth have been served, but some gender stereotyping has persisted. Some prototype sites have reported success in getting students to enroll in postsecondary programs, but it is too soon to tell if those students have been adequately prepared to succeed. It will take more than a decade to fully evaluate the effects of STWOA systems on students' success.

Chapter 2, "Background and Introduction," presents a brief history of work-based learning in the United States, followed by a discussion of problems associated with school-to-work transitions and an overview of the STWOA.

The third chapter, "Processes of Work-Based Learning," describes seven types of knowledge and skill necessary for most work: sensory interpretation, sensorimotor dexterity, tricks of the trade, local history of problems, work style, coordinating activities, and linguistic skills. Five work-based learning processes (experiential learning, work-group learning, mentoring, workplace instruction, and technology-assisted learning) are then explored.

"Structuring Work-Based Learning," Chapter 4, examines several variations in work-based learning systems that differ based upon decisions about (a) the student populations served; (b) learning objectives; (c) level and means of school-based instruction; (d) timing, intensity, duration, and progression of work experiences; (e) settings where work-based learning occurs; and (f) payment or nonpayment of students.

The fifth chapter, "Work-Based Learning Models and Evidence of Effectiveness," examines several models for work-based learning, including youth apprenticeship, clinical training, cooperative education, school-to-apprenticeship, school-based-enterprises, and career academies. This discussion begins with the caveats that (a) there are no established definitions of these models; (b) when implemented, the models have often been modified or adapted to local needs; and (c) actual implementations seldom matched original intentions or designs. Each model is first described as observed, then matched with evaluation results gleaned from the literature.

"Employer Participation in Work-Based Learning," the final chapter, begins with an examination of the numbers of employers who participate in work-based learning. OTA notes that the median growth rate across the 15 examined programs, over the previous 2 years, has been only 6 employers per year. The median increase in number of students served has been only 11 students per year (14 percent growth rate) for the same 15 programs and time frame. This discussion concludes with implications for the recruitment of employers into work-based learning programs.

Legislative attention and substantial funding lend a sense of often unquestioning legitimacy and high expectations to many school reform efforts. The STWOA has had that effect in many ways. Much of the literature about work-based learning has been speculative rather than research based, focusing on the promise or vision of the implementation and not on barriers that must be overcome if that promise is to be realized. Learning to Work is refreshing in that it takes the less-traveled road. As social scientists, as well as advocates, the authors report mixed results frankly, even while remaining committed to the promise of work-based learning. Likewise, when discussing employer participation and attitudes, both incentives and disincentives are explored. I found this report to be both interesting and informative, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in implementation of work-based learning as part of a school-to-work system.

Post Script

Sadly, effective September 29th, 1995 the Office of Technology Assessment, who supported this excellent work, was closed. Copies of this report are available from the U.S. Government Printing Office (telephone at [202] 512-1800) for $7.00 by ordering stock number 052-003-01439-4. To order, address the Superintendent of Document, PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA, 15250-7974. Readers can access this report electronically through the following Internet tools: WWW: http://ww.ota.gov; FTP: otabbs.ota.gov; log in as anonymous, your password is your e-mail address, publications are in the /pub directory; TELNET: otabbs.ota.gov; log in as public, password is public.


Brown is Assistant Professor, Dept. of Industrial and Engineering Technology, Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky.

Reference Citation: Brown, D. C. (1996). Review of Learning to work: Making the transition from school to work. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33(3), 96-99.

Tracy Gilmore