JVER v25n3 - Revisiting Applied Academics: A Review of a Decade of Selected Literature

Volume 25, Number 3

Revisiting Applied Academics:
A Review of a Decade of Selected Literature

Donna E. Dare
Richland Community College


After a decade of implementation of tech prep, many aspects of applied academics curriculum are still not fully understood. In revisiting applied academics through a review of a decade of selected literature, the author provides a review of implementation of applied academics. In addition, the review of literature includes a summary of selected empirical research studies on the effects and benefits of applied academics. Although many problems associated with applied academics still have not been resolved, this review of literature indicates that over the past decade applied academics courses have been de-emphasized while applied teaching methodologies have risen in importance. The review concludes that the impact of applied academics on students' academic performance and attitudes is mixed, and that much more needs to be learned about how applied academics curriculum influences students.


Tech prep was first proposed formally as an educational reform initiative in The Neglected Majority ( Parnell, 1985 ), which outlined the structure of a 2+2 educational initiative to promote advanced academic and technical skills for the majority of students, namely, those whose ability level is between the 25th and 75th percentile. Since that time a number of legislative initiatives, including the Carl D. Perkins Act Amendments of 1990 and 1998 and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, have addressed the need for education that meets the academic and vocational needs of students through less traditional and more contextual school- and work-based learning opportunities. During the past decade, the school-based and curricular components of these legislative initiatives have consistently included applied academics.

The term applied academics has been included in tech prep legislation since its inception as part of the federal Carl D. Perkins Acts of 1990 and 1998. Both laws specify that a tech prep education should consist of a combined secondary and postsecondary program that builds competence in core academic areas through the use of applied academics and integrated instruction. Thus, applied academics are to be implemented and made available to students in schools where tech prep is a vehicle for educational reform. In 1995, over 1,000 local consortia indicated they had implemented tech prep, including almost 70% of all U.S. school districts serving 88% of all American high school students ( Hershey, Silverberg, Owens, & Hulsey, 1998 ). Even so, the local implementation of tech prep has been quite diverse ( Bragg, Layton, & Hammons, 1994 ; Hershey, Silverberg, & Owens, 1995 ; Hershey et al., 1998 ; Silverberg, 1996 ; Silverberg & Hershey, 1995 ).

Although literature indicates that applied academics have been implemented by 96% of all tech prep consortia by 1995 ( Hershey et al., 1998 ), little information exists about the effects of that implementation. To understand the complexities of applied academics and how learning through applied academics affects students, full consideration needs to be given to how applied academics have been conceptualized and implemented. It is also important to recognize problems encountered as a result of implementation, and if, how, and why applied academics have benefited students. Whereas some studies need to and, in fact, have assessed student outcomes (e.g., academic performance, postsecondary transition, persistence in college) (e.g., Bragg et al., 1999 ; Burchett, 1995 ; Field, 1997 ; Klimbal, 1996 ), little has been done to understand the complex impact of applied academics.

Problem Statement

Now, after ten years of implementation of tech prep under the directives of the 1990 and later the 1998 Carl D. Perkins legislation (which includes applied academics), the need exists to understand results of ongoing implementation of essential components of tech prep and to assess the value or impact of these various components. Educational leaders are offering a variety of suggestions for addressing the evolution of major components of tech prep. One suggestion draws upon the basic tenets of tech prep and outlines the development of a new system ( Hull, 2000 ), one which weaves the thread of applied academics throughout several of its legislated essential elements. Parnell ( 2000 ), widely recognized the father of tech prep, suggests holding to the same basic tenets of tech prep, including applied academics, but renaming the initiative college tech prep. Over 20 states engaged in the High Schools That Work (HSTW) initiative, which is a tech prep-related reform designed to replace the general track of education, are addressing the challenge of substantiating student outcomes through reconfigured vocational and academic education. As educational reform moves forward, particularly the reform of vocational or career and technical education, it is important to establish a common and current understanding of the essential components of tech prep and to assess their benefits for students. Only then can we effectively advance educational reform. Decisions made to change essential components of tech prep that are not based on common understanding and evidence of impact are premature and have the potential to put essential components of tech prep reform at risk.

Purpose of the Study

Given the need to better understand essential components of tech prep and their benefit to students, a literature review was conducted to synthesize extant literature during the 1990s when reform of vocational and academic education was underway. More specifically, this review of literature was designed to accomplish three primary goals (a) to review the status of the implementation of applied academics during the decade of the 1990s, the conceptualization of applied academics, and the problems associated with implementation; (b) to review empirical research studies describing the effects and benefits of applied academics; and (c) to serve as the basis for identifying implications for ongoing research and practice in applied academics. As the political landscape and language surrounding tech prep continues to evolve, it is important to clarify understanding of applied academics as an essential component of tech prep and to learn more about how this component benefits students.


This study was intended to provide an overview of the evolution of applied academics literature during the 1990s. Literature was selected based on the extent to which it enhanced understanding of the scope of, conceptualization of, and problems associated with the implementation of applied academics and provided information regarding the benefits of applied academics on student outcomes. A number of educational databases were searched, with ERIC emerging as the primary resource revealing over 150 publications on applied academics. In addition, Dissertation Abstracts International served as an important resource, providing almost 90 dissertations whose primary topic was applied academics. Topics related to applied academics were searched using descriptors such as integration, tech prep, applied learning, and contextual teaching and learning; these searches produced literature of value, although some literature extended beyond the intended purpose of this article. Many publications dealt with applied academics through the context of implementation of tech prep and the Carl D. Perkins legislation. Articles and publications that did not specifically emphasize findings related to the stated purpose of this study were not included. Seminal works by authors active in writing about tech prep and applied academics implementation and major research studies dealing with these topics were critical to the literature search process. In terms of benefits to learners, empirical studies dealing with specific student outcomes such as academic achievement, preparedness for college, and student attitudes toward learning were also central to this review of literature.

Theoretical Considerations

One of the major problems in moving toward a more complete understanding of applied academics is that although contextual learning is linked with applied academics and is described as a theory of learning ( Biggs, Hinton, & Duncan, 1996 ; Crawford, 1999 ; Hull & Grevelle, 1998 ; Hull & Souders, 1996 ; Keif & Stewart, 1996 ), it is absent from most discussions of major learning theories. Parnell ( 1995 , 1999 ) in particular focuses on contextual learning as a strongly rooted educational philosophy. Other more widely accepted theories of learning such as the theory of multiple intelligences ( Gardner, 1983 , 1991 , 1993 ; Sternberg, 1995 ) and the theory of situated learning ( Brown, Collins, & Duiguid, 1989 ; Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989 ; Greenfield, 1984 ; McLellan, 1996 ; Rogoff, 1990 ) certainly bear relevance to applied academics, and these theories outline a wide range of strategies such as cognitive apprenticeship, scaffolding, and cognitive mentoring whereby learners acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities that they can use and apply in a variety of settings. These theories are perhaps rooted more deeply in the theoretical foundation of constructivism ( Abdal-Haqq, 1998 ; Bruner, 1990 ; Resnick, 1989 ) where teachers act as facilitator, guides, and coaches rather than dispensers of knowledge and learners actively engage in inquiry, problem solving, and collaboration. Each of these learning theories contributes some rationale for conceptualizing applied academics, even though a single, widely accepted theory of learning has not validated applied academics.

While it is possible that too few attempts have been made to clarify related terms such as applied academics, applied learning, contextual teaching and learning, and integration, this literature review reflects the eclecticism of theoretical perspectives associated with applied academics. Recognizing that empirical evidence of student outcomes related to applied academics is scant, this review sought literature supporting the implementation of applied academics as a way of strengthening the link between the theory and practice.


The following information, based on a review of the literature published during the decade of the 1990s, outlines the scope of implementation of applied academics, an overview of the way applied academics has been conceptualized throughout its implementation, and a review of some of the problems associated with implementation.

The Scope, Conceptualization and Implementation of Applied Academics

Throughout the decade of the 1990s much was written about implementation and adoption of applied academics, with a great deal of emphasis on secondary education. This emphasis was logical since most tech prep initiatives began to build from the bottom up, from the secondary to the postsecondary level ( Bragg, Layton, & Hammons, 1994 ; Bragg, Kirby, Puckett, Trinkle, & Watkins, 1994 ; Bragg et al., 1999 ; Bragg & Reger, 2001 ; Grubb, 1997 ; Hull & Parnell, 1991 ; Silverberg & Hershey, 1995 ; Wang & Owens, 1995 ). In reviewing research from the early part of the decade of the 1990s on academic and vocational integration, Bodilly, Ramsey, Stasz, and Eden ( 1993 ) cited research by Adelman ( 1989 ) and Grubb ( 1991 ) indicating that adoption of applied academics courses was recognized as a common approach to curriculum enhancement and to the reform of vocational education. More specifically, these researchers indicated that, representative of early efforts in implementing applied academics during the 1980s, the state of Ohio recommended the adoption of Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD) materials as a means of supporting applied and integrated academics. Similarly, Dornsife ( 1992 ) confirmed the common practice of adopting CORD materials and using them as a starting point for academic and vocational integration. Grubb, Badway, Bell, and Kraskouskas ( 1996 ) indicated this pattern was still apparent by the mid-1990s. Due to the strength of CORD's efforts in developing and marketing curriculum materials and courses to support the implementation of applied academics, this essential component of tech prep was often associated with specific applied academics materials or courses, usually developed by CORD.

Beginning in the mid-1990s and following that time, nationwide studies confirmed this pattern of implementation of applied academics. Emerging models of tech prep used local- or state-developed applied academics curriculum that covered subject areas such as biology, chemistry, English and other language arts, economics, and history. Overall, the subjects in which applied academics curriculum was introduced most frequently between 1991 and 1993 were mathematics (74% of tech prep consortia), English and other language arts (63%), and physics (51%) ( Silverberg & Hershey, 1995 ). However, by 1995 those figures had dropped to 56% for math, 56% for English and other language arts, and 45% for physics ( Hershey et al., 1998 ). Despite this decline, Hershey et al. concluded by 1998 that the introduction of new applied academics curricula remained a major emphasis of tech prep program development. Though states such as Texas ( Texas Education Agency, 1994 ), focused on applied teaching methodologies rather than on specific courses, by the mid-1990s, several states had adopted CORD materials, sometimes supporting their use with professional development activities. A longitudinal study of eight mature tech prep consortia by Bragg et al. ( 1999 ) has confirmed this pattern.

Conceptualization of Applied Academics

Despite the strong association of applied academics as courses or curricular materials, applied academics can be more comprehensive in nature. In perhaps one of the more exhaustive definitions and descriptions of applied academics offered early on, Hull and Parnell ( 1991 ) set forth applied academics as a critical foundation piece for technical careers and for the Tech Prep Associate Degree (TPAD). More specifically, they defined applied academics as "the presentation of subject matter in a way that integrates a particular academic discipline (such as mathematics, science, or English) with personal work-force applications (hands on laboratories dealing with practical equipment and devices)" ( p. 70 ). They explained that applied academics blend "head skill" and "hand skill" ( p. 70 ). To accomplish curricular reform that leads to the completion of an associate degree, they recommended an emphasis on context-based teaching, parenthetically referred to by Hull and Parnell as applied academics, thus linking applied academics and contextual teaching and learning to tech prep almost from the outset. Apparently Hull and Parnell ( 1991 ) drew conclusions at this point based on a 1985 pilot test conducted in numerous schools in 35 states. Their initial test of Principles of Technology and other efforts at infusing academics (math, science, and communications) into existing vocational courses proved important to the evolution of applied academics.

In their text outlining efforts of the Southern Region Education Board (SREB) to use tech prep as a vehicle for educational reform, Bottoms, Presson, and Johnson ( 1992 ) described the centrality and the benefits of applied learning of academic subject matter to the launching of the High Schools That Work (HSTW) initiative in the late 1980s, thus linking applied learning with applied academics courses and materials. Drawing upon their early research in pilot sites in a number of states, Bottoms, Presson, and Johnson touted the benefits of applied approaches to learning, including the extensive use of applied academics curriculum.

Similarly, in another report citing early efforts in the use of applied academics from the business/industry perspective, the National Alliance of Business identified applied academics as a basic of youth apprenticeship and defined applied academics as incorporating coursework reflecting higher standards; subject matter taught in an applied context of concrete, real world examples; employers assisting in the development of the curriculum; integrated vocational and academic subject matter; and opportunities to apply theory to technical training ( National Alliance of Business, 1994 ).

By the mid-1990s, several doctoral dissertations reflected somewhat more conceptual considerations of applied academics and helped to define terminology. Perkins ( 1994 ) defined applied academics as "subject matter which is taught in such a way that academic concepts are presented using real-world, work-related applications" ( p. 5 ) and associating applied academics courses closely with the tech prep concept. Citing Atkinson, Lunsford, and Hollingsworth ( 1993 ), Burchett ( 1995 ) defined applied academics as "an approach in which academic skills are taught within a contextual framework that is meaningful to students" ( p. 3 ). She also referred to applied academics as "making authentic connections" ( p. 3 ) and emphasizing relevance, with the course content including practical applications based on real world and work place situations. Her study emphasized the value of applied academics in increasing student motivation and excitement in learning. Later, Shields ( 1997 ) stated that applied academics feature "workplace-related activities, simulations and group-work" ( p. 7 ), with emphasis placed on the application of academic subject matter to real life.

Drawing up the evaluation literature, Wang and Owens ( 1995 ) documented the business perspective toward applied academics and tech prep around the mid-1990s. In association with their assessment of a major applied academics project sponsored by The Boeing Company, Wang and Owens ( 1995 ) defined applied academics as

a generic term used to describe curricula developed over the past decade that shows the relevance of subjects such as physics, mathematics, and language arts in the workplace. According to the researchers, these curricula are aimed particularly at the two middle quartiles of students who may find general and college-bound classes irrelevant. ( p. 8 )

Thus, certainly by the mid-1990s, the literature was addressing applied academics not just as courses and materials but rather as a means of bringing relevance to teaching and learning of academic subject matter in a wide variety of contexts.

Definitions of applied academics were not the only considerations related to applied academics that were changing by the mid-1990s. Opinions regarding the intended purpose and audience for applied academics were also beginning to vary in the literature. In some instances applied academics curriculum was to include traditional content ( Missouri University, Columbia, 1996 ); in other instances applied academics were expected to include more rigorous academic instruction ( Lynch, Smith, & Rojewski, 1994 ) or higher standards ( National Alliance of Business, 1994 ). Whereas the primary audience of students to be served by applied academics varied, most authors indicated that applied academics were relevant for all students, including the non-college bound ( Lynch et al., 1994 ); secondary and postsecondary students ( Alexander, 1996 ; Grubb, 1997 ; Hull & Parnell, 1991 ; Lynch et al., 1994 ); middle majority students ( Wang & Owens, 1995 ); and students in vocational settings and courses ( Hull & Parnell, 1991 ).

More often discussed as curricula or courses, applied academics also encompassed instructional methodology in the early- to mid-1990s literature. In fact, emphasis on teaching methodologies increased even more by the mid- to late-1990s. Whereas Hull and Parnell ( 1991 ) emphasized context-based teaching and learning as foundational to applied academics, more emphasis was given to teaching methods in later works by the Ohio Office of School-to-Work ( 1996 ), and Missouri University, Columbia ( 1996 ). More recently, in their national evaluation report about tech prep, Hershey et al. ( 1998 ) indicated that for approximately 90% of tech prep initiatives, applied approaches to teaching have been emphasized more extensively than applied academics curriculum materials.

Researchers ( Alexander, 1996 ; Bottoms et al., 1992 ; Grubb, 1997 ; Hull & Parnell, 1991 ; Lynch et al., 1994 ; Missouri University, Columbia, 1996 ; National Alliance of Business, 1994 ; Parnell, 1985 ; Silverberg & Hershey, 1995 ; Wang & Owens, 1995 ) differ on the content and audiences for applied academics, but they agree that the purposes for using applied academics are even more diverse. Purposes espoused in the literature include that applied academics:

  • are a means of promoting rigor.
  • are a vehicle for curriculum reform particularly in association with tech prep.
  • serve as a basis for contextual teaching and learning.
  • prepare students for employment and lifelong learning.
  • are a means of integration.
  • promote connection between the classroom and the real world.
  • promote connection between the classroom and the world of work.
  • are a means of getting started with integration.
  • meet the academic needs of the middle majority of students who find academic learning irrelevant.
  • blend head and hand skills.
  • help prepare students for the technological demands of the work force.

Bottoms et al. ( 1992 ), Edling ( 1993 ), Grubb ( 1991 , 1997 ), Hull & Grevelle ( 1998 ), Hull & Parnell, ( 1991 ), McNeir ( 1994 ), Newsom-Stewart ( 1995 ), and Parnell ( 1995 ) indicate a number of descriptors for applied academics such as hands-on; contextual; interactive; and motivational. Applied academics instruction is also characterized by group projects and discussions, requiring active participation of the learner, through teamwork and collaboration. Applied academics are further described as using alternate materials for instructional purposes, giving students opportunities to apply theory to technical training. Most certainly the term applied academics has come to mean more than off-the-shelf curriculum materials used in vocational settings ( Hershey et al., 1998 ; Parnell, 1995 , 1999 ; Silverberg & Hershey, 1995 ).

Furthermore, the literature seems to suggest that contextual and applied learning is more of a theory (see, for example, Crawford, 1999 ; Hull & Grevelle, 1998 ; Keif & Stewart, 1996 ; Parnell, 1985 , 1996 ) and integration is more of a strategy (see, for example, Bodilly et al., 1993 ; Grubb et al., 1996 ; Stasz, Kaganoff, & Eden, 1993 ). Contextual and applied learning also seems to be characterized somewhat more comprehensively in the literature and is frequently described more from theoretical or methodological points of view ( Bottoms et al., 1992 ; Crawford, 1999 ; Hull & Grevelle, 1998 ; Hull & Parnell, 1991 ; Parnell, 1995 ). On the other hand, the concept of applied academics has been set forth more concretely, primarily as curriculum and/or courses and as a resource for integration. Nonetheless, as Grubb ( 1997 ), McNeir ( 1995 ), Newsom-Stewart ( 1995 ), Pucel, Brown, & Kuchinke, ( 1996 ), and Owens ( 1997 ) have indicated, even more careful conceptualization of applied academics is needed.

Problems Associated with Applied Academics

Perhaps due to its strong association with CORD materials focusing on lower-level academics courses widely labeled as applied, problems have been associated with applied academics over the decade of the 1990s. Even with expanded implementation of applied academics, questions remain as to their validity in the teaching and learning process. Over the history of implementation of applied academics, criticism has proliferated.

Image problems and tracking. Despite attempts to blur the boundaries between academic and vocational education ( Oakes, 1992 ; Oakes, Selvin, Karoly & Guiton, 1992 ) and serve students from various educational tracks, negative perceptions of vocational education programs have plagued the implementation of tech prep and applied academics. Oakes et al. ( 1992 ) also identified formal and informal counseling and placement practices that, in effect, resulted in tracking students into lower level academic classes, limiting less advantaged students' access to curriculum options. Little ( 1992 ) offered related conclusions resulting from a study confirming many of the cultural barriers to integration and applied academics (again, failing to disentangle the terminology), including teacher perceptions of a good schedule-one obtained only by senior teachers and consisting of upper-level classes and good students. Dornsife ( 1992 ) indicated that some high schools adopted CORD's Applied Math and Applied Communications courses as remedial, targeting general track students or as prerequisites for regular academic courses. Stasz et al. ( 1993 ) reported similar barriers associated with the negative image of vocational education, applied academics, and tracking, as did Bragg and colleagues in numerous studies (see, for example, Bragg, Layton, & Hammons, 1994 ; Bragg et al., 1997 ).

Increased demands on teachers. In addition to problems with image and tracking, other issues have plagued applied academics. Stasz et al. ( 1993 ) wrote, "In sites implementing different forms of integration-from applied academics to more ambitious models-both academic and vocational teachers can experience significant changes in roles" ( p. 40 ). These changes include new teaching responsibilities including vocational teachers teaching more employability skills and academic teachers teaching more applied courses, new methods of developing curricula, new and more diverse types of students to teach, and new subject areas to master. Likewise, Owens ( 1997 ) wrote that the role of teachers engaged in education for occupations is no longer confined to the delivery of knowledge and information and includes such roles as learning manager, coach, and mentor. No matter whether academics were infused into curriculum at a relatively unsophisticated level or whether more complex models of integration were implemented, the demands on faculty to prepare and teach applied academics and integrated courses were perceived to be excessive, and many institutions provided little in terms of release time and professional development ( Bodilly et al., 1993 ; Grubb et al., 1996 ; Stasz et al., 1993 ). Problems such as these did not disappear as implementation advanced during the 1990s; nor were they unique to the secondary setting ( Bragg et al., 1997 ; Grubb et al., 1996 ).

Additionally, the time and resources required for collaboration designed to enhance the use of applied academics places increased demands on teachers. Several researchers (e.g., Brewer & Gray, 1997 ; Grubb, 1995 ; Little, Erbstein, & Walker, 1996 ) indicated that applied academics have failed to produce collaborative efforts that have substantially changed classroom practice at the secondary or the postsecondary level. Grubb ( 1995 ) also found that, rather than benefiting from collaborative efforts and gaining access to new resources that enhance teaching and learning, academic teachers often default to off-the-shelf materials.

Questions of academic rigor. According to Grubb et al. ( 1996 ), since applied academics materials were often installed initially as remedial courses (at both the secondary and the postsecondary levels), as electives without direct linkage to vocational courses, or as courses with ambiguous purpose within a larger sequence of courses, their value is unclear. In part because questions of rigor and content have not been resolved, the place of applied academics courses remain unresolved, as has the question of the ideally suited audience of students for applied academics.

Particularly in regard to mathematics where debates over theoretical or applied approaches to teaching math have raged for years, the implementation of applied academics courses has contributed to debates about the validity of applied academics. Forman and Steen ( 1999 ) posited that mathematics provides a microcosm of the division between the academic and the vocational. They further argued that vocational curriculum has been designed historically to prepare students for work and, as result, has been assigned a second-class status because of questions of centrality to schooling and academic rigor. This is problematic because, as Forman and Steen point out, some high-performance workplaces impose a higher standard than do some traditional academics. They propose that real-world problems require students to develop critical thinking skills neglected in academic courses that proceed from topic to topic in a rush to cover a certain set of materials. Therefore they recommend the adoption of functional mathematics where utility is center stage and where the focus is on enabling students to acquire skills they will use in everyday life as a compromise between the pitfalls of purist, theoretical approaches that are too abstract and applied academics approaches that are too practical and watered down.

Throughout the history of applied academics, problems have existed in applied academics courses satisfying university admissions requirements ( Boesel et al., 1994 ; Bryant, 1996 ; Grubb, 1997 ). In 1994, Bragg, Layton,and Hammons ( 1994 ) found that failure of four-year institutions to award college credit for applied academics or other tech prep courses was ranked as the second most common barrier to implementation by a nationally-representative sample of tech prep coordinators, with 48% describing this problem as a major or very major barrier. Later, Bragg et al. ( 1997 ) wrote that continuing problems with acceptance of tech prep curriculum by four-year colleges needed to be addressed if tech prep was to be sustained. While progress had been made by some states, questions of rigor of applied academics continued to surface throughout the decade of the 1990s on the national level ( Bragg et al., 1999 ), and these questions were further complicated when tech prep students entered postsecondary education requiring remediation.

Appropriate assessment strategies. Concerns about assessment practices that adequately address the knowledge, skills, and abilities of students who participate in applied courses have emerged. According to Little, Erbstein and Walker ( 1996 ), student assessment is a vehicle for understanding the relationship between school and work, and a need exists for developing evidence of desired outcomes that reflect the priorities of parents and teachers through innovative assessment practices. In fact, the issue of evaluating outcomes is an increasingly important concern as more and more students participate in tech prep and specifically applied academics. Grubb ( 1997 ) wrote,

Students in integrated and occupationally-focused programs will learn different content, and learn in different ways, compared to students in conventional high schools and so conventional outcomes measures (NAEP) are inappropriate, at the same time that alternative measures are both underdeveloped and unacceptable to proponents of conventional academic education. The only elegant solution is to use both sets of outcome measures-and then to hope that students of the new vocational do better than students in conventional high schools on both sets. ( p. 90 )

Offering a critique of Grubb's 1997 article on education through occupations, Owens ( 1997 ) countered that appropriate assessment should address both school and workplace instruction. Indicating that it is unreasonable to expect students to engage in applied academics curriculum to score higher on traditional measures, he revealed the heart of the debate by introducing the question of what will serve as adequate assessment of applied academics courses. Instead of relying on more traditional assessments, Owens suggested that the combined use of standardized and alternative assessments might well convey that students of applied academics do as well as students of conventional high school programs on standardized tests and better than those same students on alternative assessments that measure student ability to apply and transfer knowledge.

In summary, even though problems in implementing applied academics linger, researchers have suggested that evolution has indeed occurred in the scope of implementation and conceptualization of applied academics has evolved over the past decade. In their most recent national evaluation report on tech prep, Hershey et al. ( 1998 ) indicated that various trends have emerged in the implementation of applied academics. First, applied curriculum packages are increasingly rejected. There has been a declining emphasis on designating certain classes as applied while there has been an increasing emphasis on applied content and contextual teaching methods in academics classes not labeled applied. Second, teachers have become increasingly involved in curriculum development as an alternative to the purchase and use of off-the-shelf materials, but teacher involvement in curriculum development remains spotty. Moreover, textbook publishers have offered hands-on exercises and connections to real world experiences in recent editions, although mostly at the secondary level. Hershey et al. ( 1998 ) pointed out that resistance within four-year institutions to accept applied courses has continued, largely because of strong professional attachments to the traditional academic disciplines and perceptions that high schools and community colleges have watered down courses and lowered standards. In a longitudinal study of tech prep implementation and student outcomes involving eight mature tech prep consortia, Bragg et al. ( 1999 ) stated that, instead of adopting off-the-shelf materials, leaders of local consortia increasingly encouraged high school faculty to teach core academic content to all students, but to teach it in different ways, including the use of real-world problems and applications. Though limited to eight sites this research suggests evolution has occurred in conceptualization and implementation of applied academics over the past decade in selected consortia.

The Effects and Benefits of Applied Academics

Despite what we know about implementation of applied academics, we know much less about how this component of tech prep has affected learners. With so much focus on implementation of tech prep and applied academics during the past decade, little attention has been directed toward understanding the impact of these reforms. At least in terms of applied academics, there is an uncertainty about how to address the complex issues surrounding how to assess its impact. The following section provides a review of selected research literature and attempts to gauge the benefit of applied academics on learners as represented in the literature related to selected student outcomes, attitudes, and perceptions.

Student Academic Performance

Recognizing as Stasz et al. ( 1993 ) did that serious design flaws are evident in many early research studies on integration and applied academics, a number of studies have been conducted in the past decade that attempted to assess the effects of applied academics on student academic performance. In a study of students from 20 vocational schools in Ohio that had implemented applied academics and had historical data on achievement for students in vocational programs, Harvey ( 1991 ) compared performance on occupational, math, and science scores from the Ohio Vocational Education Achievement Test. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted on occupational, math, and science test achievement gains. Paired t-tests were also conducted to determine the effects of traditional and nontraditional (applied academics) delivery models. Results showed achievement gain was negatively affected by student transition to applied academics, although only the test scores of welding students were statistically significant. In another study involving Ohio students, Lai ( 1991 ) looked at several outcomes for 166 food service students. Results showed the applied experiences of students were effective in increasing their food service skill proficiency as indicated on the Ohio Food Service Achievement Test but not in increasing academic skill achievement as indicated by test score reports on standardized tests.

In another study, Basnight ( 1994 ) compared secondary academic achievement for 47 tech prep and 56 non-tech prep students in 8 high schools in North Carolina, using college placement test scores from ASSET to compare academic gains during high school. Results produced no significant differences between the tech prep and non-tech prep groups. Further, when the same students were surveyed to determine the relationship between academic achievement and nine variables, including applied academics and applied learning, no significant relationships were found. Basnight concluded that applied academics had not demonstrated effectiveness as an educational strategy over and above traditional approaches.

Pepple and O'Connor ( 1992 ), who conducted a study of 16 pilot sites in Indiana, attempted to determine the effectiveness of applied academics in increasing student achievement and occupational preparation. In addition to survey data and other information gathered from teachers and students, pre- and post-test achievement gains were studied for students participating in applied communications and applied math as well as for comparison groups of students. All the pilot sites showed gains in student achievement for students in applied academics courses. The control and experimental groups showed gains in mathematics achievement, with the applied mathematics group showing greater gains than the control group. This group showed positive gains in all but one of seven goals for mathematics achievement, and the applied communications students showed positive gains in each of eight modules tested. Similar to the work done by SREB ( Bottoms, Presson, & Johnson, 1992 ) around the same time, results from the Indiana study showed that students in applied math courses experienced gains across a wider range of mathematics competencies compared to their control group counterparts. Even so, conclusions from these early studies should be viewed with caution since, as Hoerner et al. ( 1992 ) pointed out, tech prep was at an early, embryonic stage of implementation. Attributing results to fully implemented applied academics efforts was not yet possible.

Studies conducted during the mid-1990s suggested positive results for certain populations of students participating in applied academics. For example, in a study of applied academics conducted in two high schools in South Carolina, Keaton ( 1994 ) examined student achievement gains through pre- and post-test scores on the math portion of the California Achievement Test (CAT). Although achievement gains were not statistically significant, regression analysis of six independent variables and ANOVA of three of the six variables indicated that applied mathematics curriculum helped African-American students and students who had been retained at some previous point in their education.

Still other studies provided substantive results supporting applied academics. Wang and Owens ( 1995 ) examined an applied academics program offered by the Boeing Company with 60 high schools in the state of Washington. Test results showed that two CORD courses, Principles of Technology and Applied Mathematics, were challenging for students, including university-bound students, who were enrolled in traditional math and physics classes. Wang and Owens indicated that during the previous two years when comparison groups were used, Applied Mathematics students scored significantly higher than their peers in traditional math classes. They also indicated that the Principles of Technology students were doing equally well and sometimes better than students enrolled in traditional physics courses when certain variables were held constant. In explaining the results, Wang and Owens indicated that lower achievers were more likely enrolled in Principles of Technology than in traditional physics, and, therefore, test results favored the comparison group. They also pointed out that students in the lower end of academic achievement experienced the greatest gain in applied academics courses, suggesting these courses should be open to students of all ability levels. They argued for applied courses as an alternative rather than an easy way to learn math and science.

Keif and Stewart ( 1996 ) conducted a study of 254 students from four Missouri school districts to examine the performance of high school students completing Applied Math 1 and 2 compared to the performance of a control group of Algebra 1 students. To conduct the assessment, the researchers administered two post-tests, both developed by American College Testing (ACT) to all students: the Work Keys Applied Mathematics Assessment and the P-ACT + Assessment. Results were similar to earlier studies conducted by CORD ( 1992 ) and Tanner and Chism ( 1996 ) in that students completing Applied Math 2 scored higher on the SAT-M, using scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a covariant. Using a researcher designed assessment instrument, CORD reported no significant difference in Algebra skills of Applied Math 2 and Algebra 1 students. Similarly, Keif and Stewart found that, based on the Work Keys assessment, there was no significant difference between students completing Applied Math 1 and 2 and those completing Algebra 1 although there was a significant difference, as indicated on the P-ACT+ pre-Algebra/Algebra subscore, between students completing only Applied Math 1 and those completing Algebra 1. Keif and Stewart speculated that taking applied courses could help students be successful in more advanced high school math, including college entry-level math.

In 1994, Field ( 1994 ) conducted a study using three sections of the Work Keys assessment tests. Data were collected on 1,321 students from 9 high schools in the state of Iowa and included information on whether students participated in applied or traditional courses. Whereas results indicated that group means were higher for traditional students on grade point average (GPA), the Iowa Test of Educational Development, and three Work Keys tests, the author cautioned readers about generalizing from the study, acknowledging methodological problems with the study, including the omission of important independent variables from the regression equation.

Two dissertations conducted during the mid-1990s looked specifically at remediation rates of students entering postsecondary tech prep programs immediately following high school graduation. In an ex post facto study of remediation rates for intact groups at Manatee Community College in Florida ( Greene, 1997 ), Multiple Assessment Programs and Services (MAPS) was used to assess both tech prep and non-tech prep entering students. No significant differences were found between the remediation rates of both groups; however, the groups were not equivalent. A study conducted in South Carolina ( Wallace, 1996 ) indicated that remedial study at the technical college was related to the type of high school program in which students had participated. College prep students in the South Carolina high schools studied required less remediation in reading, writing, and mathematics than their peers in general education programs, while students in applied academics required less remediation in reading and writing than students in general education. Students in general education programs required less remediation in mathematics than applied academics students, thus indicating that students in applied academics were the least prepared of all students in math when compared to students in the other two high school programs.

Student Perceptions and Attitudes

According to Bottoms, Presson, and Johnson ( 1992 ), one effect of applied learning is that students' attitudes are improved toward school and toward themselves. Thus, it is important to examine evidence of changes in student attitudes associated with participation in applied academics. Haynes, Law, and Pepple ( 1991 ) provided anecdotal evidence that student attitudes were improved toward course content in Illinois. Burchett ( 1995 ) found no significant differences in achievement for four classes of students in traditionally taught Algebra 1 and four classes of students in Applied Algebra 1; however, she did find significant differences in the attitudes of students in the two groups, with a significant positive change in attitude for the students in the applied classes. Similarly, Keif and Stewart ( 1996 ) addressed academic performance but also looked at student perceptions of math. They indicated that in spite of less academic success, students in applied math classes felt that math was as valuable a subject for both school and life as did students in Algebra 1 classes. Like the study conducted by Haynes et al. ( 1991 ), this study interviewed teachers and found that there was renewed interest in math among students in applied math classes.

Also focusing on attitudes, a dissertation study by Oshields ( 1996 ) investigated the differences in attitudes of college prep and tech prep students through the use of mean scores on a student reaction form that was distributed to students for the purpose of assessing their attitudes toward learning. Pre- and post-tests were used to determine differences in attitudes of 775 11th grade students in college prep and tech prep math and science courses. Results indicated that there were no significant differences in the attitudes of the two groups of students, showing that applied academics courses did not change student attitudes toward school, technology, or teamwork differently than traditional math courses.

Looking at both attitudes and performance of students in applied science curriculum in California, Klimbal ( 1996 ) used ACT-Biology test scores and the SEPUP Student Interest Inventory as data sources. Results indicated that students in college prep biology obtained higher test scores than students in applied biology; however, there was no significant difference between the mean scores of the two groups when subscales were examined. Klimbal concluded that student attitudes were not highly correlated with either approach, and suggested further quantitative research was needed to ascertain the effectiveness of applied academics.

Other Effects and Benefits

Burchett ( 1995 ), citing studies showing that a positive attitude is a predictor of improved math performance and increased enrollment in advanced math courses, concluded that the attitudes of students in applied math courses improved more than the attitudes of students enrolled in other math courses, particularly for low socioeconomic students. In addition, teachers of the applied courses observed "dramatic improvements" ( p. 66 ) in student attitudes toward mathematics based on their participation and performance in applied courses. She described applied academics as including a greater amount of classroom discussion and interaction. She also indicated that students in applied classes became more at ease in asking questions and more motivated to learn mathematics.

A field study by Shields ( 1997 ) on contextual teaching, conducted in conjunction with the Oregon State University Contextual Learning Institute and Consortium, examined the advantages of contextual teaching as observed by classroom teachers. Based on findings from interviews and observations, Shields described a number of benefits or advantages typically associated with applied academics by teachers, including increases in student motivation and engagement, teacher and student energy, attendance, and student productivity. She also reported a decreased need for textbooks and an increased reliance on other resources as a benefit.

Dare ( 2000 ) concluded that all but one of seven benefits typically associated with applied academics ( Bottoms, Presson, & Johnson, 1992 ) were evident in the educational experiences of 17 purposively selected tech prep/youth apprentice students who had participated in applied academics courses at the high school or community college level in a central Illinois consortium. Based on a self-reported rating of each of the seven benefits on increased academic performance, increased enrollment in math and science courses, different teaching methods, preparation for postsecondary education, preparation for work, greater sense of meaning and purpose in schooling, and greater sense of self worth. Participants associated six of these benefits to be moderately to extremely evident for themselves. Only increased enrollment in math and science was not reported by students as a benefit of applied academics, although several of the students in the study indicated they would have taken more upper-level academic courses if they had courses using applied academics methodologies available to them.

In summary, few studies have offered substantive empirical evidence of the effects of applied academics on student learning and student attitudes toward learning, and of the ways in which applied academics benefit learners. In fact, there is little documentation of student outcomes associated with applied academics in the extant literature. Those studies that have been conducted have yielded mixed results. Virtually no quantitative or qualitative studies provided enlightenment on the relationship between specific student outcomes and the complex problems associated with applied academics such as tracking, changing roles of teachers, or alternative assessment. While some studies included analysis of various socioeconomic factors and others attempted to use various assessment strategies, there is a need to conduct studies yielding greater understanding of how applied academics address specific student outcomes such as improved academic performance in high school, higher achievement test scores, and reduced need for remediation. Moreover, only a handful of studies dealt with the effect of applied academics on changing student attitudes and perceptions of learning.

Implications for Research and Practice

As is true of any cultural or historical transition, moving forward without fully understanding the past is a difficult and even dangerous endeavor. Many have engaged in the reform of career and technical education over the past decade through the HSTW, New American High Schools, and other similar movements associated with tech prep. Hull ( 2000 ) and others are suggesting ways to build on the past by reconceptualizing some of the essential components of tech prep. While the evidence is sketchy, the extant literature indicates that the conceptualization and implementation of applied academics have evolved over the decade of the 1990s. At the very least there has been an evolution from applied academics as isolated courses and course materials to more broad-based teaching methodology. While there is growing recognition of implementation of applied academics over the past decade, better understanding is needed regarding conceptualization of applied academics (including the theoretical foundations) rather than relying on preconceived or historical notions. Language surrounding applied academics needs to reflect clarity about the distinctions between academic and vocational integration, applied academics, contextual learning, and applied academics materials and resources. If we do not understand the evolutionary process, we are not likely to understand trends that will impact policy and practice. Also, if we do not clarify the distinctions between theoretical perspectives, strategies for implementation, and actual classroom practice, we will have difficulty assessing student outcomes and ascertaining the benefits of particular pedagogical strategies. Without clarity regarding conceptualization of this essential component and its impact on learners, we run the risk of ongoing evolution that is not grounded in sound learning theory.

Researchers could make a significant contribution if they would solidify theoretical perspectives and find ways to connect these to classroom practice. Applied academics should be grounded in modern learning theory, such as constructivism, and in other less established but relevant theories of learning such as situated learning and multiple intelligences. Substantiating contextual learning theory as a backdrop for the use of applied academics in practice and also as a bona fide theory of learning is an important first step in solidifying working models. Substantiating a theory of contextual learning might also provide a greater sense of connection between historically divided academic and vocational camps since clearer understanding of how people learn is relevant across all educational domains.

In addition, continuing the dialogue about the combination of theory and practice in the classroom is vital to determining next steps in the implementation of applied academics. Such a dialogue should address thorny questions of rigor. Tech prep is, by definition, a college preparatory program since the first two years of college are implicit in its design. Thus, it is imperative to provide both academic and vocational courses that allow students to pursue postsecondary education and work, without experiencing limits to their opportunities. Teachers of applied academics courses need to be uncompromising in content but highly flexible and dynamic in their approaches to teaching advanced academic knowledge and skills. In so doing, postsecondary institutions may become more accepting of applied academics courses. The need also remains to provide students with more upper-level courses in high school math and science (as well as other academic subject areas) using applied methodologies. These needs cannot be resolved until deeper questions of how to blend theory and practice are explored. The time has come for researchers and practitioners to join together to resolve questions of rigor associated with applied academics approaches.

It is at least possible that our early understanding of applied academics has been based on early implementation of applied academics, which is problematic from an implementation standpoint. Currency in understanding applied academics is critical. Likewise, it is important not to ascribe negative outcomes to applied academics without also describing the impact of specific ways in which applied academics have been implemented, examining specifically tracking, changes in teacher role, and the like. Members of the research community who hold an interest in applied academics as a part of tech prep would be well served by adding qualitative methods to more rigorous quantitative research designs focused on uncovering student outcomes but also factors that contribute to them. Blending both qualitative and quantitative findings remains critical if we are to understand the impact of applied academics on student learning.

Revisiting the concept of applied academics through this literature review, and assessing understanding of this essential component of tech prep, should help educators make informed decisions about the use of applied academics and about its impact on student outcomes. Whereas the educational community engaged in tech prep has contributed much to understanding some aspects of applied academics, more research is needed. The need for high quality research that looks at the effects of applied academics on student outcomes and examines the broader impact of applied academics remains a challenge for proponents of the educational system engaged in tech prep and related reforms.


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DONNA E. DARE is Tech Prep Coordinator at Richland Community College ,One College Park, Decatur, Illinois 62521, [E-mail: ddare@richland.cc.il.us ]. Her research interests include student outcomes related to tech prep, contextual teaching and learning, multiple intelligences, and workforce development.