JVER v26n3 - Partnerships for Career-Centered High School Reform in an Urban School System

Volume 26, Number 3

Partnerships for Career-Centered High School Reform in an Urban School System

Martha Abele MacIver Nettie Legters
Johns Hopkins University


Over the past decade, both school-to-work (STW) reforms and partnerships between schools and external change agents have become popular mechanisms for improving the educational opportunities of inner-city youth. Little research has been conducted, however, on the dynamics of such partnerships seeking career-oriented high school reform. This article uses a case-study approach to analyze the interrelationships and diverse dynamics of a partnership that brought together several career-centered high school reform initiatives in a large urban school district. We found that the initiative succeeded in regularly convening multiple partners and generating important conversations about reforming the city's failing high schools and increasing educational options for adolescent youth. However, our study also identified organizational, cultural, financial, and political conditions that severely limited the program's ability to effect change. Specific limiting factors included: tensions in the initiative's core partnership between the school system and the employment development agency, due in part to unstable leadership in the school system; the persistence of multiple and divergent high school improvement efforts; and, confusion about how school-to-work activities fit into the state-level standards and accountability system.

Over the past decade, efforts to improve high schools and education for high school-age youth have adopted "school-to-work" as a key reform concept. Also known as "school-to-careers," the "new vocationalism," or "education through occupations," a central premise of these efforts is that adolescents are more likely to be engaged and motivated by educational experiences that relate learning to real-world activities beyond the school walls, namely to the world of work (Grubb, 1995 ; Ramsey, 1995 ). Such activities typically involve integrating occupational content into academic curricula, and establishing work-based learning opportunities such as job-shadowing, internships, mentoring, and paid employment for teens.

Passed in 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act provided substantial federal support to states and local districts for the development and implementation of school-to-work systems across the country. Administered by the National School-to-Work Office, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education, numerous grants went to "intermediary organizations" charged with creating and facilitating the local partnerships among education, government, business, and community organizations necessary to establish and expand school-to-work activities. Recognizing the key role intermediaries play in bridging cultural and logistical gaps that make cross-sector partnerships difficult to create and sustain, the National School-to-Work Office established the School-to-Work Intermediary Project in fall 1998. The Project identified and disseminated activities and strategies of intermediary organizations, and established a national network to promote collective learning and sharing of best practices.

The Intermediary Project's information about the various types of school-to-work intermediaries emphasizes strengths of different initiatives and how they fit into a larger framework for creating and managing school-community-business partnerships (Jobs for the Future & New Ways to Work, 2001 ). Little research, however, critically examines the partnership dynamics and overall effectiveness of intermediary organizations funded through the federal school-to-work program. In this article, we use a case study approach to describe and analyze the context and inner-workings of one such school-to-career initiative that operated in a large, urban school district from 1996-2001.


There is widespread agreement that traditionally organized comprehensive high schools have become anachronisms, no longer preparing students for the world that has changed around them (Boyer, 1983 ; Carnegie Forum, 1986 ; Goodlad, 1984 ; Oakes, 1985 ; Powell, Cohen, & Farrer 1985 ; Sizer, 1984 ). The National Association of Secondary School Principals' Breaking Ranks report heralded what has now become a national movement to completely rethink and restructure public education for high school age youth (NASSP, 1996 ). A spate of recent reports, conferences, and federal and private grants programs have carried this movement into the 21st Century with a strong show of support for high school reform (American Youth Policy Forum, 2000 ; Cohen, 2001 ; Hammack, 2000 ).

One of the most persistent criticisms of comprehensive high schools is that students find their classes boring and unrelated to their everyday lives or the futures they envision for themselves. This experience fosters apathy, disengagement from school, and contributes to unacceptably high dropout rates. Economic change also has promoted calls for high schools to play a larger role in preparing a greater number of students for participation in a high-skill workforce and postsecondary education (NASSP, 1996 ). In response, a common theme to the current high school reform movement has been the need to make high school more relevant to more students. Reform leaders have honed in on the complex web of curriculum and instruction to emphasize the integration of real-world applications and career themes into academic work, interdisciplinary and project-based activities that integrate computer and telecommunications technology, and stronger linkages between course content and students' everyday lives. Strategies also include community service, work-based learning, field study, and other activities that engage students in life beyond the school walls in ways that are positive and linked with their course of study. A growing body of research shows that efforts to make high school more relevant can have positive impacts on attendance, promotion, dropout rates, and (to a lesser extent) student achievement and post-secondary enrollment (Castellano, Stringfield, & Stone, 2001 ; Kemple & Snipes, 2000 ; Legters, Balfanz, Jordan & McPartland, 2002 ; Plank, 2001 ; Stern, Dayton, & Raby, 2000 ). Two of the most widely discussed means for influencing these outcome variables have been the creation of small learning communities or career academies and the establishment of work-based learning experiences for students (often involving the participation of "industry advisory boards" and other types of employer involvement in the school).

Most reform approaches focused on increasing relevance in high schools call for partnerships between the school/school system and public or private organizations in the community. The importance of collaborative relationships has become a common mantra in education and social reform circles, and a general trend within our economy and society over the past two decades. In education, collaborations and networks have been promoted in relation to professional development for teachers, comprehensive school reform, parent/family involvement, integrating educational and social/health services, as well as school-to-work initiatives (Bodilly, 1998 ; Epstein, 2001 ; Little, 1993 ; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996 ; National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, 1996 ; Rigsby, Reynolds, & Wang, 1995 ; Sparks & Hirsch, 1997 ; Sunderman & Nardini, 1999 ). In 1988, Congress enacted the Educational Partnerships Act to create the Educational Partnership Program (EPP) to demonstrate the contribution of partnerships to educational reform. Thirty partnerships were funded throughout the country by the federal Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), and studies of a subset were conducted to identify best practices and supportive and limiting conditions.

While literature on educational partnerships tends to be highly supportive of collaborative reforms, research points to some of the challenges of creating and sustaining effective partnerships. Gray ( 1995 ), for example, cites among others challenges, institutional disincentives, historical and ideological barriers, power disparities among stakeholders, technical complexity, and political and institutional norms as potential barriers to effective alliances. In their assessment of Educational Partnership Program (EPP) grant recipients, Danzberger, Bodinger-deUriarte, & Clark ( 1996 ) found that partners were challenged to change policies and procedures in order to work together, that leadership is critical to a partnership, and that leaders who "reflect commitment to particular programs and processes may be more successful than leaders who see themselves as facilitators" (p. 2). They found that partnerships are especially challenged when attempted in highly stressed large urban school districts, but also that educational partnerships can be used to galvanize support for school reform in a community.

Research on school-to-work reforms in restructuring high schools has focused primarily on school-level efforts (see Castellano et al., 2001 for review). A common theme across at least two of these studies was the relatively subordinate and marginalized position of career and technical education with respect to the core academic program (Little, Erbstein, & Walker, 1996 ; Prestine, 1998 ). While the "image" of vocational education was found to improve somewhat through these school-based efforts, none of the schools studied had achieved successful integration of career and academic education school-wide. A third study revealed further challenges schools face in establishing work-based learning reforms (Wermuth, Maddy-Bernstein, & Greyson, 1997 ). Three of the four urban high schools studied had not established relationships with business or industry, even though vocational education was a central component of their reform efforts. The authors cited lack of time for planning and partnership development as an important limiting factor.

While studies of school-based programs are emerging, research at the system-level on school-to-work reforms in restructuring high schools has barely begun. Ongoing federal government-funded evaluations of STW initiatives typically describe programs that ostensibly encompass an entire school system, often in the name of "systemic reform" (e.g., Hershey, Hudis, Silverberg, & Haimson, 1997 ), but such research has not yet probed the complex systemic issues and dynamics of multiple programs and partnerships that make up these initiatives. Examining systemic (district, state, even national) efforts to make high schooling more relevant is important for at least two reasons. First, issues such as historic cultural tensions between academic and vocational programs, as well as resources of time, staff, and funding needed to establish effective partnerships that support work-based learning, are inherently systemic and cannot be resolved at the school level. Second, the federal School-to-Work program specifically called for a systemic approach to the establishment of school-to-work initiatives in states and school districts. Intermediary organizations, described earlier, received funding for this very purpose but remain only superficially studied.

Intermediary organizations are "staffed organizations that connect schools and other youth-preparation organizations with workplaces and other community resources..." (Jobs for the Future & New Ways to Work, 2001 , p. 5). According to the national framework, intermediaries serve four strategic functions: convening local leadership, brokering and/or providing services to various partners (workplaces, schools, youth, and other youth-serving organizations), ensuring the quality and impact of local efforts, and promoting policies to sustain effective practices. Descriptions of various intermediary organizations reveal that many of these organizations not only broker partnerships, but are collaborative entities themselves made up of two or more partnering agencies. Hence intermediary organizations offer an opportunity to examine both the role of a partnership broker, and internal partnership dynamics within the organization itself. One issue, for example, that has been identified but not yet thoroughly researched, especially in the career-focused high school reform literature, is the importance of understanding the potentially different institutional cultures of partnership members and how to bridge those differences (Ascher, 1988 ; Sidler, 1994 ).

In the following sections, we present a case study that focuses on the issues salient of high school reform, school-to-work, and educational partnerships. We analyze a systemic partnership for career-oriented high school reform that shares many characteristics of an "intermediary organization." The strategic objectives in the particular case we consider included two fundamental outcome variables identified in the research discussed above-the dropout rate and the number of students entering post-secondary education-with reform efforts devoted to decreasing the first measure and increasing the second. The case also involved two of the most widely discussed means for influencing these outcome variables: the creation of small learning communities or career academies and the establishment of work-based learning experiences for students (involving the participation of "industry advisory boards" and other types of employer involvement in the school).

Data and Methodology

This case study sheds light on the interrelationships, diverse dynamics and effects of a partnership aimed at career-focused high school reform in a large urban school district we call "Wexford." Qualitative data were collected from 1996-2001 through observation at schools and meetings, shadowing of students, focus group discussions with teachers and students, and interviews with high school administrators, school district administrators, city government administrators involved in the school-to-work initiatives, university partners, and advisory board members from employer institutions associated with particular career academies. We also draw upon various internal documents produced or commissioned by members of the initiative management team or the Wexford Public Schools (In order to protect the confidentiality of the school system, these documents are not listed in the reference section). In a longer version of this study (Mac Iver & Legters, 2001 ) we analyze teacher and student surveys and high school student achievement data from Wexford over the same period (1996-2001) to ascertain outcomes of the partnership initiative related to school climate, student attitudes toward learning, student ambitions and expectations regarding postsecondary education and careers, and student achievement and attainment outcomes.

The research methodology in this dimension of the study is best characterized as "ethnographic." Taking as our model the work of Muncey and McQuillen ( 1996 ), we sought to understand the career-centered high school reform process in Wexford through "immersion" and a "long-term time commitment" (Muncey & McQuillen, 1996 , p. 299). Both authors were participant-observers within the Wexford Career Initiative (WCI) described below, serving on committees and providing various forms of technical assistance (either in program development or evaluation) over the more than five-year period of data collection. As Muncey and McQuillen ( 1996 , pp. 299-300) emphasize, we sought "to collect data that represent[ed] various perspectives concerning an issue, various categories that [had] meaning for participants, and various occurrences that [took] place during the research period" to complement our own experiences and observations. Our holistic orientation stressed "systemic connections" among the various participants and levels of the educational system and its external relationships. We conducted interviews and collected documents to triangulate our own experience and perspectives with those of other actors at various levels of the educational system (students, teachers, administrators, district office personnel, as well as external partners in various organizations and various positions).

Our analysis of observation and interview data (from field notes and transcripts) proceeded in an "interpretive" ethnographic tradition (Muncey & McQuillan, 1996 , p. 298). We reflected on our observations, analyzed the interview data and documents, and then organized the information in a meaningful structure of categories. Some of these categories, such as institutional culture and leadership for example, were drawn from the research literature. Others, such as the tension between standards and relevance at the system level, emerged from our data. For validation of our interpretation, we gave some of those we had observed and interviewed the opportunity to react to our narrative.

This methodology admittedly has drawbacks. Single case studies, especially of complex systems, represent unique circumstances that limit the generalizability of the findings, and with our ethnographic approach we run a higher risk of the infusion of our own biases than we might using other methods. We contend, however, that this analytical interpretation of the process of career-centered high school reform in one district, based on the qualitative data collected and reflections upon it, increases the research community's general understanding of system-level partnerships and the contexts in which those partnerships exist.


Our observations and interviews with partnership participants uncovered a common vision held by these partners that helped energize and sustain the high school reform process. At the same time, reflections on our data revealed how the partners' differing perspectives, agendas (driven by different funding streams), and organizational cultures created tensions among themselves and practical obstacles to positive change. In this section, we describe the Career Initiative partners and then offer an analysis of the partnership dynamics based on our reflective interpretation of the data. After identifying both the accomplishments of Career Initiative and the impediments to reform generated by the partnership and other contextual factors, we discuss how this particular case study advances understanding of the role of external partners and intermediary organizations in the school-to-work oriented high school reform process.

Background on the Partners and Career Initiative

The Wexford Public School System

Wexford's school system, like that of other major urban centers, had suffered significantly by the mid-1980s with the departure of both the white and black middle-class for the surrounding suburban areas. Serving a population in which two-thirds of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, Wexford's per pupil expenditure was significantly lower than the statewide average, and the district's performance on state accountability measures lagged far behind other districts in the state. Numerous reform efforts, many funded by a local foundation, proliferated during the early 1990s, but did not succeed sufficiently in improving student achievement outcomes to forestall intensive scrutiny by the State Department of Education.

Though reform efforts in the city school system through the early 1990s appeared to many as scattered and diffused, movement on high school reform appeared by mid-decade to be taking on a more cohesive, focused character. The system issued a report in December 1995 outlining plans and an implementation schedule for high school reform, including (a) a clear set of standards for what graduates should know and be able to do; (b) restructuring high schools serving the lowest achieving students into smaller learning communities; (c) a focus on professional development; (d) integrating technology into instruction; and (e) refocusing external partnerships to support students' transition to a career and/or higher education.

Although this plan was in place on paper, the Wexford school system began a period of turmoil and transition in 1996 that significantly affected the direction of high school reform in the city. First, the school system administrator who had spearheaded high school reform retired in 1996, leaving a leadership gap. Second, governance reform enacted by the state legislature in early 1997, resulting from the resolution of a city-state conflict over resources and accountability, produced an organizational and leadership transitions for the school system that continued for several years. The instability of a central district office in continual transition (with four school system leaders in as many years) was a crucial factor influencing the process by which multiple school-to-work models evolved and the Career Initiative partnership sought influence over school district policy.

Wexford Employment Development Agency

For decades the Wexford Employment Development Agency (EDA) had received government funding to provide employment training services for the city's youth. Various partnerships between the Wexford Public School System (WPS) and the EDA had existed since at least the mid 1980s. In 1994 the agency received a federal grant in partnership with the city school system to address educational and employment needs of Wexford youth in a particular empowerment zone area. Also in partnership with the school system, the agency had received a federal grant (administered by the federal School-to-Work Office) in 1995 to fund both a career academy at one of the zoned high schools and a program for out-of-school youth (dropouts) to earn their GEDs and receive career training. The partnership structures of these previous initiatives provided a framework for the Career Initiative partnership.

Other Pre-existing Partnerships for High School Reform

The Career Initiative attempted to systematize a reform process that had already begun with pilot programs or "school-within-a-school" academy structures and moved towards whole-school reform (with some competing models). Wexford's zoned high schools had previous ties to reform models such as the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) (Muncey & McQuillan, 1996 ; Sizer, 1984 ), the National Academy Foundation (NAF) (Rosenfeld, 1991 ), High Schools That Work (HSTW) (Bottoms & Mikos, 1995 ), JROTC academies (Hanser, Elliott, & Gilroy, in press ), and the Talent Development High School model (Legters, Balfanz, Jordan, McPartland, 2002 ). Researchers from a local university were already actively involved in high school reform within WPS, and were included within the umbrella partnership described below (though were not core partnership members).

The Career Initiative

The Wexford Career Initiative (WCI) was launched as a partnership between WPS and EDA, with EDA serving as the fiscal agent, with a federal grant that funded the first phase of the school-to-career system building in several zoned high schools within the city school system. Another grant from the state to EDA the following year allowed for expansion of the initiative to include all nine zoned high schools in Wexford. WCI's goal of including all city students in its plans to promote more successful transitions to postsecondary education and/or the world of work meant nothing less than a comprehensive K-12 systemic approach. Its attention to post-secondary links led the WCI to frame itself as a K-16 systemic initiative.

The WCI consisted of three primary structural components: a series of direct grants to individual zoned high schools that submitted proposals and budgets for school-to-career initiatives within the high schools and their feeder middle- and elementary schools; a committee system that brought individuals from EDA, WPS, and other organizations together for discussion and policy-making; and a system of technical assistance to schools for discussion, policy-making, and accomplishing their school-to-careers objectives (see Mac Iver & Legters, 2001 for a more detailed description).

Analysis of Partnership Dynamics and Their Impact on Programmatic Outcomes

The Career Initiative Partnership between WPS and EDA sought to bring representatives from various reform efforts as well as other community stakeholders (business leaders, postsecondary institution representatives, external educational service providers, etc.) together at the same table through its committee structure. The groups could all agree on the overarching goals of career-focused high school reform and supported common specific objectives (creation of small learning communities; creation of Industry Advisory Boards; preparation of students for postsecondary education; and dropout intervention, prevention, and recovery). While the different partners were drawn together by their shared goals and objectives, each partner also had its own specific agenda and patterns of operating determined by institutional cultures, particular personalities, and expectations of funding agencies. The following analysis of the particular perspective of each of the partners helps to explain some (though not all) of the obstacles encountered by the partnership in seeking to achieve high school reform.

With student outcome measures spiraling downward, increasing pressure from the State and other stakeholders, and continual flux in its high level leadership, the Wexford Public Schools entered the WCI partnership seeking to improve its public image and at the same time maintain its autonomy, minimizing domination from outside (e.g. from the state). The funding it received from the state was woefully inadequate for the task it faced, and it was acutely aware of its need for external funding sources. Still philosophically committed to site-based management, WPS allowed each of the targeted schools to propose its own plan for how to spend WCI funds to help create a school-to-career educational structure. However, this laissez-faire attitude toward school-based proposals also was due to a leadership vacuum in WPS with respect to high school reform. Understaffed and lacking guidance, Career and Technology Education (CTE) staff within WPS were uncertain about their authority to change existing programs or start new ones and felt continually pulled away from WCI work to fulfill more immediate crises (such as helping schools write reconstitution plans for the state). In an interview, one staff member regretted that schools had not received enough guidance from WPS about how to use the grant funds more effectively to support whole school reform. Given frequent, conflicting demands and bureaucratic repercussions for failing to respond to the "tyranny of the urgent," school-based personnel as well as central office staff often felt helpless to take the steps necessary to create fundamental change.

In comparison to WPS's role as a beleaguered bureaucracy within the WCI partnership, the EDA could be characterized as an entrepreneurial bureaucracy-a government agency that took great pride in its aggressive pursuit of funding opportunities and its showcase programs that were widely publicized throughout the country. Though it needed to partner with the school system to receive WCI funding, it found it difficult to share leadership equitably with an organization that appeared to be more ponderous and slow-moving and almost paralyzed by bureaucratic instability and administrative logjams. When tensions occurred within the partnership over these issues, however, EDA demonstrated the ability to address the situation creatively and to adapt and change when necessary to facilitate progress on shared goals. One EDA leader said that the WCI partnership with WPS taught her the value of "pulling back," and working within bureaucratic constraints to action.

EDA's funding agencies (particularly the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor) shaped its priorities considerably. The requirement under some of its funding streams (e.g., Youth Opportunity Grants from ETA) for at least 30% of funds to be used for out-of-school youth may help to explain its emphasis on out-of-school youth in the WCI.

For their part, university researchers operated their whole-school reform program within a "research and development culture" influenced greatly by the requirements of their center's funders (the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement-OERI) and their own long history as an educational research center. The center's mission was both practical and research-oriented: to develop and implement whole-school reform models for at-risk students, and to conduct peer-reviewed research regarding the impact of these interventions on student achievement outcomes. Given early positive results in school climate at its first implementation sites, the research center sought to expand the implementation of its model to schools in other urban centers. Its calculation for scale-up rested, in part, on the assumption that WCI would supply technical assistance for parts of the reform model (i.e. career academies) in the pilot district that the Center was too short-handed to support. This technical assistance never materialized in the way that the research center had envisioned, however, creating tension between it and the WCI initiative. Moreover, while the university researchers encouraged co-construction, together with school system personnel, of its model in the early stages, it also needed to specify a particular reform model. While it sought to interact and cooperate with system-wide initiatives such as WCI, it needed to maintain its distinct status as well to be able to systematically evaluate the results of its interventions. Hence the university model was in tension with the more laissez-faire, site-based orientation of WPS and EDA.

The other university research center, which directed a parallel project, operated out of a similar "research and development culture." Its funding source, a Technology Challenge Grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, also mandated program development and evaluation reporting requirements. The direction taken by this project was also undoubtedly shaped by professional interests of project directors, which are reflected in the other projects of the Center. While it shared many goals with the other research center, the curricular program did not pursue whole-school reform and was more limited in scope.

The different strengths and perspectives of these various partners energized the high school reform process and kept it alive in the context of a school system weakened by changing leadership and unclear priorities. However, different agendas and cultures among the partners also created (or exacerbated) tensions that tended to obstruct progress toward reform. The following discussion summarizes both the accomplishments achieved under the WCI umbrella and the obstacles to reform in four areas that were expressed goals of the initiative-building small learning communities in the high schools, establishing Industry Advisory Boards and work-based learning experiences for students, increasing the number of students entering postsecondary education, and preventing students from dropping out of school.

Small Learning Communities

WCI leaders were successful in keeping small learning communities (SLCs) central to the high school reform process in Wexford during a time of considerable instability in school system leadership. As a result, all zoned schools were divided into SLCs, at least in principle. At the same time, the SLCs that evolved did not all share similar characteristics, and it was clear that there were often significant differences between the various partners on specific organizational details. The extent to which SLCs had achieved particular goals (operating within a defined physical space and minimizing cross-traffic of students between "academies," incorporating teachers from all core subjects within each SLC, defining a coherent sequence of courses within a particular career pathway, etc.) appeared to vary considerably, and management team members interviewed near the end of the four years appeared to still be in the process of collecting information about what was actually transpiring in the SLCs. Some SLCs appeared to form easily around an already existing career program or group of programs in the school, while others (often with the word "Humanities" or "Science" in their titles) appeared to be more of a smattering of the core academic subjects left over that did not relate to a particular career program.

Though the WCI management team recognized the need for schools to receive technical assistance in creating SLCs, it was unable to direct sufficient resources to this end. And when it did seek to direct resources towards technical assistance, the team did not appear to recognize how technical assistance offered by outside consultants and the different partners involved in WCI tended to pull schools in different directions simultaneously, a situation that worked against, rather than for, the reform process.

For example, different models for how to organize SLCs conflicted with each other, often within the same school. One issue concerned the separation of 9th graders into their own academy within the high school, a structure advocated by university researchers in the whole-school reform model. Some pre-existing SLCs (e.g., JROTC academies, NAF academies) preferred to integrate 9th graders from the beginning, and at least one school opted against forming separate 9th grade academies for other reasons. Managing such a multiplicity of models was a difficult task. It also was the case that pre-existing NAF academies were selective in their admission policies and had advisory boards that provided them with additional resources. This situation created tension between those who saw academies as a chance to provide the most academically motivated and gifted students with an academy experience, and those who believed that every student in a high school should benefit from the academy model. The mix of selective and non-selective academies in one school was often discouraging to those running the non-selective academies who felt they were stuck with the worst students and the least resources.

Though creation of SLCs as structures to address the anonymity problems in large urban high schools was viewed as an essential first step, significant improvement in student outcomes was unlikely to occur without substantial transformation in curriculum and instruction. Again, there were also competing models for curriculum and instruction linked to particular professional development opportunities.

The centerpiece of one program directed by university researchers was a series of project-based curricula on CD-ROMs designed to combine rigorous academic content with workplace skills, together with targeted professional development for teachers in how to implement the curriculum. This curriculum initially seemed compatible with curriculum developed by the other university research team that used similar cooperative and project-based techniques. Indeed, the two groups attempted to work together briefly. However, the two university research centers conceived related projects completely independently of each other and, when each was funded separately and simultaneously by OERI, had too much separate momentum to be able to join forces and find a way to collaborate effectively. At one point the two university-based models actually competed for scarce professional development time with the same reform-minded teachers at the same schools. Even though the WCI brought these two groups together, the lack of a strong voice within the school system demanding coordination of efforts to meet the goals of a single effort made it easier for these groups to continue separate initiatives in the schools.

Besides these models, there were other competing professional development models. The National Academy Foundation offered its own professional development opportunities to its Wexford academies, as did High Schools That Work. At the same time, the State Department of Education was promoting professional development in "blended instruction," that was philosophically in tune with these other curricular models but in practice much more abstract and less likely to offer teachers what they needed to immediately begin teaching in a more effective way. And while WPS sought to provide professional development opportunities acquainting teachers with the general school-to-work and career academy approach to high school education as well as more specific instructional help (e.g., how to organize a 90 minute block of instruction), the system was also mandating other uses for scarce professional development time and could not sufficiently address the depth of professional development needs. Though the WCI reported participation in all these professional development opportunities among its accomplishments, it did not appear to recognize that these activities, because of their scattered nature, were not building the systemic capacity necessary to transform learning experiences for students.

Work-based Learning and Industry Advisory Boards

EDA management team members pointed in particular to the creation of industry advisory boards (around career clusters established by the state) as another of the accomplishments achieved by the WCI. These boards were designed to help schools design appropriate career curriculum, as well as to facilitate the process of developing work-based learning opportunities for students. WPS staff noted, however, that several of those boards had been developed prior to the WCI and while some expanded citywide in a positive way under the aegis of the WCI, at least one was actually weaker than it had been prior to the WCI. The WCI faced the challenge of how to balance the interests of pre-existing academies with their own advisory boards with the need for system-wide advisory boards, especially since already committed industry board members might not want or be able to expand their participation to include other schools as well. In addition, some WCI partners questioned how effective these advisory boards actually would be or whether they would be sustained by the school system once WCI funding ended.

The WCI did accomplish the selection of employers to receive the employer involvement funds (EIF) mandated as a budget item in the funding received from state and federal sources, and reported briefly on work-based learning opportunities for students and teachers provided by these employers and the industry advisory boards (e.g., job shadowing, internships, industry tours, career fairs, speakers, career resource centers). Besides reporting on the number of students engaged in work-based learning in broad categories, there did not appear to be any attempt on the part of WCI to measure the ways and extent to which the new initiatives increased the level of work-based learning already occurring within the system through various pre-existing Career and Technology programs. This was undoubtedly due to limited time on the part of management team members and the fact that the WCI funding source did not require such an analysis.

Increasing the Number of Students in Postsecondary Education

While lags in data reporting about postsecondary education make it difficult to evaluate the extent to which WCI succeeded in increasing the number of students in postsecondary education, the initiative did bring representatives from postsecondary institutions into a planning process through its Higher Education Committee designed to implement strategies for increasing the number of students going on to postsecondary education. This committee had a number of subcommittees (postsecondary linkages, parental involvement, and K-16 communications network/partnerships). In its various summary reports, WCI identified numerous activities, including college tours, undertaken to inform students and parents about college planning. In addition, at least eight additional Tech Prep agreements were signed with local community colleges and approved by the State Department of Education. Based on our observations, however, we suspect that the primary outcome of the WCI focus on higher education was an increase in meetings among university representatives rather than increased postsecondary attendance by students.

Dropout Prevention, Intervention, and Recovery

The WCI's goals of creating small learning communities and assuring relevant, career-focused instruction in the classroom were intended as a primary means of dropout prevention. Transforming high schools into places where students wanted to be and where they could gain the skills they need for the future would theoretically keep them in school until graduation. One of EDA's particular goals throughout the duration of the WCI was institutionalizing a role for alternative programs (outside the school system itself) for high school students who had, or were at the point of, dropping out of school. The agency itself was a major provider of services to "out-of-school" youth, as well as a player in dispersing government funding to private service-providers in this area. In particular, EDA sought to recapture funding from the state (that would have gone to the school attended by the student) to follow out-of-school youth to alternative education programs outside the school system. Agency leaders identified the fact that the WCI Alternative Education committee became the school system's Alternative Education working group as one of the initiative's major accomplishments.

Some WPS-based staff endorsed the concept of expanding alternative programs outside WPS to address the needs of students who had been, or were on the verge of being dropped from the rolls. But others perceived the emphasis on "out-of-school" alternative programs (which usually could offer only a GED, even if they also offered career training) as a means of transferring funds away from the system or a kind of escape valve that reduced the pressure on the system for genuine instructional reform that addressed the real needs of students. If alternative programs were simply a means of recovery for students who had dropped out and had no intention of returning for a high school diploma, there was little disagreement among the partners about their usefulness. The only potential source of tension would be the higher standards of accountability imposed on high schools (which had strict reporting requirements, monitored by the State, regarding dropout rates) than on alternative programs outside the school system (which had much less rigorous requirements from their funding agencies).

It was at the point of "dropout intervention" that there was considerable diversity among the WCI partners regarding models. The central tension revolved around whether a program should be offered as a part of the school, or whether to develop and support out-of-school programs run by external providers. The "twilight academy" model developed by university researchers sought to accomplish intervention and recovery after-hours within the same school. There were also various alternative programs within WPS itself. While externally provided alternative programs could be seen as complementary, it was the extent to which EDA and some WPS advocates tended to define "Alternative Learning," and the mission of that committee, as synonymous with externally provided opportunities, that created tension among the high school reform partners. The incentive structure actually in place for schools, whether they chose to respond to it or not, was to find a way to assign a student to an alternative program outside the system before that student became a dropout statistic counting against the school. This was a much easier solution than genuine reform for improving a school's state report card, at least in the short run.

Contextual Obstacles to Reform

Besides the impediments to reform resulting from partnership dynamics noted above, our interviews and observations uncovered contextual obstacles that hindered the progress of the partnerships in accomplishing high school reform: conflicting expectations from the State Department of Education, structural and administrative problems within the school system bureaucracy, and unrealistic expectations for site-based management.

A Double-Minded State Department of Education

Though the State Department of Education was committed to the WCI, and indeed supported a state-wide WCI program, its accountability standards and evaluation measures often diverted school-based staff attention from the long-term objectives of a school-to-careers high school reform framework. The school performance index established by the state to judge high school performance focused on three main measures: attendance rate, dropout rate, and state functional test results. High schools were often forced to focus an inordinate amount of time on preparing students to pass tests that should have been passed in middle school. Though creation of small learning communities and career-focused education should theoretically increase attendance and reduce dropout rate, schools were forced to focus on more short-term efforts showing short-term results and could not devote as much attention to the more long-term restructuring that would produce results in the future if not in the short run. Conversations with school and district administrators revealed a pervasive sense of learned helplessness in the face of a state bureaucracy perceived as impervious to change.

Changes in school leadership were often, though not always, linked to failures to improve the school performance index. According to interviews with partnership members, as well as our own observations, the frequent change of principals had a decidedly detrimental effect on sustaining the structural reforms (division into small learning communities) and progressing on reforms in curriculum and instruction. In addition, the state's continued planning for high school assessment tests in the core academic subject areas tended to conflict with WCI goals.

A Dysfunctional District (and City) Bureaucracy

Structural obstacles were reinforced at the school district level, where there was little effective linkage among the various offices and players in the central bureaucracy essential to a coherent high school reform process. Even though various high school reform "committees" existed from 1994-2000, the bureaucracy's accountability and incentives structures did not operate to facilitate the implementation of a cohesive high school reform process. Though a more functionally organized bureaucracy (linking high schools together administratively under an area executive officer) may not in and of itself have been more effective overall than the geographically-organized system (linking feeder systems together), it appears essential to create an incentive structure that holds players genuinely accountable for sustaining a cohesive high school reform process. The high school reform process suffered because there was no top-level leadership within the central office heading it.

Interviews indicated that there were also administrative obstacles that hindered progress. Even though both organizations were under a common City of Wexford operational structure, transfer of funds between the two city departments required much more time (involving contractual and legal matters) than had been planned. Funds from the federal government and the state also were at times out of synch with the school year. Delays in receiving funding meant that schools could not implement programmatic plans as quickly as envisioned, and progress was slower than it might have been. These administrative glitches also diverted time and attention from the fundamental work of reform.

Counterproductive Site-Based Management

The structure for dispersal of WCI funding reflected an ideological commitment to site-based management, since schools were free to use funding according to their own discretion within some basic guidelines. Ironically enough, while both community organizations and the Wexford business community had urged this kind of school system reform during the 1980s, there was no evidence that school system outcomes improved after its implementation in the early 1990s (also see Murphy & Beck, 1995 ). Our own observations and interviews make us question whether schools made the best possible use of the WCI funding to achieve lasting results that would improve student outcomes over the long run. One school devoted significant funding to the development of an "electronic portfolio" that would follow students from elementary through high school. Other schools spent funding on short-term opportunities (field trips to businesses and industries, bringing speakers to schools to meet with students). While such spending furthered short-term goals of exposing students to career opportunities (unlike another school's decision to spend funding on needed furniture), it did little to promote school-wide restructuring or build long-lasting capacity for high school reform.

Discussion and Conclusions

The analyses presented above suggest that while partnerships for career-centered high school reform may have great potential, there remain numerous obstacles to reform that need to be recognized and addressed. The following discussion examines both contextual obstacles (at the state and district level) and dimensions of partnership dynamics that can impact negatively on the outcomes of high school reform initiatives. We recognize the limitations of the case-study approach in drawing generalizations, but we propose the following conclusions as grist for further research, reflection, and debate among researchers and policymakers.

This case study echoes other studies (e.g., DeBray, Parson, & Woodworth, 2000 ; Erlichson & Van Horn, 1999 ; Shafer, 1997 ) that have noted how state level accountability structures tend to conflict with high school reform efforts and can undermine the efforts of partnerships like the one considered here. A narrow, short-term focus on even good accountability measures mandated by the state can thwart reform efforts aimed at long-term transformation of high schools. State officials need to reflect more carefully on how accountability measures are interpreted by schools and how responses by schools to attain short-term improvement may well not be in the long-term interests of students. By pointing out the conflicting messages to schools coming from different parts of the same state education department, we emphasize the need for more comprehensive and integrated thinking about high school reform at the state level. Until the state-imposed incentive structures for districts and schools change significantly, so that efforts aimed at long-term reform are rewarded rather than punished, progress on high school reform and improved student outcomes will continue to be hindered.

Another finding of this case study is that the availability of grant monies from various funding streams tempts members of partnerships aimed at career-focused high school reform to pursue multiple initiatives simultaneously, often without understanding the implications (McLaughlin, Rhim, & Henderson, 1998 ). Even if initiatives mesh together without too much conflict (which is unlikely), the attempt to do too many things at once may be counterproductive, as Hess ( 1999 ) has pointed out with respect to more general system-wide reforms. One principal in our study noted this problem of fitting multiple initiatives in a single school together even before WCI was off the ground. At a policy level, funding agencies and legislators need to be aware of this problem and seek to address the underlying issues. The example of multiple university programs in Wexford high schools suggests the need for funding agencies to identify overlaps and create incentive structures for groups to work together. Partnerships need to help empower schools and school systems with the freedom and capacity to analyze how multiple initiatives will intersect and which combination of programs and resources is best to achieve their goals.

Leadership instability and turmoil are unfortunately common in large urban school systems, and partnerships for high school reform are likely to continue to confront such issues. (Hess, 1999 ). As others (Lewis et al., 2000 ; Tewel, 1995 ) have noted regarding the high school reform process, sustained leadership with a clear vision and continual leadership development are crucial for progress in this area. Our case study has pointed out how external partnerships and intermediary organizations may help to sustain momentum for reform, but appear incapable of effecting necessary changes on their own (Wehlage Osthoff, & Porter, 1996 ). What is needed are the kinds of partnerships that strengthen and build capacity within a school system so that it can effectively lead a process of cohesive reform together with partners who can come alongside to help. External partners need to seek, to the extent possible, to identify the underlying systemic needs (such as making administrative procedures more efficient, leadership development, and capacity for formulating and implementing specific action plans likely to successfully address needs identified in an evaluation process) and use their leverage to help school districts address these as well as more particular needs within the system.

A particular leadership need identified in this case study involved the issue of brokering among different reform models. The existence of multiple partners with a common overarching vision but different means of achieving those goals could be energizing to a school system as long as these different models are implemented in different schools. Building on the findings of Danzberger, Bodinger-de-Uriarte and Clark ( 1996 ), this case study demonstrated how a merely facilitative leadership in an umbrella partnership may fail to identify conflicting activities within particular schools that have detrimental effects on the reform process. Bringing external partners together under an overarching umbrella is only the beginning step in forging an effective partnership for high school reform. Effective partnership leadership must identify potentially conflicting practices or combinations of existing programs and new initiatives and assure that individual schools and their leaders are not fragmented or pulled in various directions simultaneously.

Echoing the findings of others (e.g., Pedraza, Pauly, & Kopp, 1997 ), this case study highlighted the need for targeted, cohesive technical assistance to schools for implementing the proposed reforms. The fact that district office staff members were diverted from delivering technical assistance by other urgent tasks (often in response to demands from the state) indicates the need for rethinking how resources are distributed. It is possible that proportionally reducing funding for individual school grants or the Employer Involvement grants so that more could be devoted to technical assistance would have paid greater dividends in this initiative. At the same time, assuring that technical assistance from all partners converges (rather than pulls schools in conflicting directions) remains a challenge to be addressed in any initiative with multiple partners (Vandegrift, 1994 ).

In this case study we also identified the role of contrasting institutional cultures and agendas in generating particular action plans that on the surface level aimed at a common vision but resulted in conflicting or competing activity at the school level. Within the partnership between the Wexford Employment Development Agency and the school system that served as an "intermediary" organization (Jobs for the Future and New Ways to Work, 2001 ) EDA's primary focus and expertise centered, understandably, on interactions with employers and preparing youth for the work world. Its entrepreneurial culture was particularly adept at public relations, networking, and such "intermediary organization" functions as drawing stakeholder groups together and administering a systemic initiative, but when its assertive leadership style ranged into areas such as arranging for technical assistance to schools on the details of creating small learning communities, it contributed to the problem of pulling schools in several different directions simultaneously. As Legters et al. ( 2002 ) put it, the "devil is in the details," and no one within the partnership managed to successfully negotiate these issues. In the context of turmoil and considerable leadership instability, the school system had developed an institutional culture that was unable to address the specific details of creating small learning communities and career pathways in a way that would lead to significant reform and visible improvement in student outcomes, and similarly unable to broker among various external partners advocating various reform initiatives to prevent fragmentation at the school level.

The challenge of reforming inner city high schools remains a daunting one, which requires the attention of multiple stakeholders. This case study has demonstrated both the great potential of partnerships that bring multiple stakeholders together for career-centered high school reform, and the obstacles that hinder the reform process. The lessons learned from this experience are instructive for other urban systems seeking the same goal of high school reform. We urge that further research on partnerships for career-centered high school reform in other systemic contexts pay particular attention to such contextual factors as state accountability frameworks and multiple funding streams, and also to the issue of building leadership capacity that can broker among different models and deal with the crucial details of implementing reforms that reach the classroom and student level.


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MARTHA ABELE MAC IVER is Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, 3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 200, Baltimore, Maryland 21218. [E-mail: mmaciver@csos.jhu.edu ]. Her current research includes evaluations of whole school reform programs, school-to-work programs in high schools, and systemic change in urban school districts.

NETTIE LEGTERS is Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, 3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 200, Baltimore, Maryland 21218. [E-mail: nlegters@csos.jhu.edu ]. Her research interests are high school restructuring, comprehensive school reform, teachers' work, and equity in urban education.