Time to End the Troubled School-to-Work Program

Report Education

Time to End the Troubled School-to-Work Program

September 22, 1999 10 min read

Authors: D. Wilson and D. Mark Wilson

Congress has only a few weeks left before the end of fiscal year (FY) 1999 and the start of FY 2000 to complete action on the remaining appropriations bills. The largest of these, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS-Education) appropriation, poses a difficult challenge because the spending caps that President Bill Clinton and Congress agreed upon in 1997 require a $16 billion reduction in discretionary spending for FY 2000.1

In order to complete the Labor-HHS-Education appropriation bill and not break their pledge to the American people to keep spending below the caps, both Congress and the President will have to prioritize spending carefully. One priority should be to end funding for discretionary programs that are redundant, ineffective, or obsolete.

The federal School-to-Work (STW) program is one such program. Created by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (P.L.103-239), the STW program was intended to help reverse the failures of America's primary, secondary, and vocational education system and to graduate young adults who have marketable knowledge and skills. Originally envisioned as an integral part of overall education reform, it really is just another redundant federal program of unknown effectiveness that masks the failure of other programs and does not address the root causes of declining educational achievement.


When the 104th Congress created the School-to-Work program, it was motivated by the fear that America would lose its competitive edge in the global economy unless the job skills of its workforce were dramatically improved.

Federal STW grants require states to partner with businesses and other organizations to develop programs coordinating national, state, and local education policies with economic and workforce development needs. The education reform aspect of the program focuses on (1) building these school, business, and community partnerships; (2) academic and occupational integration; (3) the integration of school and work-based learning; and (4) connections to post-secondary education.

STW also attempts to bring together existing programs, such as technical education, school-based enterprises, youth apprenticeships, and job training initiatives. Under STW, learning would take place both in school and on the job, much as it does under Germany's apprenticeship system.

Since 1994, all 50 states have received STW implementation grants. In FY 1999, Congress appropriated $503 million for the program. President Clinton has requested $171 million for FY 2000.2 Since 1994, a total of $2 billion has been appropriated.3 The federal legislation for STW sunsets on October 1, 2001, but the U.S. Department of Education has determined that states can continue to spend federal funds until their grants are exhausted.

To their credit, proponents of STW recognize the failures of America's public school system. But funding a program that is redundant is not the answer to the problem of poor academic achievement by high school graduates. For example:

  • Since 1980, the U.S. Department of Education has granted states enormous sums of money for programs that duplicate STW activities, including $2.3 billion for Goals 2000 and $19.8 billion for vocational education. It also provides $4 billion for education research and development and $22 billion for a variety of school-improvement programs.4

  • In FY 1999, the U.S. Department of Education spent $1.2 billion on vocational education; $698 million on educational technology; $477 million on systemic improvement grants; $338 million on the Eisenhower Professional Development Program; $375 million on innovative education program strategies; $144 million on education research, development, and dissemination; and $159 million on a fund to improve education.5

Some of these other federal programs have been around for 30 years. If they had worked, America's high school graduates would not have a school-to-work transition problem. An STW-type program--a program advocates of STW cite as the best example of the STW system--has not worked well in Germany either. In 1997, the unemployment rate for German youth was 10 percent, which is not much better than the 11.3 percent rate for the same group in the United States.6

Both poor student achievement and the difficulties encountered by students in making the transition from school to work are functions of the poor academic quality and expectations of today's public education system. Employers report that many youth applicants do not have the basic reading, writing, or analytic skills required for entry-level jobs, even though more than four out of five teenagers now complete high school, compared with just one in two after World War II.7 The $2.3 billion that will have been spent on STW between 1994 and 2001 will have a negligible effect on teaching the basic skills that employers need. Instead, the money will be wasted on rearranging the educational bureaucracy, marketing, and efforts to treat the symptoms, not the problem.


Because STW is a relatively new program, very few rigorous studies have been conducted to determine its effectiveness. Most of the studies focus on process issues, such as how states have implemented the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. These studies generally report mixed results, and many raise serious concerns about how implementing STW has affected student academic achievement.

For example, the National STW Evaluation of state implementation of the program, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, concluded that efforts to raise academic standards are taking place independently of the STW program.8 In fact, the report states, "STW experiences for students do not appear so far to be central to state efforts to raise academic standards" and "it has been difficult in evaluation site visits to identify clear plans for promoting [academic] skills in workplace activities that STW partnerships have arranged." Even more disturbing, "It also must be recognized that students often face a trade-off between taking time to pursue electives with career content and using their elective options to take more advanced traditional academic classes."

Only a few studies focus on student outcomes. At best, these studies report mixed results; most raise serious questions about STW and work-based learning:

  • One study of 100 students participating in the Cornell Youth Apprenticeship Demonstration Project found that although the youths did gain job-related skills, there were no effects on their academic achievement.9

  • The 1996 High Schools That Work Assessment found that male students who were earning credit for part-time jobs connected with school had lower achievements in reading, math, and science.10 Fewer of these students took math and science courses during their senior year, and instead enrolled in unchallenging vocational courses.

  • One study found that while student outcomes may be positive, they are most likely attributable to other education reforms, not to STW. It concludes that no definitive research demonstrates that work-based learning improves academic achievement.11

  • A study of the New York STW program reported that participants were just as likely to go on to college or a trade school as were non-participants, but only half as likely to be employed--a major objective of STW.12

The National STW Office often cites the recent results of STW programs in Boston and Philadelphia as proof that STW improves student outcomes, and there do appear to be some positive results for these two local programs--but at what cost? The STW trend in urban education shifts emphasis away from a traditional liberal arts education to training students for entry-level jobs in the local economy. Some students may gain in the short term by improving their immediate ability to make the transition from school to work and earnings, but the price may be having to forego the longer-term benefits associated with a stock of intellectual capital that will improve and enrich their lives.


Aside from its redundancy and questionable effectiveness, there are five fundamental problems with the STW program:

  • STW implementation violates many state constitutions.
    In most cases, state and local elected officials have not been allowed to debate and vote on the massive restructuring of their school systems that STW has provoked.

  • STW promotes questionable teaching methods.
    STW emphasizes contextual learning, work-based learning, and student-directed instruction instead of direct instruction focusing on the acquisition of basic academic knowledge. Parents want more time and effort spent on increasing their children's command of basic academic disciplines and less on making them worker bees.

  • STW is federal industrial planning.
    As it is being implemented in many urban school systems, STW represents governmental industrial planning on the human resource side of the equation. It requires schools, together with business, to predict the future job market and then train children for those jobs. Similar planning did not work in the Soviet Union and does not seem to be working in Europe.

  • STW is not voluntary.
    Unlike vocational education, STW applies to all students. It is fundamentally retooling the education of all public school students, not just those who expect to go directly from high school to work.

  • STW will destroy traditional liberal arts education in America.
    In an STW system, it is unclear what emphasis will be placed on studying literature, history, geography, and the fine arts--knowledge that few employers seek. But schools prepare citizens as well as workers, and they are most successful when students are encouraged to read literature and history not merely for what they say about the workplace, but for their insights into the human condition. The economic goals of education should never be promoted over the virtue and importance of knowledge itself.


The school-to-work program is a symptom of America's failed federal experiment in regulating public education. The real problems for the workforce arise because of an educational atmosphere of low expectations, dumbed-down academic standards, and weak discipline.

The difficulties that students have in going from high school to work or college would disappear if educational reforms focused on strengthening core curricula, using proven teaching methods, setting high expectations for students and parents, and enabling local educators to improve classroom discipline. If primary and secondary schools concentrate on improving these key areas instead of on devoting scarce resources to bureaucratic collaboration, another layer of administration, and public relations marketing, future American high school graduates will be better prepared for any entry-level job, apprenticeship program, or college.

Although the School-to-Work Opportunities Act sunsets in FY 2001 and federal funding will end, Congress should consider eliminating this redundant and misguided program ahead of schedule.

D. Mark Wilson is a former Research Fellow in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Bureau of National Affairs, "House GOP Leaders Open Door to Possibility of Omnibus Bill," BNA Daily Report for Executives, September 10, 1999, p. A43.

2. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States: Appendix, Fiscal Year 2000, February 1999.

3. U.S. Department of Education, "Expanding Options for Students: Report to Congress on the National Evaluation of School-to-Work Implementation," February 1999, and Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States: Appendix, Fiscal Year 2000.

4. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States: Appendix, various years.

5. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States: Appendix, Fiscal Year 2000.

6. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, "OECD in Figures: 1999 Edition," July 1999.

7. U.S. Department of Education, "Implementation of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994," report to Congress, September 1996.

8. Mathematica Policy Research, "Expanding Options for Students: Report to Congress on the National Evaluation of School-to-Work Implementation," February 1999.

9. M. Hamilton and S. Hamilton, Learning Well at Work: Choices for Quality (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997).

10. G. Bottoms and A. Presson, "Work-Based Learning: Good News, Bad News, and Hope," Southern Regional Education Board Research Brief No. 7, no date.

11. Katherine Hughes and David Moore, "Work-Based Learning and the Academic Reinforcement Claim," paper presented at New York University Conference for Educators and Corporate Training Executives, June 23, 1999.

12. Thomas Kelsh, "New York State's School-to-Work Initiative Demonstrates Promising Student Results," Westchester Institute for Human Services Research, The STW Reporter, Vol. 1, Issue 2 (July 1998).


D. Wilson


D. Mark Wilson