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School-to-Work Curricula in the Middle Grades:

Concepts and Concerns

Curtis R. Finch

National Center for Research in Vocational Education
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, VA, USA

Marianne Mooney

Center on Education and Work

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999


Even though middle schools have existed for over 40 years, they are considered by many to be a relatively new phenomenon. And what motivation existed for establishing middle schools in the first place? Kindred, et al. (1976, 3-9) described the growth of the middle school movement as a function of six interrelated areas: dissatisfaction with the junior high school, changes in young persons’ maturity patterns, new educational ideals, developments in learning theory, innovations in educational methods and materials, and changes in society.

At that time, junior high schools were viewed as not providing broad exploratory and transitional experiences appropriate to adolescent students’ needs and interests. Over the years, middle schools replaced junior high schools to the point where a relatively small number of junior high schools still exist (Epstein, 1990). However, the other five growth areas noted by Kindred et al. in 1976 continue to evolve and in doing so present a contemporary frame of reference for discussions focusing on what middle schools should and should not be. Young people continue to mature at more rapid rates and thus provide middle school educators with continuing challenges (National Middle School Association, 1995).

Different philosophies of middle school education continue to be discussed and debated (Dougherty, 1997). Learning research has provided middle school educators with much valuable information and, concurrently, raised a number of questions about how middle school students’ needs should be met (for example, see Anderman & Maehr, 1994). Innovations, particularly in the computer and electronic communication areas, have been touted as being important for students to learn so they will be prepared for life in our technological society. However, many middle school students are not afforded opportunities to learn about these innovations (Becker, 1990). And societal changes, such as evolution of the United States from a national economic powerhouse to being part of a global economy, have raised questions about what work-related education if any should be included in the middle school curriculum.

Scope and Purpose

This research focused on a subset of middle school education that connects with each of the evolving areas introduced above: School-to-Work (STW) opportunities in the middle school. Over the past decade, increasing numbers of senior high school educators in the United States have provided comprehensive and meaningful STW opportunities for their students. Unfortunately, these STW opportunities may be offered too late in some high school students’ studies to have much impact on them. By the 9th or 10th grade, many students have already become turned off to education and have decided to quit school or just comply with minimum requirements for graduation. Other students may not have received much parental and peer encouragement to study and/or do not view schooling as an avenue to future occupational and career success (Kennedy, 1996; Lichtenstein & Blackorby, 1995). In response to these and other concerns, a number of school districts across the United States have created School-to-Work opportunities for middle school students. Examples range from including career exploration activities in individual middle school courses to school- and school district-wide incorporation of School-to-Work opportunities in the curriculum. In some school districts, educators are providing middle school students with meaningful experiential learning related to occupations and careers (Schmidt, Finch, & Moore, 1997).

Educators are gaining experience at implementing school-to-work (STW) opportunities in the middle school. However, these activities have been conducted largely on an ad-hoc basis with little knowledge about how and why they should be included in the middle school curriculum as well as the impact they are designed to have on students. This study was conducted to address these concerns and issues, building from the Turning Points (Carnegie Council for Adolescent Development, 1989) framework that documents a mismatch between middle school curricula and young adolescents’ needs. Within the middle school context, answers were sought to a series of questions posed to middle school educators who had implemented STW curricula in their schools:

Why have STW curricula been implemented including conceptual, organizational, and operational reasons?

What are the foci of the curricula and how were they determined?

What benefits do the curricula provide to students?

What issues and concerns are associated with implementing STW curricula at the middle school level?


Since the middle school concept was first introduced by William M. Alexander in 1963, educators have been searching for ways to embrace it. Middle school theory surmises that early adolescents’ academic, social, and emotional needs are better served by an educational experience not found in the elementary or high school environments. Some middle-level schools have been restructured and transformed to provide the appropriate learning environment that assists young adolescents to meet their potential, and provide a meaningful place for young people in an adult culture. Steps for accomplishing this change have been outlined in Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989), and have been widely disseminated as a national "blueprint" in restructuring efforts. These steps include the following:

"create small communities for personalized learning (small schools or small programs within larger schools);

create successful experiences for all students by eliminating tracking and promoting cooperative learning;

give teachers and administrators decision-making power concerning curriculum and instruction;

employ teachers who like, respect, and appreciate adolescents;

employ teachers who are experts in teaching young adolescents;

improve academic performance through fostering health and fitness of young adolescents;

encourage family involvement in the education process;

connect middle schools with their communities (p. 9)".

The authors of Turning Points noted that middle school students need to become "socially competent individuals" who are able to cope successfully with everyday life. They need to believe that they have promising futures and the competence to take advantage of societal opportunities when they arise.

Unfortunately, many middle schoolers "lose ground" academically during this period. Theory suggests the declining academic achievement that commonly plagues adolescents may be directly related to "the mismatch between the developmental needs of the students and the educational environment" (Mac Iver, 1989). In turn, providing young adolescents with a combination of both challenging and nurturing experiences in appropriate settings can strengthen the possibility of them becoming more effective academic and social participants. Substantial evidence can be found of a relationship between young adolescents’ perceptions of the classroom environment and their achievement and attitudes (Dougherty, 1997).

It was emphasized in Turning Points (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989), that a tremendous mismatch existed between middle grade curriculum and the needs of young adolescents. As Felner, et al. (1997a, p. 521-522) stated, Turning Points has provided educators with "comprehensive and researchable constructs and exemplars of those constructs to undergird their reform efforts." In fact, the eight major recommendations for reform provided in Turning Points (cited earlier) served as a framework for the long-term evaluation of a model for high performing learning communities (Felner, et al., 1997b). The Turning Points framework, likewise, served as a framework to guide this study; particularly regarding ways middle schools utilize school-to-work/careers curricula to make more meaningful connections between the middle school curriculum and students’ needs.


The research method was qualitative, with telephone interviews serving as the information gathering process. Interview protocols were developed to gather in-depth information from middle school educators. Concurrently, locations where comprehensive, long-term STW opportunities were being provided for middle school students were identified. State STW coordinators, selected association representatives, and VocNet list serve subscribers were asked to nominate middle schools where comprehensive, long-term STW curricula had been established. Nomination criteria defined middle schools that (a) had fully operational, successful school-to-work/careers programs, (b) were graduating students from the program, (c) had effective linkages with high school school-to-work/careers efforts as well as the workplace and the community, and (d) had a long-term commitment to STW transition at the school-district level.

36 middle schools representing 16 different states were nominated. Contact persons available at 28 of the 36 middle schools were interviewed to gather detailed information about their curricula. The remaining eight schools either did not meet selection criteria or their representatives were unavailable to complete the interview within the time constraints of the study. At six of the 28 middle schools, interviews were also conducted with 3 to 5 additional persons including at least one principal, one counselor, and one teacher. Taped information gathered during the in-depth interviews was transcribed for comprehensive analysis using The Ethnograph (Qualis Research Associates, 1990). This software provided us with the capacity of coding, grouping, and regrouping information according to predominant and underlying themes.

Results and Discussion

Middle school personnel that were interviewed responded to questions concerning four areas: (a) reasons for the implementation of a middle school STW curriculum; (b) curriculum focus; (c) ways the middle school STW curriculum contributed to student success; and (d) issues and concerns that have been voiced about implementing a STW curriculum at this level. Examination of the responses made by principals, academic and vocational teachers, STW coordinators, guidance counselors, school administrators, and others resulted in categorizing responses into meaningful themes.

It was anticipated that educators would include enhancing curriculum relevancy, better serving needs of at-risk students, and enhancing student development among their reasons for curriculum implementation. The remaining themes (developing career awareness and exposure, supporting systemic change and school reform, building community linkages, and improving the transition to high school and beyond) were less obvious in the literature but appear to be of no less importance. All reasons were to some extent a function of school context.

About half of the middle school educators interviewed offered conceptual reasons for implementing their STW curricula. Some persons referenced Turning Points (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989) and/or general middle school concepts as a foundation for curriculum development efforts. Several educators saw the STW curriculum as an excellent fit with the middle school philosophy of assisting students to transition from child to young adult.

Interviewees mentioned a small number of organizational and operational reasons for implementing STW curricula in the middle school. Interdisciplinary teaming, which was discussed most frequently by educators as an organizational reason for implementing STW curricula, is quite visible in the literature. However, it is not clear who the members of these teams should be.

Collectively, middle school educators indicated their curricula focused on five different but interrelated areas (career exploration and awareness, self-awareness, contextual learning, service learning, and integrated themes). It was in this area where STW curricula appeared to differ most from curricula advocated in the general middle school literature. However, the actual difference is quite subtle. Regarding curriculum determination, implicit in the literature is a view that educators are the source of content knowledge and organization for middle school curriculum development. In contrast, several educators indicated that at their schools a broad net was cast to capture content for inclusion in the curriculum. Through a range of approaches educators brought a real world focus and view into the curriculum.

Interviewees described a broad range of benefits STW curricula provided to their students. Comments underscored contributions of STW experiences to middle school student development. Middle school educators noted the middle school STW curriculum enhanced their students’ personal development in the areas of individual growth, self-understanding, confidence, self-esteem, and motivation and responsibility to learn.

Several suggestions are offered for consideration by those interested in more fruitful collaboration between School-to-Work curricula and the middle school agenda. As a starting point, consider the direction STW opportunities in some middle schools appear to be taking. As described by educators in exemplary middle schools where STW curricula are being provided to students:

These students can prepare for their futures in addition to satisfying their current needs.

Teaching and learning focus on both the educational process and its outcomes.

Every educator in the school can team with each other as well as with community and workplace representatives to provide students with authentic learning experiences.

The context for teaching is proactive and dynamic rather than reactive and static.

The curriculum can be developmentally responsive to students and concurrently provide them with a wide range of opportunities such as career exploration and awareness, contextual learning, service learning, and integrated learning themes.

Thus, there appears to be a clear connection between what the middle school literature says middle schools should do and what a number of STW-oriented middle schools are doing. Even though STW opportunities in the middle school may not be a mainstream focus for middle school professionals, these opportunities have the potential to meet students’ developmental needs in new and exciting ways. It is thus important to better understand and document exemplary STW opportunities that are occurring in many middle schools across the United States so their successes can be shared with other middle school educators.

It likewise appears that middle schools where STW opportunities are being provided to students may indeed be exemplars of best practice as envisioned in the middle school literature. Broadly-based teacher teaming, extensive linking with the community, providing students with opportunities for contextual learning, enabling students to explore the real world, and providing students with meaningful development experiences are all suggested or implicit in the middle school literature and can all be accomplished within a STW opportunities framework. Descriptions about STW opportunities that can be provided to middle school students and their potential value must be communicated to the middle school educator community. Middle school educators should have access to this information before they begin to implement major curriculum changes. In fact, the STW curriculum may be exactly what a number of middle schools really need.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 22 September 1999