Inflated claims, meager results
The school-to-work idea (hereafter, STW) emerged in Wisconsin late in the 1980s. Building in part on earlier initiatives, it has evolved into a complex system of education policy and practice intended to institutionalize and foster the development of a particular vision of reform. The reform goal, for K-12 education and workforce development in the state, is to upgrade the preparation of Wisconsin’s young people for high-wage, high-skill careers in the global economy. The goal is to be achieved through an array of programs for school-based learning, work-based learning, and what are called connecting activities, configured and coordinated to emphasize high academic standards and work-related skills and attitudes that will enable young people to respond flexibly and resourcefully to fast-paced developments in the labor markets.
In its assumptions about the goals of public education, the STW idea is not new. Throughout the industrial era, educators, parents, and other citizens concerned themselves with questions about how the schools ought to serve broad social goals, and school districts developed vocational and career education programs in their efforts to serve the needs of prospective workers and employers. By the middle- and late-1980s, however, this familiar tradition of school policy and practice seemed in need of a major overhaul, given two overlapping problem areas that loomed large in the state. One problem area had to do with Wisconsin’s workforce; the other had to do with the K-12 schools. Performance in each area looked unsatisfactory, according to a consensus view. A coordinated policy response seemed to be in order. The reexamination and developmental activity that followed produced what we now know as STW in Wisconsin.