Federal law seeks to retool teaching

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This year, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act is funneling $400 million in federal funds to model school-to-work programs across the country.

New initiatives funded under the Act must give students the academic background to qualify for post-secondary education, including 4-year colleges. And programs are required to integrate vocational and academic curricula by, for example, including more hands-on projects and applied learning.

These two provisions keep schools from using their work-related programs as “another form of tracking,” says Lauren Jacobs of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Education, which played a key role in crafting the legislation.

Programs also must teach students about “all aspects” of an industry, not just narrow, specific skills such as how to repair a car engine. “All aspects” includes business planning, management and finance; technical skills and underlying principles of technology; and industry-related labor, community, health, safety and environmental issues.

In an automotive program, for instance, an English class might require students to write a business plan for prospective investors in a car-repair business. Science classes would cover the technology behind internal-combustion engines and newer, high-tech innovations such as electric cars. And history and social studies courses might cover the relationship between labor unions and the auto industry, the impact of a new auto plant on a community’s economy and ways the industry has tackled health and safety problems.

By teaching all aspects of an industry, schools are prodded to integrate vocational and technical curricula?a goal they won’t achieve if they teach only technical skills, Jacobs says. Also, she adds, “Very few students can make good predictions about what they want to be doing when they’re 40, so it’s important that they learn skills that are transferrable to other industries.”

The Act also calls for:

Mandatory workplace training. In cities where private businesses may be reluctant to provide training, students can meet this training requirement by working for community organizations or school-operated businesses, such as Flower Vocational High’s student-run catering business.

“Equal access” for all students, including those with disabilities or limited English proficiency. Schools must provide support services such students need to participate.

Schoolwide programs. Schools in high-poverty areas may obtain waivers to combine school-to-work funds with other federal funds, such as Title I, in order to set up schoolwide school-to-work programs.