School-to-Work: The Right Model to Use

Erica Olsen

In an era of ever-changing educational fads and ideologies, school-to-work programs have entered the arena. This widely-debated program is part of Goals 2000, a federal education reform plan, and places more emphasis on vocational training in schools than currently in our curriculum. Pressure is on from the federal government to implement the program by issuing grants for states to develop and integrate vocationally-based coursework. Assembly Bill 191, called the School-to-Careers bill, is Nevada’s attempt to put this program into law. The idea of graduating students with "real-world" knowledge is taken from the German education system – world-renowned for its excellence. But some key differences exist between the German Model and School-to-Careers – differences that might destroy a potentially successful program. Here with a look at how the German education system is structured.

Germany’s "Dual System"

Full-time compulsory education in Germany begins at age six and lasts through ninth or tenth grade; students must continue in school at least part-time until they are 18. Through fourth grade, all students attend common primary schools. There they are taught according to a detailed curriculum promulgated by the Ministry of Education, an agency akin to the State Department of Education. After fourth grade students stream into three different lower secondary-school tracks. At the end of each track, successful students earn a certificate that entitles them, depending on the track and on their academic performance, to a university education, further vocational training or apprenticeships. The Hauptschule, the least demanding track, is attended by students headed for lower-skilled jobs and vocational training immediately after secondary school; a HauptschuleGymnasium offers a rigorous academic curriculum for university-bound students; successful performance in the Gymnasium and on a subsequent examination, the Abitur, qualifies students for university entrance. The Realschule is a compromise between the two, offering a largely academic curriculum but without the same depth, breadth, or rigor as the Gymnasium. certificate is a prerequisite for most apprenticeships and entitles students to enter full-time vocational schools. The

The school-to-work section of the German model, called the Dual System, is the option chosen by most German students at the end of their compulsory education. Compulsory education ends at ninth grade in the Hauptschule, 10th grade in the Realschule and 12th grade in the GymnasiumBerufsschule, where they receive classroom instruction in the skills needed for their occupation as well as continuing instruction in general academic subjects. Most apprenticeships require at least a Hauptschule diploma and more prestigious ones require a Realschule certificate. track. In the Dual System, students are hired by individual employers as trainees in specific occupations such as auto mechanic, carpenter, plumber, office clerk, salesman, painter and bank teller. The apprenticeships last from two to three-and-a-half years. Students generally spend three or four days at the work site, working and receiving on-the-job training. The remainder of the week they spend at a part-time vocational school, the

The Dual System has been successful because students must perform well in traditional schoolwork even before the program begins. Traditional schoolwork includes core courses in math, the sciences, German language and literature, history and foreign languages to a compulsory-level education. The standards applied to core courses represent knowledge and skills to be obtained before school completion and just before potential entrance in to the school-to-work program. For example, students in all track levels are expected to obtain proficiency by the end of the American equivalent of the ninth grade in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, as well as statistics and probability. The level of work in other fields is equally instructive. For example, in the area of the first foreign language, continuous study starts at grade five and at the end of the ninth or 10th grade, a level of achievement is expected that is equivalent to at least that of a third-year American high school program. Students who wish to continue education in a particular subject may do so at a university or a trade school, depending on the student’s secondary education achievement level.

American Program

The American school-to-work program integrates vocational skills and standards into academic courses. This type of integration makes the program mandatory for all. Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, writes about creating "a seamless web of opportunities to develop one’s skills that literally extends from the cradle to the grave and is the same system for everyone [emphasis added]." The problem is not everyone wants to be a laborer. Teaching skills instead of core knowledge will prohibit a student from pursuing a professional career.

Vocational standards for this program are currently being drafted into the new Nevada State Education Framework. Much of the Nevada program is modeled after Oregon’s. (See box for side story.) Science standards for high school students include identifying industrial hazard symbols, becoming familiar with industrial safety practices and choosing appropriate materials for making simple mechanical constructions and repairs. Although these skills may be helpful to a few, the student who wants to become a physical therapist, for example, would never use knowledge pertaining to an industrial site. Herein lies the major problems with the American model: Necessary time spent on academic coursework will be substituted with mandatory vocational training in all subjects. A student will spend his or her time learning specific skills instead of gaining universal knowledge.


In Germany, traditional knowledge matters, and even during the Dual System program, while 60 percent of the "academic" courses are adjusted for occupational relevance, 40 percent remain stubbornly traditional. What is the most important part of this system is the standards it upholds. Success ensues from the rigorous knowledge and skill base expected of all students – something our educators should require.

One Parent’s Reaction to School-to-Work

The State of Oregon has made it mandatory for students to earn Certificates of Mastery (CIM), the diploma of School-to-Work programs. An Oregon mother describes her son’s academic level after completion of this program:

"My son … cannot diagram a sentence, conjugate a verb, construct proper sentences or spell (English is not taught at Cottage Grove High School.) He has not been taught Algebra I or II, geometry or trigonometry. He can, however, work story problems from his "Alice in Wonderland" story books and tell his teacher how he "feels" about his story problems. (This is College Prep. Interactive Math.) He is in his 12th year of school and had not studied biology, geography, civics, English, etc. He spent an entire year in a World of Work class, based on the Dept. of Labor’s SCANS report. He has studied Death, Dying and Suicide, gone to a mortuary to see how a dead body is processed and been taught how to receive merchandise on a loading dock. This program is not about academic reform. It is about getting kids jobs."

Erica Olsen is a research analyst at NPRI. Also contributing to this issue brief was William G. Durden, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.