School-to-Work Transition Project


To prepare young people for productive and satisfying adult lives in the competitive global marketplace, local high schools and employers are being asked to develop effective school-to-work programs. These programs have an important place in the school reform movement, because they change the nature of high school for their students by utilizing the experiences and knowledge contained in modern workplaces. The school-to-work movement was handicapped, however, by a lack of information about communities that had already created innovative combinations of improved high school education and work-based learning.

To remedy this situation, MDRC launched in 1991 the School-to-Work Transition Project, the organization’s first effort in the field of K-12 education. The project was the logical outgrowth both of MDRC’s long-standing commitment to youth employment issues and its burgeoning interest in high school reforms. The project was an investigation of 16 pioneering school-to-work programs. Programs were chosen because they represented a wide variety of approaches and had enough operational experience to provide start-up and implementation lessons for others.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The project unfolded in two phases. During the first phase, the research centered on three policy questions:

  • What were the contents of the school-to-work programs?
  • What resources did they require?
  • How did they determine which students to serve?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The study involved synthesizing information from 16 case studies. The purpose of the effort was to describe and analyze the school-to-work programs, rather than to measure their impacts.

The 16 programs were located in 15 communities in 12 states. These communities were: Little Rock, Arkansas; Los Angeles, California; Oakland, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; Wayne Township (Indianapolis), Indiana; Baltimore, Maryland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Central Point (Medford), Oregon; Portland, Oregon; Dauphin County (Harrisburg), Pennsylvania; Pickens County (Easley), South Carolina; Socorro, Texas (near El Paso); Fox Cities (Appleton), Wisconsin; and West Bend, Wisconsin.

To conduct the case studies, the researchers interviewed program directors, employers, school administrators, teachers, students, and leaders of other participating organizations. Discussions with focus groups of students and parents in two programs provided information about their perspectives.