Integrating Academic and Industry Skill Standards
Thomas R. Bailey
Institute on Education and the Economy
Teachers College, Columbia University
This report focuses on the relationship between academic and industry skill standards and assesses the current state of coordination between them. It also explores how better integration between the two sets of standards could strengthen both and could ultimately have a positive influence on education as a whole. Although not a conference summary, this report draws on the experiences and discussion from a 1996 conference sponsored by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. The conference brought together individuals who had worked on developing the two types of standards to discuss the potential for integration and how that integration could take place. The conference and the content of this report focus on the academic standards developed in five disciplines: mathematics, English/language arts, social studies, science, and history. Industry skill standards are represented by the following skill standards pilot projects sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor: electronics, retail, bioscience, photonics, automotive repair, health care, and metalworking. The U.S. Departments of Education and Labor sponsored two projects in the electronics industry and both sets of skill standards were represented at the conference.
The paper presents four broad arguments for better coordination between academic and technical skill standards. First, educators, policymakers, and employers have emphasized the value of creating stronger connections between academic and vocational education for several years. Integrated skills are needed in new, more demanding workplaces and provide better pedagogic and social opportunities for all students and educators. Second, research has increasingly shown that relating learning to work can strengthen academic learning by giving a coherence to academic studies that is difficult to create when subjects are taught independently or in the abstract. Third, given that the workplace now demands better academic skills across all occupations, increasing the rigor of academic preparation for all students is especially important. Fourth, by working together, academic and vocational educators and employers can strengthen both sets of standards. At the same time that educators often do not possess a strong understanding of the workplace, employers and workers are not in the best position to evaluate the academic content of the skills they need. A strong working relationship between educators and employers in developing skill standards eliminates potentially misleading messages delivered through standards.
The Current State of Coordination
Although slowly beginning to change, academic and industry skill standards have been developed largely in isolation from each other. To be sure, most industry skill standards make references to academic standards and most of the academic standards call for some types of work applications. In general, however, the workplace applications offered by the academic skills are rarely explicit. Students are sometimes offered ad hoc or isolated examples of applications, but they can meet the academic standards without necessarily being able to apply their academic skills to realistic work-related problems. Similarly, industry skill standards often include academic standards but do so as abstract lists of skills that are left unconnected to their use in the workplace.
The required performance levels of both academic and industry-related skills also needs much more attention. Even though there is a broad-based consensus that standards need to be set at a high level, most of the academic standards offer no absolute normative benchmarks against which to measure student performance. Most of the academic standards were set by educators based on their judgment about what students should know, usually to proceed to the next level of education. These judgments were not based on objectives from outside the disciplines or the education system. While the industry skill standards do call for academic skills, those academic standards were usually set very low. For the most part, the academic component of the industry skill standards call for skills that can be achieved well short of high school graduation. Employers, however, may not understand the advanced academic skills that their standards require. This lack of understanding and the potential for misrepresented academic skills further supports the need for collaboration with educators so that actual academic competence can be determined.
The most significant area of overlap or common ground between the two sets of standards was their use of process-oriented or SCANS-type skills. Both types of standards call for strengthened problem-solving, teamwork, inquiry, and communication skills. They emphasize the use of a variety of sources of information to investigate issues and arrive at answers and solutions and they advocate the use of different means and media to communicate those solutions.
Nevertheless, recognition of consistent skills across the standards is only a first step toward integration. Defining and evaluating crossfunctional skills such as these generic skills offers many opportunities for academic and industry skill standards developers to work together. First, standards setters must dissect the generic components from specific components of these process skills. Ultimately, generic standards will only be meaningful to the extent that they can be assessed so both academic and industry groups have a large stake in the success of those efforts.
Using Standards To Develop Projects and Curricula that Integrate Academic and Vocational Instruction
The conference was organized in such a way as to give employers and academic and vocational educators a chance to work together on specific pairs of academic and industry skill standards. For example, the developers of the English standards were paired with representatives of the standards for retailing. As a group, they were charged with reviewing each other's standards, discussing strengths and weaknesses, and identifying opportunities for using standards to promote integrated instruction and curriculum. Despite initial skepticism, the group did develop several projects. For example, the English standards call for mastering critical writing that contrasts and compares alternative points of view.
The retailing standards expect students to understand alternative approaches to marketing. The retailing teachers asked whether having retailing students write an essay contrasting the different marketing strategies of two major corporations--Nike and Reebok--would be an acceptable means of addressing the English standard. Without hesitation, the English teachers endorsed that approach. Other sessions at the conference and at workshops organized by NCRVE held since the conference have yielded other similar examples. Many of the participants at the conference and at the workshops were convinced that this approach had great potential to strengthen both academic and vocational education.
The report ends with seven recommendations that can be used to guide the further development of standards. In addition, the recommendations can serve as a framework for further research.
1. Promote the continued collaboration among academic and vocational teachers and employers both in the development of standards and in the use of standards to develop curricula.
Experience during and after the conference indicates that this collaboration is possible and useful. To the surprise of many of the participants, this first opportunity to interact with a different set of players, led to the discovery of a great deal of common ground. In addition, collaboration has several benefits. First, it can improve the accuracy and relevance of the standards. Second, it can lead to increased motivational and pedagogic benefits as the standards become more embedded in broad, coherent, and authentic applications. Third, it can foster a better understanding of the workplace to help academic teachers plan curricula that would be both academically sophisticated and more closely related to the needs of the workplace.
2. Improve the definition and measurement of the levels of academic skills within the industry skill standards, including more emphasis on differentiating between the standards for entry-level and higher- level jobs within the same area. Ideally, industry skill standards should be able to refer explicitly to appropriate academic standards.
Even though employers indicate that they prefer to hire high school graduates, for the most part, the academic skills contained in their industry skill standards can be obtained with less than a high school degree. This was clearest for mathematics, but less obvious for science. Academic skills from the other disciplines were often defined in the industry skill standards in such general terms that no precise level could be discerned. Employers may be incorrectly specifying the academic content of skill needs because they do not understand the specific benefits that students gain from high school. This is the type of problem that improved collaboration could address. If industry skill standards appropriately indicate the academic skills required for entry-level work, students and teachers using the standards must focus on the higher-level skills needed for subsequent career advancement.
In many cases, the academic components of the industry skill standards provide little guidance to teachers and students because they are stated in vague and abstract terms. Much work needs to be done in defining the academic content of the industry skill standards
3. Develop academic standards so that meeting those standards will indicate that a person is able to apply the relevant academic skills outside the classroom in the workplace and in the community, and so that they specify levels of academic achievement.
Although called for in the original Goals 2000 legislation, the academic standards lack an organization that is equivalent to the National Skill Standards Board to provide a forum for reevaluating and developing a systemic focus for the standards. Some conference participants criticized the academic standards for being too geared toward preparing students for the next level of education as opposed to using their skills for work-based activities and cultural or civic duties. Students should only be able to meet academic standards by applying them outside of the education system through activities such as industry-based projects or scenarios.
Although this report has criticized the industry skill standards for calling for rather low levels of academic achievement, some of the academic standards fail to specify levels of achievement. The English standards offer the best example. We have suggested that the industry skill standards refer explicitly to academic standards in defining required academic skills, but this will be impossible if levels are not defined.
4. Encourage the use of standards to promote the integration of academic and vocational education. Create a clearinghouse for curricula and projects developed through collaborative use of academic and industry skill standards.
Better coordination between the two sets of standards should be part of a strategy to achieve the broader goal of the integration of academic and vocational education. Standards can be used to create projects and curricula that bring academic and work-related material together in an interesting manner that does not compromise the level and sophistication of the standards from either area. Such an integrated approach to teaching and learning can strengthen the academic base of work-related skills and can provide a context and motivation for learning academic skills.
5. Systematically experiment with different approaches to coordination of the two sets of standards.
Although few would argue against better coordination between academic and industry standard setters, little consensus has emerged regarding the optimal form of integrated standards or the infrastructure to coordinate groups of standard setters. Conference participants discussed linking existing standards through crosswalks that identify the academic content of different industry or occupational skills--standards in bioscience and automotive repair included such crosswalks. Participants agreed that crosswalks were useful, but only a first step. Nevertheless, this approach will not necessarily generate the benefits that could derive from closer coordination in the development of both sets of standards. Crosswalks identify the academic content of industry-related skills and illustrate the use of academic skills in industry contexts, but we have suggested that both sets of standards would be strengthened if the developers closely worked together. This would not necessarily happen if the efforts at integration were limited to the development of crosswalks for existing sets of standards that were developed independently.
A more difficult approach would be to use academic and generic skills to develop specific industry tasks, scenarios, or complex examples. This natural integration of academic and vocational material can lead easily to curricula and projects that can be used by teachers. A more comprehensive approach involves designing academic and industry skill standards together and combining both industry needs and a more comprehensive view of an academic program including attention to the academic foundations required for advancement beyond entry-level positions.
6. Use the development of standards and the collaboration among standard setters to refine our understanding of generic (or SCANS) skills and to develop better means to teach and assess them.
Academic and industry skill standards overlapped most in the area of generic or process skills. Since generic skills vary in different contexts, it is important to go beyond the general descriptions and language of SCANS and understand the nature of generic skills in the different disciplines and industry settings. Without this specific information, it is difficult to translate the need for skills into a process that has meaning and application in the classroom.
7. Focus on the development of appropriate teaching strategies and associated curricula and materials and on effective ways to prepare teachers to use those strategies.
Standards can be a means to define and signal both required skills and important teaching tools. Current pedagogy has been organized around compartmentalized curricula that preserve sharp distinctions among the disciplines, between academic and vocational learning, and even among different vocational areas. The integration of academic and vocational education, the development and use of standards, or combining an integrated educational approach have had a strong educational tradition in this country. A great deal of work remains to be done to determine an optimal form for the standards and the best ways to use them for teaching and learning. To be effective, reforms must gain a better understanding of the most appropriate teaching strategies for the standards and how to most effectively train teachers to use those new strategies.
Bailey, T. R. (1997, November). Integrating academic and industry skill standards. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.