Cooperative Education Models

From its beginnings in Cincinnati in 1906, cooperative education has evolved into a program offered at the secondary and post secondary levels in two predominant models. In one model, students alternate a semester of academic coursework with an equal amount of time in paid employment, repeating this cycle several times until graduation. The parallel method splits the day between school (usually in the morning) and work (afternoon). Thus, like school-to-work (STW), the co-op model includes school-based and work-based learning and, in the best programs, "connecting activities" such as seminars and teacher-coordinator work site visits. These activities help students explicitly connect work and learning.

Co-op's proponents identify benefits for students (including motivation, career clarity, enhanced employability, vocational maturity) and employers (labor force flexibility, recruitment/retention of trained workers, input into curricula) as well as educational institutions and society (ibid.). Beyond informal and anecdotal evidence, however, a familiar refrain in the literature is the lack of well-done research that empirically demonstrates these benefits. Barton (1996) identifies some of the research problems for secondary co-op as follows: federal data collection on high school co-op enrollments and completions ceased in the 1980s; some studies use data in which co-op was not isolated from other work experience programs. Ricks et al. (1993) describe other problems: due to lack of a clear or consistent definition of cooperative education, researchers cannot accurately identify variables and findings cannot be compared; theory is not well developed; theory, research, and practice are not integrated; and co-op research does not adhere to established standards.

Another set of problems involves perceptions of the field and its marginalization. Because of its "vocational" association, co-op is not regarded as academically legitimate; rather, it is viewed as taking time away from the classroom. Experiential activities are not necessarily rewarded in post secondary promotion and tenure systems, and co-op faculty may be isolated from other faculty. Despite the current emphasis on contextual learning, work is not recognized as a vehicle for learning. Schaasfma (1996) and Van Gyn (1996) agree that the field places too much emphasis on placements rather than learning. Wilson, Stull, and Vinsonhaler (1996) also decry the focus on administration, logistics, placements, and procedures.

Some institutions are fully dedicated to the co-op ideal (such as RIT, Kettering University, and LaGuardia Community College). In others, the co-op program may be viewed as an add-on and therefore is vulnerable to cost cutting. Even where co-op programs are strong they can be threatened, as at Cincinnati Technical College when it became a comprehensive community college or LaGuardia during a budget crisis. For students, costs and time to degree completion may be deterrents to co-op participation.