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Curriculum and Pedagogy for Academic-Occupational Integration in Community Colleges: Illustrations from an Instrumental Case Study - Part I: Introduction

by Dolores Perin - July 21, 2002

Community colleges play an important role in educating the nation's workforce and many students go to these institutions for occupational instruction in order to enter or advance in the labor market. However, community college occupational programs have been criticized for being narrow, and insufficiently concerned with literacy and critical thinking. At the same time, academic instruction has been characterized as being irrelevant and unmotivating to students preparing for careers. Integrating occupational and academic instruction may help overcome these problems. This nine-part series presents case material from a study of curriculum and pedagogy for integrated instruction in seven community colleges across the country (Perin, in press). Observations and interviews with faculty and administrators indicated variation in the extent of integration in the classroom, and teacher- vs. student centeredness. Further, although occupational faculty frequently emphasized their studentsí need for basic academic skills, they often did not teach these skills explicitly in their classrooms.

Although the popular image of a college education assumes a four-year, baccalaureate preparation, almost half of college freshmen enroll in community (two-year) colleges. Many community college students go on to be productive members of the nation's mid-level workforce. However, the community college student body is increasingly nontraditional and diverse, with growing proportions of reentering women, people from ethnic minorities, students with limited English language proficiency, individuals with disabilities, and displaced workers (Cohen & Brawer, 1991; Grubb, 1996; Hammons & Barnsley, 1996; O'Banion, 1994). Community college students tend to be older, more often enrolled part?time, and simultaneously employed. They tend to have less clear educational objectives and are less likely to earn a degree (Richardson & Elliot, 1994). Many have never been expected to meet rigorous academic demands (Roueche & Roueche, 1999). One consequence of the diversity of the community college population is that a large proportion of students lack the skills in reading, writing, English language, math and critical thinking needed for college?level study (Cohen & Brawer 1991; O'Banion 1994). It has been reported that between 50% and 90% of community college freshmen have inadequate academic skills (McCabe, 1988; Richardson & Elliot, 1994).

Besides struggling with students' academic capabilities, community colleges have been criticized for providing occupational education that focuses too narrowly on job skills (Goodwin, 1989), so that students graduate lacking the literacy and critical-thinking skills needed to perform modern jobs (Grubb, 1996). An innovation referred to as "academic?occupational integration" offers a chance to modify curriculum and instruction in order to prepare community college occupational education students for more complex work.

This series presents case material from research into curriculum and teaching at community colleges (all referred to by fictitious names) across the country in which academic and occupational education were integrated. The research was an instrumental case study (Stake, 1995) that described and analyzed various models of academic?occupational integration, and the instructors' preparation to teach in this new way (for full reports, see Perin, 2001). This part, the first installment in the series, introduces several models of academic-occupational integration and provides examples of barriers to this reform. The eight subsequent parts describe instances of integrated instruction in the classroom, and offer some conclusions and interpretations.


The case material illustrates four models of academic-occupational integration in community colleges, as defined by Grubb (1996) and the Illinois Task Force on Integration (1997):

1. Linked courses, also known as paired or tandem courses. A cohort of students takes a pair of courses in which curricula are aligned. The academic course may be a general education course given for college credit, such as Freshman Composition or Introduction to Social Sciences, or a remedial course that does not bear college credit, such as English as a Second Language.

2. Learning communities, also known as course clusters. A cohort of students takes a set of three or more courses in which curricula are aligned. As with linked courses, the academic courses may or may not bear college credit. Typically, a learning community revolves around a common theme, which is infused in the courses.

3. Infused occupational courses. Single occupational courses incorporate instruction in academic skills such as writing and math. The occupational courses may utilize a writing-across-the-curriculum model (McGrath & Spear, 1991). Although academic skills are included in these courses, their primary objective is to teach occupational content.

4. Infused academic courses, or applied academics. Single academic courses teach reading, writing, math or critical thinking using occupational themes. Although career-related content is utilized, the primary objective of these courses is to teach academic skills.

For the current study, the recruitment of community colleges was confined to institutions offering integrated courses within business, allied health, and technology programs that culminated in either the Associates of Applied Science degree (AAS), or a certificate. There was unexpected difficulty in finding sites that were offering integrated courses in the targeted areas, although they were the among the most popular areas of study in community colleges (Adelman, 1995). Where it was used at all, integrated instruction appeared more prevalent in general education than career-related programs. Apart from a few sites that were integrating academic and occupational instruction but did not wish to participate in the study, it was difficult to find colleges where such courses were actually being offered, although at times there was an abundance of plans. This corroborated Badway & Grubb's (1997) experience when following up a mail survey, that it "appeared that the answers to these questionnaires were often exaggerated: in some cases it looked like community colleges reported practices under development, or practices they wanted to develop, rather than examples of curriculum integration already in place" (Badway & Grubb 1997, p. 71). This statement supports our finding that integrated instruction is relatively rare in community college career-preparation programs.

The experience of a midwestern state is helpful in highlighting barriers to integrated instruction (for discussion of this issue, see Perin, 2001). In this example, 12 of the state's 28 community colleges were participating in a state?funded network on academic?occupational integration. The network's purpose was to develop the ability to provide technical assistance on integration to college faculty, and members of the network were involved in developing integrated curricula at their colleges. However, only a few of the 12 colleges were actually offering integrated courses (for an example, see Part IV of this series). The network leader reported in an interview that the college administrators were often reluctant to offer integrated courses, and the union opposed the effort because the interdisciplinary approach implied by integrated instruction was antithetical to the union's protection of instructors by discipline. One college in the network had developed three integrated courses. One of the courses, which integrated technical physics and writing projects, had been offered but was not being repeated during the study period. An instructor stated in an interview that the department chair had initially supported the integrated course, which was initiated through grant funding that also allowed the department to purchase equipment. However, at the end of the funding period, the chair scheduled the course at a time that was inconvenient for students, subsequently cancelling it due to low enrollment.

The network leader linked integration to both retention and academic success, and described resistance on the part of some teachers, and the union:

The main problem the community college faces is retention ? integration is the solution... There is an oversupply of postsecondary education. There are marketplace considerations. The community colleges are losing enrollment to the four?year colleges... The community college's mission is to take students who come from families with no experience of college, and give them sets of skills that help them become successful. Integration is the most effective way of doing this ? it links to retention... There is no such thing as a failing student ? it's the teacher's responsibility to get them to that point... The teachers are either reactionary, or dedicated teachers. There's a fight over extra?contractual classes. The reactionary teachers will usually tolerate integration unless it cuts into their enrollment... The unions are concerned with workload, teachers' rights. They see students as an adversary. They support teachers' right to flunk students and maintain control of their classrooms ? the student has an ownership role. (Statewide integration leader)

Another barrier was that integration was often identified with applied academics courses, which were not considered transfer?level. The aim of teaching academic skills in career context could conflict directly with the aim of providing transfer?level courses. A consultant to the statewide integration network stated that most technical or applied courses were "death" for transfer. However, despite a number of obstacles, administrators and faculty at colleges where courses were in progress were emphatic about its advantages (Perin, 2001).


Fifty-seven statements about reasons for integrating occupational and academic instruction were made by 53 interviewees (41 faculty and 12 administrators) in the seven colleges. The responses were assigned to five categories, which were, in descending order of frequency: student performance (60%), efficiency and college policy (18%), student retention (16%), faculty motivation (4%), and external funding (4%). The reasons given by interviewees, along with number of mentions and category are listed below.

STUDENT PERFORMANCE (34 responses, 60%)

Students need basic skills (22); integrated instruction improves occupational learning (2); broadens learning (2); increases access (1); increases students' interest (1). Integrated instruction helpstudents enter jobs in areas of training (1); helps students understand problems from multiple viewpoints (1); helps students make connections (1); forces students to study basic skills earlier in program (1); promotes transfer of learning (1); improves grades (1)

Efficiency and college policy (10 responses, 18%) Integrated instruction satisfies general education requirements (4); affects budget (cuts costs or increases revenue) (2); accelerates learning (2); reduces instructional time (1); keeps remediation in the college (1)

STUDENT RETENTION (9 responses, 16%)

FACULTY MOTIVATION (2 responses, 4%)

EXTERNAL FUNDING (2 responses, 4%)


The following examples of rationales for integrated instruction are drawn from interviews and institutional documents including faculty handbooks and minutes of industry advisory boards.

A senior administrator stated six different reasons for integrating academic and occupational instruction at Epsilon Community College. (1)

There is a national movement to help increase student learning... there is a need to improve aspects of student learning of writing, oral language, reading skills, organization of information including critical thinking. (2) "These skills must increase without increasing the number of courses ? learning communities permit parallel teaching of skills." (3) State funding is available for faculty development." (4) The college was interested in purchasing technical equipment and was able to do so using federal funds. However, to qualify, the equipment must be for occupational education. In the learning communities, general and occupational education can have labs in common, and share computers and software. The lab must be primarily for vocational education (51%) but other students can also use the equipment. (5) "The industry advisory boards are interested in learning communities." (6) Faculty find collaboration between general and occupational education motivating. It is "renewing" for general education faculty to have a connection with career development. (Notes and quotations from interview with Assistant Dean of Instruction, Epsilon CC)

When interviewees stated the reasons why their colleges were interested in integration, academic skills, critical thinking, and occupational functioning were often mentioned in the same breath. A member of a nursing advisory committee at Epsilon CC stated that "the top thing on a student's check list should be "to think, " and that "strong communication skills" were needed as a result of an increase in managed care. At Omega Community College, a nursing instructor described writing skills as essential for career development, and a business instructor stated that the business profession sought employees who could think critically and write. At Epsilon Community College, the minutes of an industry advisory board quoted a member's statement that "the difficulty of the program has increased because the expectations from companies and employers are higher but the type of student we are getting isn't that much different."

As indicated above, integrated instruction was considered as a way to increase student retention. The following quotations illustrate this perceived relationship, as well as pointing to benefits of integrated instruction to academic performance, college policy and efficiency.

Completion didn't matter in the past. Now they must read, write and compute... The economy now depends on the average level of literacy of the average person ? it didn't before. The economy has changed... (Integration results in) more enrollment, more revenue. (Dean of Student Affairs, Sigma CC)

Faculty said they were dumbing down their instruction. [Integrated instruction] was a response to this. It was recognized that the great majority of students, not just those who tested into remediation, needed help with academic skills. The idea developed that all faculty had to take responsibility for English skills, especially writing. (Senior administrator, Gamma CC)

Transfer of learning beyond the classroom "is the reason for the learning community. There are no data yet. I'm pulling bio?ethics in. I can see it transferring. However, it's not obvious to the students that they need to transfer their skills." (Nursing instructor, Epsilon CC)

The origin of the writing component in integrated instruction was in response to the general education movement.... Realizing that transfer of skills was not happening, it is better to teach writing in context. (Notes from interview of instructor at Learning Assistance Center, Omega CC)

In particular, occupational students benefited from strong links between academic and occupational instruction:

It (integrated instruction) was driven by the occupational education folks. The students are very comfortable with technical courses but when they get to take general education, they back away. Because of their learning styles, the feel uncomfortable ? and because general education teachers teach in an academic style without acknowledging where students came from, the students dropped out.... Business stated that students needed just the skills that the students avoided. We can't just force them. Why not just give it to them in the way they understand and are receptive to ? to accommodate their learning styles... They are not just 18 and 19 year olds. It's the mechanic with dirt under his fingers on his way to work. (Associate Dean, Business, Sigma CC)

It benefits the student. They can see the application, the sooner the better. As in the military, you teach it as needed. I would like to see all math totally integrated, so they wouldn't even know where the math began. (Coordinator of Electronics Program, Sigma CC)

(The reason for integrated instruction is) to make a delivery system for the nontraditional student who fell through the cracks at school. It makes learning more practical, for the real world. Industry drove the effort. The program teaches to the learning styles of learning disabled students ? hands on, integrated... The purpose is to take bright people who did not learn well in a traditional classroom, who have potential, and need a little more direction. (Director of Placement, Sigma CC)

The college never had completers in the technology programs because the students would not take general education courses... math, English, speech, humanities... From employers' point of view, the reason for integration is the SCANS skills ? workers need communication skills. As employers have moved from dictator style to team they see value in these classes.... The students still don't like general education. The math class sends shudders down people's spines. (Director of Integration Center, and Chair of Manufacturing Management, Manufacturing Machine Technology and Plastics Program, Sigma CC)

The students need to build communication and technical skills, and get through other automotive courses better. They usually take general education courses after automotive. They put them off. They need 'front loading.' Most would drop out if they had to do general education first. (Automotive instructor, Epsilon CC).

(Before English was taught with an applied automotive focus) students were very focused on the job. They were young, and saw English as an obstacle. They acted out, and were disinterested. Now their behavior is better. (English instructor, Rho CC)

Linking ESL and content courses accelerates students' learning of English while allowing them to take content course right away. Taking content right away reduces attrition. Linking ESL to content speeds up learning of English. (English instructor, Alpha CC)

Teaching should not be banking. (When instruction is integrated), the responsibility for learning is turned over to the students. (Administrator, Gamma CC)

The case material in the next seven segments provides descriptions of curriculum and pedagogy for course-linking, a learning community, and infused occupational and academic integration models. The illustrations of the models include background information on the colleges and summaries of classroom observations, interviews and a student survey. The classrooms are categorized in three ways:

Strength of integration refers to whether the instructor overtly linked occupational and academic skills in the classroom. A classroom was classified as strong if the instructor connected occupational and academic content during an observation, or connections were demonstrated in at least one student assignment furnished by the instructor. Classrooms where no such connections were detected were labeled weakly integrated.

Teacher stylerefers to whether instruction in the class session observed was learner- or teacher-centered, or a mixture of the two, with reference to Cuban's (1993) characterizations. In teacher-centered classrooms, the teacher controls the content, timing and conditions of instruction; teachers talk more than students; instruction is directed to the whole class, with little use of small groups or individualized instruction; the teacher decides how class time will be used; the teacher relies heavily on a textbook for both course content and teaching method; and the classroom furniture usually consists of rows of desks or chairs facing the blackboard, with the teacher's desk nearby. In contrast, when instruction is student-centered, the students and teacher share responsibility for what is taught, and how they will learn it. Students talk at least as often as the teacher; instruction tends to be individualized or directed to groups; the students help choose and organize instructional content; innovative instructional materials are used for at least half the time; classroom furniture is arranged to permit individual, group, and whole class activities; and at time students move about the classroom rather than sitting still for long periods of time. Student-centered learning activities include role play, practical projects, the use of cases, and collaborative learning.

If a standard lecture-and-questions format was used exclusively during the session observed, the classroom was labeled teacher-centered. If the teacher utilized any one of the features of student-centered instruction described by Cuban, the classroom was labeled student-centered, and if at least one feature was used in combination with lecturing, the classroom was labeled mixed.

Explicitness of academic skills instruction refers to observable instruction in reading, writing, oral language, math, and thinking skills. Classrooms in which the instructor taught any of these skills were labeled explicit. If the skills were not taught, the classroom was categorized as implicit. For example, if the students were asked to write a report, but the teacher did not teach the procedures for doing the assignment, the classroom was labeled implicit.


Acknowledgment:  The research reported in this nine-part series was conducted at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Tom Bailey, Norton Grubb, and other members of the CCRC Working Group provided helpful insights during the course of the research.  Daniel Ness assisted with the data collection.



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Badway, N. & Grubb, W.N. (1997, October). A sourcebook for reshaping the community college: Curriculum integration and the multiple domains of career preparation, Vol. I and II. MDS-782. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Cohen, A.M. & Brawer, F.B. (1996). The American community college , 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Cuban, L. (1995). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1880-1990 , 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Goodwin, D. (1989). Postsecondary vocational education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Assessment of Vocational Education (Final Report, Vol. IV).

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O'Banion, T. (1994). Teaching and learning: A mandate for the 90s. Community College Journal , 64, 21-25.

Perin, D. (2001). Academic-occupational integration as a reform strategy for the community college: Classroom perspectives. Teachers College Record , 103, 303-335. 

Richardson, R.C. & Elliot, D.B. (1994). Improving opportunities for underprepared students. In T. O'Banion (ed.). Teaching and learning in the community college . Washington, DC: Community College Press.

Roueche, J.E. & Roueche, S.D. (1999). High stakes, high performance: Making remedial education work . Washington, DC: Community College Press.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 21, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10975, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 8:42:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Dolores Perin
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    DOLORES PERIN is associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has interests in curriculum and pedagogy in community colleges, the acquisition of literacy by children and adults, and learning disabilities.
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