The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 is a landmark bill aimed at improving education in the United States. The effects of this legislation, resulting initiatives and local efforts prior to - and as a direct result of - this bill are compelling and demonstrate the necessity of continuing our current course.

Historically, Americans have believed in and supported three core reasons for the education of our youths: to prepare them to be solid, contributing members of a democratic society; to assure that individual abilities will be fully developed; and to teach basic skills that allow for a range of occupational choices for each student's future.For almost a full century, federal government support helped young people prepare for the world of work. But that world has changed dramatically, and real changes are needed to help students and teachers move forward. One of the most critical changes necessary is finding and implementing innovative approaches that assure student achievement of high academic standards, in order to open doors for our youths.

What young people need to know and be able to do in today's world demands a sophisticated understanding of the use of information. For example, complex writing skills are a requirement of most jobs, unlike 50 years ago. Recognizing these changing demands, some states are establishing progress in achievement "bench-marks" that apply to all students; some states call these Certificates of Initial Mastery.

Unlike the traditional grade card or diploma, certificates better describe and quantify mastery of the basic core academics and are ultimately more accurate at assessing a student's readiness to progress to higher learning levels. Unfortunately, the certificates have been misunderstood by some as relating only to specific job requirements, which is completely untrue.

High academic achievement is the cornerstone of opportunity. How to get there is the task. School-to-work initiatives across the country are finding that path through relevant learning. It is being demonstrated in thousands of schools that young people have a greater sense of motivation to learn when that learning is relevant and real, when examples are honest and practical, not "make-believe."

The math class of our past dealt with hypothetical situations and rarely ventured into the real world. Today's math class can be of interest because it is real problem-solving and motivating to students.

Today the learning curve in biology class skyrockets when field studies actually occur in the field. Schools are reaping the rewards of bringing real examples into the classroom, or taking students to the workplace. In schools where relevant learning is encouraged, attendance rates, graduation rates and academic grades are improving dramatically.

School-to-work is not about making career decisions for students; in fact it is just the opposite. When students have greater success in school, with wide exposure to career opportunities and real and relevant learning, their choices are expanded, not narrowed. With actual workplace experience, students have more and better information rather than vague notions about future careers.

School-to-work is not - and never has been - about specific job training. It is about helping schools and communities improve their education delivery systems and thereby improve student preparation for life after high school. It is time for the entire community to step to the plate and become engaged in the changes that can make their school system world-class and invaluable to future citizens.

Some people are still demanding that we "return to the basics." The problem is that the basics for the 21st century are not the same as they were for the 20th century. Our citizens have a right to expect that public education will assure greater opportunities for their children in a world that is changing daily.