Mixing career topics into everyday classroom seals the school-to-work connection. And integration is not as tough as you'd think
These simple ad slogans for businesses in the small Michigan city of Northville appeared in a special section of the local newspaper. The advertising agency of choice? Silver Springs Elementary School, Grade 3.
The ads were part of a district mini-grant project called Meet the Owners, created by teachers to integrate career preparation with language arts and social studies standards. Providing background were guest speakers-including a newspaper editor, who explained how his business functions, and a chamber of commerce speaker, who covered basic business terminology and concepts.
Then 12 groups of students hit the streets to interview local business owners about everything from their products and services to their capital assets. The award-winning project culminated in classroom presentations, as well as local fame. Besides making the newspaper, some of the ads are displayed in storefronts on Main Street.
Teachers often brush off the idea of integrating career education with academics as just another difficult task-and not a very crucial one in this age of standards and testing. Besides, high schools tend to offer annual career days and guidance office resources are available to
students seeking career advice. But scattered efforts aren't enough to engage students, experts say. It's projects like Meet the Owners, along with other career connections, that do. They motivate students and provide a foundation for future success.
"In a time of rapid economic and technological change, young people need to have a good basic education if they're going to adapt to the constantly changing needs of the workforce," says Morgan V. Lewis, project director of the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education. However, the pressure to boost test scores "tends to give the career emphasis less priority," he adds.
The big national push for career education began with the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act. It aimed to provide students with skills for higher education and employment in the 21st century. While the School-to-Work office is now closed, a number of the act's tenets can be found in state and local programs, says Ivan Charner, vice president and director of the National Institute for Work and Learning, a program of the nonprofit Academy of Educational Development.
School career programs are important, Charner says, because "most young people only know about work through what their parents do or what's on TV. That's a very warped view of the workplace."
Highlighting Strong Career Programs
Ohio is one state where career education was a focus long before 1994 and it still shines today. Through the state department of education's Career Development Program, 88 career coordinators are in place, explains Assistant Director Cynthia Gahris. When the initiative was started in 1980, "We were told that if we did our jobs well we would work ourselves out of a job," she says. The thinking was that, once teachers were taught how to integrate career topics, they wouldn't need help. Not so.
"It isn't a static curriculum area. And teachers change continually.
We need experts like our career coordinators that can go in and provide a system for teachers," Gahris says. The coordinators promote career awareness and informed decision-making through duties such as distributing integration activities and running staff development programs.
One regional effort to make career education a priority is the mini-grants program in southeast Michigan. Jan Purtell, the education partnerships facilitator at Northville Public Schools, administers about $40,000 annually for teachers in her district.
Northville also encourages teachers to look for places in their curriculum where "the lightbulbs aren't really going on for students," Purtell says. These are the areas where career topics could boost student interest.
Another district with strong career connections is Bend-LaPine (Ore.) Public Schools. Superintendent Doug Nelson explains that the district's strategic plan calls for "educating each student to be a thriving citizen. What does that mean? Not only quality basic education but [also] that [students] are prepared for their future and have a clear sense of how education fits with their career goals. That's a strong belief I have."
When Nelson came on board three years ago, he noticed that no one was really in charge of ensuring that the state's Certificate of Advanced Mastery program (similar to Career Pathways elsewhere) was being integrated. So he hired Lawrence Fenili to run the established School-to-Career Partnership office and work on embedding career learning.
Curriculum advisory teams help decide what to teach at each grade level, and school-based program managers "work hand-in-glove" with high school guidance counselors to help students research careers and develop job-seeking skills, Fenili says.
Despite the support that Bend-LaPine's district office offers schools in career education implementation, responsibility for related professional development is being decentralized, he adds, partly because teachers prefer it. And it seems to be more effective.
Vendors of career planning tools are also doing their part to help students go beyond determining their interests and abilities. Assessments are "just the beginning of the career and educational planning process," says Eric S. David, president of Philadelphia-based Vocational Research Institute. "Our follow-up activities help students put this information in context and drive home he need to work with their counselors and teachers to get the most out of their educational opportunities."
Educational publishers, too, are increasingly career-aware. "A lot of the new textbooks we're seeing have career components to them," Purtell says, adding that this is one factor Northville considers in textbook selection.
The greatest challenge-and greatest misconception-holding back career integration is that teachers don't see how careers and standards mesh.
Including a career component is really easier than it sounds, says Sharon Pernia, a counselor at Meads Mill Middle School in Northville. "You do that by taking existing assignments and practices and changing the focus a bit to make a career [connection]." For example, an English teacher might require that students doing research papers focus on a particular career interest, says Pernia, who is also an instructor in the curriculum education department of Eastern Michigan University.
In her district, she's part of a curriculum project committee to integrate careers into the major academic areas. Teachers of elective classes such as music and physical education, she says, have been better able to integrate career topics on their own, perhaps because the classes have looser curriculum objectives.
After all, the guidance office can't be the students' sole career education resource. Why? "In most high schools the counselor/student ratio is 1 to 400," says Charner, who notes that most counselors focus on the post-secondary side, not careers.
Gahris says teachers need to realize that including career topics are "not in conflict with teaching strong academics. ... When students understand why they're learning something and how they're going to use the skills later in life, it gives credence to what you're teaching. And they need this. They need to be hit over the head with it."
Teachers and administrators wonder, however, if career education actually boosts achievement. "In my heart of hearts, I think it does, but I can't give you good evidence that it does," says Lewis, from the career and technical education group. He adds, however, that "if kids see relevance and meaning in what they're studying ... they're more likely to get into the material."
Gahris' office helps to formally connect careers and standards by creating and distributing integration activity packets to teachers throughout Ohio. "We tie in the career concepts to the skills needed for the proficiency tests," she says. For example, career data is used in one math activity to teach graphing skills. Or, kids read Dr. Suess' The Cat in the Hat, evaluate the cat's work skills, and then compare those skills to their own work habits and attitudes.
Even when districts provide integration ideas for teachers, they need to remind teachers why it's important to use them. "You need to sell [career education] to teachers every year, all year long," Fenili says. And staff development is the key.
At Pernia's school, teachers are encouraged to use in-service time to share projects and strategies with each other. Her district has invited speakers from neighboring districts to share what's working for them, too. Career product vendors such as VRI provide afterschool programs for teachers interested in career assessment data interpretation tips. In addition, Northville teachers can request funding to attend career conferences.
Worth your while
Beginning around middle school, Lewis explains, students really start to look for connections between academics and their future careers.
"I sometimes call the career education piece the 'why-do-I-need-to-take-Algebra?' question," Nelson says. To experts and administrators alike, the need to motivate students is clear.
In Bend-LaPine and Northville, middle school students do career exploration activities, start planning their high school paths and learn about job skills. "Why wait? If you do, the kids may never [learn them]," says Roy Hall, a science teacher at Hillside Middle School in Northville who has organized school-wide interview simulations and career symposiums.
High school students in Bend can sign up for structure-based learning to get school credit for afterschool jobs. Required to work a certain number of hours, the students also keep a notebook on behavior and employability skills, says Briana Lasher, the school-to-career program manager at Summit High School. Approximately 600 to 700 students in Bend complete structure-based learning each year. This heavy participation is evidence that the attempts to interest students in careers is working.
These efforts are most effective, experts say, when administrators, teachers, parents and businesses collaborate from the beginning about career education. "Go slowly and make sure that you have commitment and consensus before you move forward," Fenili suggests.
His district has partnered with more than 500 local businesses to offer internships and school-based learning activities. Local businesses' interest goes beyond shaping the business community's own future employees. "They do it because it helps society as a whole," Fenili says.
Business partnerships can mean anything from offering student internships to school visits to curriculum development participation. Some Northville partners link with a single class and others, such as a nearby state park, have worked with teachers to adapt the curriculum.
"I very seldom have businesses turn me down. It's just a matter of asking them and tailoring it so they're comfortable with it," Purtell says, adding that approaching a business about having all 450 of the district's fifth graders visit one day would not go well. While every partnership has its end, "some [businesses] hang in for the long haul and do what they can, when they can."
Beyond the big day
Doing what you can, when you can is also a lesson for educators. Besides introducing appropriate career topics along with content units, teachers can expand single-day career experiences through pre- and post-event classroom discussions and activities. Here's how schools are making the following event types meaningful:
Workplace Visit: Whether it's a single student doing a job shadow or a group field trip to a professional ballpark (Northville students interested in sports careers have visited the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park), preparing questions in advance help students make the connections between school and work.
For Baldwin Park (Calif.) Unified School District's job shadow days, students bring worksheets with specific questions to the site. How do you use writing in your job? How important is reading (or math) to you on the job? What kinds of software applications do you use? What did you learn in school that helps you most on the job?
Career Fair: Last year's career fair at Bend High School spilled into every room of the school. Students first went through an advisory process to select what areas they would visit. From working conditions to compensation, questions for professionals in various careers directly help drive home what students have been learning in class.
"They need a variety of information over a long period of time to shape what they'd like to do. That's the beauty of the program from K to 12," Fenili says. After the fair, students complete a worksheet covering what they learned and whether they are still interested in a particular field.
Career Symposium: Hall, who used to teach at Meads Mill in Northville, worked with other teachers there to organize an eighth-grade career symposium one evening a few years ago. Prep work included choosing a career, researching it and developing an oral report. On the big night, students shined. A future flight attendant transformed a classroom into a runway and plane's interior. A future fashion designer cleared out a teacher's office to create a store for her wedding gowns. And a future construction worker who built a house model popped out of the roof to start his presentation.
Interview Simulation: This Meads Mill event was also initiated by Hall, who has now begun implementing it at Hillside. Preparation is intense, as students create an entire job portfolio-with cover letter, resume, application forms from local businesses and letters of recommendation-in English class. Four to eight student portfolios, along with suggested questions, are turned over to a local businessperson or parent volunteer, most with work experience in the interview process. On the simulation day, each student sits down for a formal interview.
Afterward, Hall and his students discuss how prepared they felt and where and when they'd like to interview next. "They [can't] wait to do another interview," he says. Students say they enjoy being asked questions and having to come up with good answers, and they look forward to responding with better answers next time. Hall was surprised by this at first. "I would have thought they'd be so nervous, they'd never want to do an interview again," he says.
Nelson says that the most rewarding thing about running a district that cares about career education is being there when students suddenly understand how classroom learning connects to their future goals. "They were bitten by the bug and off they went!" he says of juniors and seniors he has suddenly seen change from floundering to engaged. "When we can help students figure out what they want to do and where they want to go, and provide the direction and wherewithal for them to meet their goals, we've made a difference in their lives."
Melissa Ezarik, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.