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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

Getting Career Skills into the Curriculum

A school district shows how to embed career and technical education courses into the high school curriculum.

Getting Career Skills into the Curriculum-thumbnail
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On July 31, 2015, after a ribbon-cutting and mortgage-signing ceremony, a blue ranch house in Elgin, Illinois, became a home for a single mother and her five children. This event came about largely through the elbow grease of 50 high school students from the local school district who enrolled in a new course called Geo-Construction. Geo-Construction helps students master the abstract concepts of geometry as they solve the kinds of problems that daily confront construction workers. With the help of their math teacher and Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher, students learned key principles of geometry and then applied those concepts to frame out the first floor of the house using floor plans.
The Geo-Construction course was designed and supported by educators from our district, Maine Township District 207, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and Oakton Community College. District 207 in Park Ridge, Illinois, consists of three high schools serving 6,500 students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds.
Inspired by two Colorado teachers, Scott Burke and Tom Moore, in 2013 the district's staff realized the inherent value in remixing our course objectives to create a more rigorous, relevant curriculum embedded with authentic experiences that help students make good choices about careers. The programs of study and courses we've set up teach students essential technical and workplace skills they'll need to be successful. At times, the courses enable students to give back to their community, as on the mortgage-signing day. Our district has pivoted the focus of our curriculum to support career and technical education—with good reason.

The Urgency for Career Preparation

A college degree has traditionally been the most direct path to a financially secure future. Many jobs that provide strong wages, however, particularly those requiring in-depth training or an apprenticeship, are open to workers with only a high school diploma. Certifications—credentials that various industries recognize as evidence of a qualified, competent worker—are gateways to these jobs. High school students can earn such certifications in career clusters like Construction or Health Science. Credentials can lead to a job that will help students pay for college or start a career straight out of high school.
Career and technical education programs geared to certifications give students a head start on preparing for college and careers (Ferguson & Lamback, 2014). In CTE programs, students learn how core school subjects like math, science, and writing are used in real life, while receiving a college-prep education. They graduate from high school with foundational skills in a career path—and experiences that help them understand what that career is like. This preparation yields great benefits: More training leads to higher incomes, and the more hands-on experiences students have while in high school, it would seem, the more likely they are to choose a specific career path and stick with it.
The call for making learning more relevant to the workplace isn't new, but it has become more urgent. To see why, consider a few national statistics that show how the economy and job market have changed.
  • Harvard's Pathways to Prosperity (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011) projects that by 2018, only 33 percent of jobs will require a four-year college degree. The majority of openings (57 percent) will be for skilled jobs—for which companies currently cannot find workers.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics (2015) reports that only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution graduated within six years.
  • Several sources (Britt, 2014; Davis, Kimball, & Gould, 2015) estimate that 50 percent of college graduates who are employed are "under-employed" in positions that don't require four years of college. And the student loan debt burden young people face is well known.
Such statistics prompted us to analyze our own data and practices. We realized we needed to give students an understanding of the multiple pathways toward achieving success and also arm them with the hard and soft skills necessary for a career.
To accomplish both goals, our district adopted programs of study described in the Illinois Pathways Initiative (Illinois P-20 Council, 2011), programs that are derived from the 16 career clusters in the National Career Clusters Framework (see fig. 1). This initiative acknowledges the reality of shifting employment trends and the need for school curriculum to be more relevant to the world of work. Similar programs are outlined in the National Career Clusters Plans of Study, which are available at www.careertech.org.

Figure 1. Courses Leading to Industry-Recognized Certifications

Information Technology Pathway Courses

A+ Computer Repair. Leads to A+ Certification, a starting point for a career in Information Technology. Average starting salary: $48,900

Network +. Leads to Network + Certification, a starting point for a career in Information Technology. Average starting salary: $48,900

Chrome Depot Internship. Leads to Microsoft Certification (Word, Excel, Powerpoint). Industry-recognized credentials that indicate skill and proficiency on a résumé.

Health Science Pathway Courses

Nursing Program. Leads to Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certification. The Basic Nursing Assistant Program prepares students to work in the health care industry and successfully pass the CNA Certification. Average starting salary: $24,400.

Pharmacy Internship. Leads to Pharmacy Technician License. Allows a worker to prepare medication under the direction of a pharmacist. Average salary: $30,800

Note: These examples are for only two pathways of the many offered through the Illinois Pathways Initiative.

Programs and courses within the Illinois Pathway range from middle school through postsecondary and include certificate programs, and associate's, bachelor's, and graduate degrees. The Illinois Pathway also provides bridge programs that aim to bridge the gap for students age 16 and older between their current level of achievement and the skills they need to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Depending on the student, this may include contextualized learning, career development, and transition services (Illinois Community College Board, 2012).
By describing strategies that helped us bring CTE to our high schools, we hope to inspire others to make similar changes that will provide greater career exposure and training.

Reimagining Our Curriculum

The career pathways approach to curriculum includes rigorous academic courses in the core areas of English, math, science, and social science, as well as career/technical courses in each pathway. Pathways in the Illinois Pathways program include (among others) Architecture and Construction; Finance; Manufacturing; and Transportation, Distribution and Logistics. Each pathway features capstone courses that are advanced placement, dual credit, certification-based, or a combination.
We have formally developed 13 pathways, but students can take elective courses in all 16 career clusters. We are working closely with our student counseling department to develop a career curriculum for all students that begins in the freshman year. Students use an interactive career guide to take interest inventories and begin to explore a chosen path. Each year, students meet with their counselors to discuss pathways and steps that will help them move along the pathway—or perhaps to choose a new direction entirely. We hope to transition this process to 8th grade so that students can make more informed choices regarding their electives for their freshman year.
In choosing courses to offer, we looked at the foundational skills and required courses students would likely encounter in college for given majors. Students can explore courses like those they'll be expected to master in the future, allowing them to decide in a lower-risk environment if this is where their true career interests lie. Also, students who continue their education in the field they took pathways courses in will have a strong base of knowledge to build on.
District administrators work with school guidance counselors to help educate staff, students, and parents about career pathways, in general, as well as what labor market projections imply for students' selections of classes and training opportunities.
Within the Information Technology pathway, for instance (as fig. 1 shows), students can take courses like A+ Computer Repair and Linux. Students in this pathway can choose to work in the school's Chrome Depot, the tech hub that services student Chromebooks. This hands-on experience interweaves opportunities to use specific knowledge they've learned with opportunities to use such soft skills as active listening or customer service.
Students in the Health Sciences pathway have the opportunity to earn a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certification. By taking courses toward this certification, students receive seven dual-credit hours with our local community college and, as required by the state of Illinois, they complete 60 clinical hours in a long-term care facility.
Our district's partnership with Oakton Community College, through dual-credit, dual-enrollment, and certificate programs, is another integral part of our changes. We hope that eventually all students will graduate from our high schools with the start of a college transcript or an industry standard certification. Last year, 16 students from our district graduated with their CNA certification. A majority of them are now working toward their Bachelor of Science in Nursing; others have successfully gone straight into the workforce. Many other students interested in the Health Sciences pathway are taking the appropriate science courses but have not taken a CTE course within the pathway.

Offering Work-Based Learning

We aim to offer high-quality, work-based learning experiences that build on students' interests and the skills they learn in CTE courses. As a first step, we built partnerships with businesses and organizations like Kiwanis through presentations on our reforms. We invited employers and local government representatives to 12 round table discussions, where we let them know the changes we planned. We asked employers about the validity of data we'd collected on national and regional employment trends.
During these discussions, employers and community organizations told us how we could better pursue our mission to provide career education and training. Business leaders suggested additional CTE courses we should offer, content we should add, activities we might incorporate to mimic real-world experiences, and equipment that would—or wouldn't—be a wise investment.
Our district now has 206 partnerships with area businesses, many of whom offer internships and job shadowing. Our career coordinator helps set up internships related to students' career pathways. Internships are open to all junior and senior students, including those not taking CTE courses; and approximately 12 percent of the district's students have internships every year. In one year, our coordinator increased the number of students participating in an internship from 230 to 354.
We allow students to work within their schedules by providing long-term or short-term experiences, some of which extend beyond the school day and year. We revamped our credit-bearing Internships course into a blended learning class. Students participate in an internship with an employer approximately four hours per week throughout the semester, attend classes featuring teacher-led discussions about their assignments and career experiences, and complete online assignments as their schedule allows.
For students interested in a shorter experience, a smaller, noncredit micro-internship is available. This may include a work-based learning opportunity within the school through partnerships with school departments such as Buildings and Grounds, Special Education, or our parent booster clubs.
Some students prefer an experience outside the school year, so we arrange summer experiences featuring three unique experiences with a particular career cluster or industry (for example, working in the electrician trade in a commercial, residential, and industrial setting). We hope to develop more classroom project-based experiences so that students can collaborate with company staff on a real-world problem.
Exposing students to the real world of work is invaluable. Students interact with professionals, ask questions, and strengthen "soft skills" like communication that employers consistently say they see lacking in new hires.

Monitoring Progress and Communicating

We've learned some key lessons while making these changes within our district.
One is that districts that introduce curricular and other reforms need to check in frequently with stakeholders. District 207 shares reliable data with students, teachers, school and community leaders, parents, and business partners by
  • Accessing National Student Clearinghouse data for an accurate picture of each of our district's graduating class's postsecondary enrollment and completion rates, sometimes including college majors and certificates earned.
  • Monitoring the numbers of employment and job shadow/internship opportunities created for—and filled by—our students and establishing new goals.
  • Surveying current students on the quality and relevance of their career exploration experiences.
  • Surveying former students about how well our schools served them in terms of developing a variety of skills, preparing for a career, and providing potential for advancement and earnings (particularly in proportion to their college debt).
  • Sharing quarterly data from teachers on individuals students' progress in such career and college skills as respectful communication, collaboration, and time management. In 2015, we rated students highly on these skills: 91 percent were rated satisfactory on being respectful, 91 percent as satisfactory on collaboration, and 84 percent as satisfactory on time management.
These data provide evidence of our progress and encourage our partners to stay the course. In general, it's crucial to keep communicating with the larger community. Administrators need to work overtime on educating board members, faculty, incoming parent groups, and local businesses about the rationale behind the change and ongoing efforts being made to integrate skills and training connected to career pathways into courses, while maintaining academic rigor.
Good ways we've found to keep up communication and get support from the community include
  • Holding business advisory luncheons to connect with our partners and secure new internship opportunities.
  • Writing articles for the local newspaper about our goals and progress.
  • Conveying information about the pathways initiative at every opportunity. Administrators embed the message in our communications with faculty and our goal-setting conversations and formal evaluations.

Lessons for Life

As our students have engaged in authentic, career-related learning experiences, we've seen many moments in which a student proudly applied in-school learning to life. One such moment came when the ranch house our Geo-Construction class helped build was half completed. The class hosted an open house for fellow students, teachers, administrators, and community college partners. They led tours through a wooden maze of 2 × 4 walls, later to be dry-walled and painted.
The joyful reaction of the family who would live in this home was striking. We watched our Geo-Construction students lead the family's children to their eventual bedrooms. Together they signed their names and good wishes on the exposed wooden studs to memorialize the occasion. The event was filled with life lessons that began with mastering applied geometry principles—and that would help students find purpose as they imagined their future careers.

Britt, F. (2014, October 22). The 'gray collar' career challenge [blog post]. Retrieved from The Hill's Congress Blog at http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/221420-the-gray-collar-career-challenge

Davis, A. Kimball, W., & Gould, E. (2015, May 27). The class of 2015: Despite an improving economy, young grads still face an uphill climb (briefing paper). Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Ferguson, R., & Lamback, S. (2014). Creating pathways to prosperity: A blueprint for action. Cambridge, MA: Pathways to Prosperity Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

Illinois Community College Board. (2012, October). Creating a successful bridge program: A "how to" guide. Retrieved from ICCB at www.iccb.org/pdf/shiftinggears/iccb_2012bridgeguide_web_rev_oct2012.pdf

Illinois P-20 Council. (2011). Illinois Pathways Initiative. Springfield: Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The condition of education 2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Symonds, W., Schwartz, R., & Ferguson, R. (2011, May 27). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

U.S. Department of Education (2015). Focusing higher education on student success. Washington, DC: Author.

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