Keeping Sight of Career Education in School Reform

by Cinda Johnson

In the world of school reform, has academic achievement pushed career education aside? “Standards-based assessment,” “rigorous academic standards,” “essential academic learning standards”…are these terms replacing “school-to-work”?

Certainly these are not easy questions. Career education need not be lost in the push to increase academics. It can provide the key to school reform and more importantly, the key to relevancy for students.

A school-to-work system with career education for all students is the key to providing students with the academic skills they are required to demonstrate. Teaching academic skills without regard to the real world has not been successful, as indicated by standardized test scores published over the last decade. Career education without regard to the real world is equally unsuccessful. Education must have a three-pronged approach: school-based learning, work-based learning, and connecting activities. Looking at high school education in this way can help teachers integrate curriculum and provide students with the academic skills they will need after high school, and to do so in a way that connects school to post-high school for all students.

School based learning should not only include reading, writing, and math, but activities that can increase the students’ awareness of their interests and aptitudes, the world of work, and the self- advocacy skills to make decisions and set goals for themselves.

Connecting activities are those which link what they are learning to why they are learning it, and link what they do in the classroom to what they want to do in the real world.

Work-based learning should take place in the community. Students have opportunities to see how the knowledge and skills they learn in school are applied in the workplace. They have the opportunity to try their hand at jobs they are unfamiliar with.

By integrating curriculum teachers can assure that academic skills are taught in a unit that is easier to implement and more interesting to students. How does career education fit into this mix? Typically, career education is taught in isolation and in a relatively short period of time. By bundling career education, academics, and vocational skills into a pathway, students can learn and demonstrate their academic skills in ways that help them to make sense of who they are and what they want in their lives.

Take for example, a ceramics class that was taught by both the chemistry teacher and the art teacher. This two hour class was within the career pathway, Performing and Visual Arts. The students in the class all had identified this pathway as their area of interest. There were students with plans to attend a four-year college or university as well as students planning to work after high school. The students learned chemistry as they created their pottery, applied glazes, and learned about firing techniques. The objectives for both the chemistry and the ceramics classes were met over the semester. Not only did students learn science and art, they explored careers in the arts. As the semester progressed, posters of the art-related occupations began to cover the walls in the art studio. Many of the students did further research on occupations in which they were particularly interested and added this information to their career portfolio. The tests questions given to the students in the class mirrored those of the state standards-based assessment. The questions went beyond recall, requiring problem-solving and intensive writing. As well, students understood that what they learned in this classroom was strongly connected to the world of work.

Connecting school to work sparks student interest and adds the needed relevancy for deep learning to occur. Teachers can teach the many skills required in the reform movement in a way that is not only more interesting for both student and teacher, but is easier and less timely than teaching skills in isolation.

Cinda Johnson, Ed.D., earned her degree at the University of Washington, Seattle, and is now an Assistant Professor at Seattle University, College of Education.

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