There is widespread agreement that high school is too late to begin to expose learners to careers and the foundational skills needed to access and succeed in careers, but there remains a lack of consensus about what CTE and career readiness should entail at the middle grades level.
Advance CTE, with support from ACTE, convened a Shared Solutions Workgroup of national, state and local leaders to identify the core components of a meaningful middle grades CTE experience. This collaboration resulted in Broadening the Path: Design Principles for Middle Grades CTE and a companion blog series exploring each of the core programmatic elements of middle grades CTE defined in the paper. In this fourth entry in the blog series, we will examine the core programmatic element of experiential learning, which includes work-based learning (WBL).
To reach students at their developmental level, middle grades CTE must be based in experiential experiences that engage students and get them excited to learn about careers. One common approach is offering early experiences on the WBL continuum (e.g., career fairs, guest speakers and job shadowing). These WBL experiences provide students with opportunities to engage directly with employers and gain skills and knowledge about careers and about themselves, as they seek to develop an occupational identity.
A number of states, districts and schools have demonstrated a commitment to delivering WBL in the middle grades. West Virginia is piloting middle school empowerment academies at several middle schools in the state. These academies are experimenting with flexible, innovative models for career exploration, project-based learning and workplace environments in the middle grades. For instance, at Peterstown Middle School, students have organized a lunch for local business leaders, met with employers in various craft industries and created promotional materials for the local Chamber of Commerce. At Westwood Middle School, students have conducted phone interviews with police officers and others who serve in the community, visited the local news station and welcomed a radio station to broadcast from the school. These academies also serve as incubators for the Simulated Workplace model that is expanding across the state. Through Simulated Workplace, students transform their classrooms into business to create an authentic workplace environment; industry partners assist in development and act as company inspectors.
In Utah, middle school students must take the College and Career Awareness course, which requires a minimum of six WBL experiences across multiple career fields, including career fairs, field studies, guest speakers and job shadows. These experiences emphasize career awareness and exploration, help students understand how what they’re learning applies to careers, and teach and reinforce positive work habits. Work-based learning coordinators in each district can help facilitate these experiences.
On the local level, Denver Public Schools CareerConnect provides opportunities for K-8 learners to begin exploring their interests and passions, and how these connect to the world of work. One option, Spark Industry Introduction, enables students in grades 6-8 to visit workplaces, where they meet industry professionals and engage in hands-on projects. Spark aspires to motivate students to pursue high-demand, high-wage careers they may never have considered before.
INSPIRE Sheboygan County, a nonprofit education-industry collaborative in Wisconsin, is one example of a local provider that has pivoted to offering virtual WBL — in this case, virtual job shadows for middle and high school students — during the pandemic. Almost 1,000 viewers participated in the first set of virtual job shadows offered in April.
As you reflect on this element of middle grades CTE in your state, district or school, consider such questions as:
- Is WBL available to all middle grades students?
- Are there efforts to identify and eliminate barriers to access, participation and success for marginalized or special populations of students?
- Are there clear standards for WBL that are available both during and outside of school?
- Are educators provided with the time, resources and supports necessary to implement quality WBL experiences?
- Is there a clear continuum of WBL experiences that begins in the middle grades (or earlier) and builds in intensity as students progress through their education?
- Is there clear guidance around the role of employers in the design and delivery of WBL at the middle grades level?
- How are students and their families provided adequate information on opportunities for WBL?
- How are WBL opportunities evaluated or monitored to ensure student growth?
For additional resources relevant to WBL in the middle grades, check out the Middle Grades CTE Repository, another deliverable of this Shared Solutions Workgroup.