NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: While this article starts out covering the focus on high school student career education in Louisiana, it is actually about how to reduce the dropout rate in high schools and increase average grade point averages, SAT/ACT scores and student morale – in any high school – in any state.
The state of Louisiana, as part of a career education overhaul, is planning to end the practice of requiring students to declare a “career path” in the eighth grade, which Superintendent of Education John White said “is too early.” The main focus of the overhaul is to increase high school retention and graduation rates and place more effort into career and technical education, another name for “the vocational track”.
The revamp, which is called Jump Start, is touted as a way for school districts, colleges and businesses to re-energize career and technical education, and ensure that students have the technical skills to land what economic development officials call a wave of top-paying jobs in Louisiana, according to The Advocate.
First, “declaring a career” in the 8th grade was an incredibly bad idea. Dropping that is a good start but not exactly a “jump start”.
“Simply put, too few young adults in Louisiana have the skills and credentials to assume the high-wage jobs offered in today’s Louisiana economy,” the blueprint documents say. So far, so good. The Blueprint then states, “Missing from this picture is a different choice for students and families; a state-of-the-art system of career and technical education.”
I’m all for choices. Jump Start will be an elective path for students pursuing a university-preparatory diploma, however, it will be a required path for students pursuing a Career Diploma starting in the Fall of 2014. Certainly, curriculum requirements are necessary to manage an education program.
The Real Problem
In most high schools across the USA, students are not provided the kind of career exploration and counseling that would enable them to make an informed decision about which diploma path to take. So if they aren’t provided that essential piece, career decision-making skills, to make such a big, life-impacting decision, what can we expect to happen. Absolutely nothing.
Transfer Ownership – Understanding Self: How, Why and What
Once students are given the opportunity to receive a competently delivered debriefing of assessments that describe “how” they work, “why” they will work, and “what” kinds of tasks they enjoy along with a valid and “believable” method for narrowing the world of opportunity to career options that are truly a good fit to their personality, they will be ready to make decisions about which career path to consider.
“But We’re Already Using Assessments”
If you work in a high school and whispered to yourself the above quote, please re-read the previous paragraph. I can’t say what level of quality of career counseling exists in every high school but I can say that 100% of all students that have participated in the Career Coaching for Students™ program stated “nothing from the high school comes close to what this program has done” or “my high school isn’t doing anything to help me evaluate career options”.
The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
I’m all for advancing the ability to deliver state-of-the-art Career Diploma curriculum. Consider dropping the “required” wording in the Blueprint with one exception, to be discussed below. The main thing is to give a jump start to student engagement. To do that requires a strategy that truly engages the student in their freshman year – not a curriculum diploma requirement. If a teen feels in control and empowered, they will likely be engaged. Feeling incompetent about making career decisions does not provide the feeling of “in control” nor does it create a feeling of empowerment.
Instead of in control and empowered, the student feels alone, insecure, fearful of making a decision and generally apathetic. Many studies have shown that adults in the work world that don’t feel in control and empowered are not engaged as much as those that are and generally perform at or below a minimally acceptable level. How can we expect teens to be different?
How would the members of a school board feel if 100% of all students were shown to be engaged. Student engagement is the main thing. Which career direction to take will no longer be an issue if student engagement is high. So that solves a part of the problem – the risk of dropping out. Students who are engaged don’t typically drop out. The school board still has to ensure learning opportunities reflect the needs in the marketplace but also match up to what students want to pursue. Simply put, the world might need more wheel barrow movers but if students aren’t interested in that as a career direction, all the state-of-the-art classes and work experience opportunities for wheel barrow moving won’t increase course enrollment and won’t reduce drop out rates. In fact, make wheel barrow moving 101 as a required course for the Career Diploma and you will see an increase in the drop out rate.
What Should Be Required?
Let’s use our imagination for a minute (it doesn’t cost anything). Let’s say all incoming Freshmen students are required to complete the Career Coaching for Students™ program during the summer before their Fall freshmen semester. The program is provided at no cost to the student and is offered as a morning, afternoon or evening program. The program will include a total of 20 classroom hours (10 two hour classes) and four one-on-one coaching sessions. A coaching session is between 30 minutes and one hour.
We Can’t Afford That
I was having a conversation with a parent of a high school student that was participating in the Career coaching for Students™ program recently. This parent happened to be a senior’s Social Studies teacher in a prestigious high school in a very large public school district. I happen to know this school district has several millions of dollars invested annually in a Career Counseling Center at each of its high schools.
This teacher thought so much of the Career Counseling Services through the district that he paid for his daughter to participate in the Career Coaching for Students™ program out of his own pocket. During a break, he ask me about this program being designed for delivery within a high school. He then stated, “you know the school district pays for every freshman to take the PSAT at a cost of $60 per student”. He then stated, “It seems this program [Career Coaching for Students] would be a much better investment.”
The irony of that statement is that while the price to attend a group Career Coaching for Students 12-hour workshop starts at $399 and is higher in some parts of the country, it would be much less, and could even approach “under $100 per student” if a school district were to go “all in” for their Freshmen students.
How Could We Get This Started?
I love pilots. Most businesses don’t implement a big, expensive program or launch a new product without some testing in the form of a pilot. Businesses understand pilots.
To get started, either through the state education agency or through local efforts:
- Obtain school-business partnership funds to cover a first year Career Coaching for Students™ pilot that includes 25% of incoming freshmen students
- Create and approve an ongoing funding plan that is based on the success of the pilot. if the pilot isn’t successful, kill the program and move the money to other, proven programs. But don’t bother with the pilot if you have no way to fund the 2nd year.
- Second year, 100% of incoming freshmen students participate
- Track drop out rates, diploma option decisions, post-secondary direction, 2 and 4 year post-secondary follow-up (longer term outcomes)
Based on feedback about the program from hundreds of students and parents, and my observations of these students decisions, directions and level of success after high school (not scientifically documented), the following predictions are offered:
- Drop out rates decrease substantially
- Choice of diploma direction is the right choice based on a low rate of transfers across diploma plans.
- Student engagement stays consistently high based on grades
- SAT/ACT scores for university-preparatory diploma students will average higher due to stronger interest in their future and the connection between their course of study and their desired career direction
- Certain types of students who in the past might have been directed toward the Career Diploma option based on subjective teacher evaluations may choose and succeed in a university-preparatory diploma program due to increased self-awareness, self-confidence and clarity around career desires
- Students no longer look at the Career Diploma option as being for the “slow” or “not-so-smart” kids and see it as another path worthy of pursuit and just as valuable as the university-preparatory diploma program
- High academic achievers will look at Career Diploma options with more objectivity and some will choose the Career Diploma path
- Graduation rates rise significantly
- Post-secondary follow-up shows colleges students not changing major, graduating college in four years and pursuing careers with passion – less (if any at all) will graduate college without a career plan (it is hard to believe but too many college students actually graduate without a plan for their career)
I know this was long. Thanks for reading.
Carl Nielson is Chief Discovery Officer of Success Discoveries and Managing Principal of The Nielson Group, an organizational development consulting firm that provides executive development coaching, team development and assessments for hiring. As creator of the Career Coaching for Students program for high school students and Career and Success Skills Mastery for College Students and Recent Grads, Carl and his team of licensed facilitators across North America have helped thousands of students find a better way through a career exploration process that works. Assessment and coaching packages start at $399. Local public workshops, distance-coaching and in-school programs available. Call for more information at 972.346.2892.