States Putting Early Career Exploration to Work for Students


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Research has found that adolescence is a time when students begin to think more abstractly, learn through teamwork and have a desire to explore topics they find interesting. Additional research suggests that middle school is a time when students can benefit the most from career exploration. Given where adolescent children are developmentally, there is an opportunity for students to develop employability skills and gain a sense of their interests through career exploration in middle school and early high school.

There are a series of ways that states have developed and supported career exploration and career and technical education opportunities for middle school students. Generally, states have considered policy and state action to foster and support early CTE and career exploration. The policy and state action include:

  • Creating introductory CTE courses or career-exploration opportunities in middle schools.
  • Requiring the completion of a CTE or career-oriented course in middle school.
  • Requiring personalized education and career plans beginning in middle school.

Creating CTE and Career-Exploration Opportunities in Middle School

Some states have adopted policy that expands and supports offering CTE courses and career exploration in middle school. Depending on the structure of the program or course offerings, students can learn about employability skills, connect academic interests and classroom learning with potential careers, and begin the process of identifying and planning for learning opportunities in high school. States that have adopted expansion of CTE and career exploration to middle schools have worked to align standards and systems across middle school and high school programming to allow students to build on their early exploration and coursework.

In 2014, the Ohio legislature enacted legislation that requires schools to provide CTE courses in middle school. The offered courses are primarily introductory or exploratory courses aligned with high school CTE courses through state-level standards. The state has allowed licensed teachers to lead most middle school CTE courses. The state department provides a range of resources for schools, including outlines for each middle school course.

Requiring CTE or Career-Oriented Course Completion in Middle School

In addition to offering CTE courses and exploration experiences, states have adopted policy that requires students to take CTE courses or engage in career-exposure experiences that are offered in middle school. In some instances, the requirement connects broader CTE or career standards to academic and career plans for the students.

Virginia statute requires that each school board require each middle school student to take at least one career-investigation course or engage in an alternative activity that allows for career exploration. The course or alternative experience must provide a foundation for the student to develop their academic and career plan. The state board of education is required to develop content standards for the career-investigation course and experiences.

Requiring Personalized Education and Career Plans Beginning in Middle School

Some states have implemented requirements for career and academic planning. Generally, the plans provide an opportunity for students to identify their interests and possible opportunities they can pursue to reach academic and career goals. While plans do not necessarily lead to career exploration for all students, the planning process can allow students opportunities to identify and pursue experiences based on their interests.

In 2013, Wisconsin passed legislation to provide continual funding to implement and support academic and career advising statewide. State statute requires that all students in grades six through 12 receive academic- and career-planning services. The department of public instruction provides and maintains technology and computer programs to support districts in providing academic and career planning to students. Also, the department provides guidance and technical assistance to school districts, teachers and counselors on how to provide academic and career plans for students.

While research demonstrates a benefit of early career exploration and states have developed policy that supports the creation and offering of career exploration, there are some notable barriers associated with providing access to early career exploration across a state. As states consider increasing early career exploration, there are opportunities to address the barrier while creating more opportunities for students.

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Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a senior policy analyst, Tom contributes to the work of the policy team on issues across the education spectrum. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Tom taught middle school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tom is dedicated to providing state policymakers with quality research that supports them in making a positive impact on students' lives.

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