How can districts create scalable career preparation programs that are viable in the long term?
On July 31, 2018, the federal government reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act with bipartisan congressional support and an annual budget of approximately $1.2 billion for each of the next six years. This substantial commitment to career education, deemed by many to be the first major education policy bill of the Trump administration, is indicative of broader trends in American education (Ujifusa, 2018).
In particular, career academies — small learning communities within high schools that introduce students to specific industry sectors — have become a popular way to expand career education. These academies endeavor to integrate academic and vocational curricula while providing students with valuable job-related experience. Typically, students study within a career academy for three to four years of high school, substituting the general curriculum for special sections of English, math, science, and social studies that are tailored to the academy’s industry theme. Teachers, meanwhile, supplement the state-mandated curricula with relevant vocational material that connects theory to industry practice. Through this combination of an applied curriculum and a focus on careers, students will, in theory, be better prepared for postsecondary education and positioned to succeed in a highly competitive workforce.
To assess how viable and scalable career academies are, we recently conducted a yearlong qualitative study of career academies in an urban Southern California school district. Over the course of the study, we interviewed 52 academy coordinators and teachers, as well as 41 students, focusing on the relationships established among students, teachers, administrators, and employers because these are key to viability and scalability (Lanford & Maruco, 2018). While we discovered significant barriers to the scalability of career education in the United States, we also acquired a great deal of firsthand wisdom about the conditions that are necessary for establishing and maintaining an impactful career academy. We have distilled our findings into six conditions that we believe are essential to consider before devoting substantial public monies and resources to career academies.
Condition 1. An identifiable workforce need and community interest
Research consistently demonstrates that individual intrinsic motivation must be cultivated for the development and implementation of promising innovations (Tierney & Lanford, 2016). Indeed, buy-in among teachers and administrators is essential for career academies to be successful. However, we found that too many existing academies are built on the personal interests of a single teacher or administrator rather than on needs within the workforce and the community. In such situations, career opportunities related to the academies’ focus area are likely to be lacking, and there may be fewer opportunities for the job-related training that gives vocational education real-world meaning.
When creating career academies, administrators should carefully reflect on their school environment and their institutional resources, assessing the likelihood that teachers have the requisite knowledge to successfully integrate academic and vocational curricula. They should also cultivate relationships with industry contacts well ahead of the creation of the academy. In turn, these industry contacts should identify specific salaried jobs that are being unfilled due to a lack of skilled labor.
Once specific jobs have been identified and future employment trends in the community have been projected, schools should reach out to parents and students to determine their interests and goals. Parents may not adequately understand the curricular and college-preparation implications of their students’ enrollment in career academies. And students may enroll in an academy for reasons unrelated to career prospects (e.g., peer influence, the opportunity to attend classes with siblings, or the positive reputation of specific teachers). If the theme of an academy does not align with the interests and goals of students and parents, industry contacts are likely to be disappointed by student attrition after graduation, and workforce-related outcomes will suffer.
Condition 2. A coordinator with multiple talents
We discovered that successful coordinators of career academies have four unique traits. First, they not only have extensive industry connections, but also are embedded within the school’s community and know how to leverage their connections. Second, they understand and articulate the specific job-related skills students need for success. Third, they are able to work with administrators and teachers to align curricular goals with the skills desired by industry. Fourth, the coordinator needs to be willing to train a coordinator-in-waiting, thereby ensuring a smooth leadership transition if new opportunities arise.
The importance of developing future coordinators ahead of time cannot be overstated. Coordinators who have the industry experiences, educational backgrounds, and communication skills to forge and maintain relationships between the different cultures of school and workplace are rare. And participants in our research reiterated, time and time again, that career academies struggle to survive a change in leadership, particularly if the coordinator is the only individual with strong industry connections.
Condition 3. Meaningful and accessible internships
Once a workforce need has been identified and a coordinator has been found, the issue of internships can be addressed. We have found that too many work-related experiences are glorified “field trips,” providing neither financial compensation nor training that students can use to bolster their resumes and job prospects. Our findings have been replicated by SRI International in their multiyear study of Linked Learning, a career academy model that has become popular in California (see, for instance, Guha et al., 2014). Work experiences should be clearly related to the academy’s industry theme, and they should offer students some form of financial compensation, if not course credit, for their time, especially if students are working outside school hours.
When setting up internships, it’s important to understand what students’ needs will be regarding transportation and scheduling and to ensure that students from all backgrounds can participate in these programs. Some industry sectors (particularly in STEM fields) may not be able to accommodate individuals under the age of 18 due to labor restrictions, a sensitivity to intellectual property, hazardous workplace conditions, or a variety of other reasons. If these factors are not addressed during the planning stages, the task of finding meaningful internships will be a source of continual frustration.
Condition 4. A strong cohort of teachers
The workloads of teachers in career academies are generally more intense than those of teachers in traditional educational environments. We found this demanding environment can forge strong bonds not only between teachers and students, but among students within the academy, resulting in a sense of shared purpose that our research participants described as a “family atmosphere” (Lanford & Maruco, 2018). Because cultivating a family atmosphere is one of the most important benefits of the career academy experience, teachers must be willing to mentor students over multiple years.
Besides spending more time with students, teachers will need continuous professional development in the industry theme, especially in today’s globalized environment where technological developments lead to frequent changes in industry needs (Autor, 2015; Frey & Osborne, 2017). Another time commitment involves acting as a liaison with industry, on top of regular duties as a classroom teacher. Moreover, teachers in career academies are frequently asked to assume leadership roles, even if they do not have administrative training or prior experience (Malin & Hackmann, 2017).
Teachers are not likely to be adequately compensated, either financially or in terms of extra planning time, for these auxiliary duties. For these reasons, teacher burnout is a major problem in career academies. To reduce the possibility of burnout, teachers need to be intrinsically motivated by a philosophical belief in career education, and they must be not just willing but enthusiastic about collaboration on curricular issues and project-oriented learning. In addition, state entities, district school officials, and institutional leaders need to be sensitive to the demands they place on teachers. Otherwise, turnover will be significant, and the long-term viability of the academy will be endangered.
Condition 5. Realistic assessment of size and scope
Our research indicates that the ideal size for a career academy seems to be between 100 and 200 students. Larger academies are not able to offer meaningful work experiences or mentoring opportunities and may struggle to cultivate the family atmosphere that enables students to develop their academic abilities and enjoy close relationships with teachers who can help them navigate career and college opportunities. Given the financial pressures most school districts face, smaller academies will struggle to provide the specialized coursework that ties theory to industry practice.
Also, the presence of too many academies based on the same theme within a single school district can have an overall negative impact. Very often, the success of a single academy is attributable to the hard work and connections of the individuals within that specific community and industry. The creation of similarly themed academies does not automatically ensure greater success. Rather, the similarly themed academies may be thrust into competition and cannibalize each other’s prospects for internships and funding, thus limiting student opportunities. We especially encourage administrators to be careful when planning a full-scale implementation of “wall-to-wall” academies (in which every student is compelled to join an academy). One could make the case that all students would benefit from the individualized attention and support a small learning environment like an academy can provide, but not every student would benefit from being compelled to identify a career track at the age of 13 or 14.
Condition 6. Continuous funding
Available research indicates that career education can be costly (Parsi et al., 2010). Expenses for the initial infrastructure can be quite high, and the costs don’t end after the academy is launched. Even so, initial funding from a public or private entity may last for a limited number of years, especially if the funding is related to a grant or state appropriation. Many of the career academies in California, for example, enjoyed an initial period of start-up funding only to find that financial support is difficult to procure. Thus, long-term revenue and expenditures should be taken into account before a career academy is created.
Private enterprise may be willing to share expenses with a school district, but it is unrealistic to expect any single company to be a reliable source of funding for multiple years. Unlike Germany — which has a strong tradition of governmental involvement in the economy, collaborative decision making, and long-standing ties between local businesses and education — the United States is a liberal market economy where industry leaders expect deregulation, hierarchical leadership, and the freedom to relocate manufacturing and labor in response to global trends (Hall & Soskice, 2001). In short, the mercurial nature of the 21st-century economy can work against the formation of durable bonds between industry and education. Since the long-term maintenance of facilities and equipment is necessary for applied learning to be effective, academies must adopt a realistic, multiyear perspective on budgetary issues.
Conditions for success
Career academies have the potential to stimulate student curiosity, improve classroom engagement, and motivate teachers to reconceptualize curricula in novel ways. Nevertheless, the human and financial resources required to establish and maintain these academies are substantial, and their impact is circumscribed by a variety of factors that require careful deliberation.
We recommend that any school district considering a comprehensive move to career education carefully assess where they stand in meeting these six conditions. In addition, we share the concern of researchers who have consistently demonstrated that career education in middle and high schools has the potential to perpetuate — and possibly even exacerbate — racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequities due to tracking systems, which separate students into “high-ability” groups that receive more academic instruction and “low-ability” groups that focus more on career education (e.g., Lewis & Cheng, 2006; Oakes, 1985; Oakes & Guiton, 1995). A focus on equity is essential whenever schools implement innovative pedagogies, curricula, and institutional partnerships to prepare students for jobs that do not require a postsecondary credential.
If districts are attentive to these six conditions and the need for equity in program offerings, then the long-term viability of career academies can be significantly improved — and future federal and state investments in career education will stand a much greater chance of having a positive influence on the lives of young people.
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Ujifusa, A. (2018, July 31). Donald Trump signs first major education policy bill of his presidency. Education Week.
Citation: Lanford, M. & Maruco, T. (2019). Six conditions for successful career academies. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (5), 50-52.