K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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Most parents and educators don’t need research to tell them that the middle school years are a particular challenge, but ample data is available. Despite the fact that most students in the fifth grade, even those from families struggling economically, feel good about their teachers and school and see lots of hope for their futures, their trust in school is often questioned over the following three years.

This is, perhaps, not surprising. In the United States, middle school education is a significant departure from elementary school education. Students have multiple teachers rather than one teacher, they change classes throughout the day, they have elective classes on topics that explore new interests, and they are more likely to be involved in peer learning experiences. This means they experience extensive contextual change while concurrently experiencing significant personal change through puberty.

Research suggests that many early adolescents experience academic declines1 and increased distress2 with the transition from elementary school to middle school, and that students leave eighth grade feeling less of a connection to school than when they entered sixth grade.3 As a result, these children are more at risk for performing poorly academically and even worse, dropping out of school altogether.

The lesson plans in this collection are part of an approach designed to combat middle-school declines in engagement and achievement. While they were originally conceived to foster success in at-risk students, research has proven the CareerStart approach to be remarkably effective in producing positive outcomes with all middle-school students.

These lessons were built on a simple principle: Schools where teachers clearly demonstrate to adolescent students that what they are learning has relevance to people in jobs and careers get better achievement results compared to schools where teachers focus strictly on content. The concept is simple, but the findings are profound.

What is CareerStart?

CareerStart is a program for infusing career relevance into the core curriculums in middle schools (math, science, language arts, and social studies). Career-linked lessons illustrate course content with applications to future careers, including those in the industries represented in the labor markets in which the schools reside. Students in classrooms operating with CareerStart principles regularly get answers to those often-asked questions: “Who really uses this information in the real world?” and “When will I ever really use this information when I leave school?”

CareerStart provides an opportunity for students to explore career possibilities and identities at the very time they are developing and testing their identity through peer, extracurricular, and behavioral choices. For example, students learning to calculate volume in math learn volume’s relevance to heating and air conditioning technicians, to equipment operators at a utility company, or in manufacturing and design processes. Language arts and math content are applied in the exploration of business or office management activities, the development of business plans, or finance and marketing careers.

Both teachers and students report that CareerStart lessons benefit them and stimulate future career thinking and student learning in the classroom. And given the enormous implications for student engagement in the middle grades, CareerStart is the right intervention at the right time.

Middle-school engagement and long-term success

Across the country, statistics on high-school completion are dire: Only 73% of America’s students are graduating from high school, and among male students in poverty, less than half graduate.4 Youth who do not perform well in school or stay on track to graduate are more likely as adults to live in poverty, receive public assistance, and have poor health outcomes.5 Students who drop out of high school are more than eight times as likely to be in prison as high school graduates.6

Studies of student engagement indicate that students who see their education as relevant and purposive in preparing them to achieve their future goals are much more likely to perform well in school and stay in school to graduate.7 Greater school engagement not only reduces the risks for poor outcomes—such as living in poverty, receiving public assistance, and having poor health outcomes8 — but also increases the likelihood of going to college and making a successful transition into a job or career.9

Most of the attention to student engagement and dropout prevention has focused on high schools, strengthening core curriculums and creating extracurricular support services and programs.10 However, middle school is when most students choose to engage in their school as relevant to their futures or begin the process of disengagement that ends in dropout.11 Middle school students typically begin the sixth grade with relatively high levels of school engagement and see school as an environment that can help them prepare for their futures. As they progress through the middle grades, levels of engagement typically decline, and many students begin to psychologically drop out, even before they reach the age when they can legally drop out.12

Given this pattern of psychological dropout in middle school, an engagement strategy must be implemented as early as possible, with commitment on the parts of parents and school professionals to promote a broad range of careers that students can see will lead to educational, occupational, and financial success.

Research findings

The results of a longitudinal study of over 7,800 students in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools are telling: Schools implementing CareerStart, compared to control schools, had higher career-relevant instruction, show higher student engagement in school, and had improved test scores in math and reading. High-school data indicate CareerStart students score higher on end-of-course tests and have more credits toward graduation.

The data further tell us that students with most of their core teachers providing career examples are significantly more likely than other students to report highly valuing their education and have fewer unexcused absences, and are significantly less likely to get in to trouble or get suspended.

Notably, CareerStart benefits students without placing an undue burden on educators. Teachers using the CareerStart curriculum don’t need to add to what they’re already required to teach. The lessons are tied to the statewide standard course of study, are targeted to clear learning objectives for each topic, and give teachers some flexibility as to how they weave the lessons into their teaching style. This means that these lessons do not divert teachers from an already busy teaching schedule but give them tools they can use to augment with they are teaching in an easy and practical manner.

One teacher, reporting on the CareerStart approach, valued how it gives students “an awareness of what is available outside their neighborhood. Because our population thinks of here and now in the neighborhood, they don’t think beyond that neighborhood. And it gives them something that says it is okay to become a doctor or ‘I didn’t know a medical tech could do this.’ It gives them something outside of their little box.”

Beyond the lesson plans

The CareerStart program also involves parents, caregivers, and other school professionals in the instructional approach. One-third of the lessons require a parent engagement activity in which a student interviews or plans an activity with his or her parents or caregivers. These activities typically get the students and parents talking about career issues or the information and skills that adults use on their jobs. In addition, other school personnel, including school librarians and counselors, are often involved in career exploration activities or as support for CareerStart lessons.

The success of CareerStart in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools also resulted from a strong community engagement component. The program was talked about at parent meetings in the community, the school board was kept informed about progress, and the local workforce development council was involved in program design and implementation. The business community participated in career fairs and provided employees to come to schools to give talks about the importance of education in their many career opportunities.

Involving parents, school professionals, and community members stimulates conversations at home, among peers, and in the classroom that increases the relevance of education and promotes a learning environment that has purpose beyond the tests and activities that typically occur in the school day or school year. All this helps to make education meaningful, practical, and part of the process of promoting a more just and economically capable community and nation.

Career-relevant instruction is not a panacea for education. It does, however, provide an evidence-based, low-cost strategy to keep students engaged in school and support academic achievement at one of the most critical intervention points — the transition into early adolescence and middle grades education.