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Expanding High School Work-Based Learning: A Conversation with Massachusetts – Part 2

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Expanding High School Work-Based Learning: A Conversation with Massachusetts – Part 2

February 22, 2022

Digging deeper into best practices and policies employed by states to expand and improve high school work-based learning programs.

Since the publication of our Working to Learn report, we at ASA have been digging deeper into best practices and policies employed by states to expand and improve high school work-based learning programs. We recently spoke with Dr. Kerry Akashian, Career Development Education Lead at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, about the history of career-focused education in her state, how COVID necessitated innovations in work-based learning, and the beneficial impact of dedicated state funding. In this next installment, we continue our conversation with a discussion of the Massachusetts Innovation Pathways Program, as well as some of the solutions the Commonwealth has employed to overcome common barriers to expanding high school work-based learning.

Q: A few years ago Massachusetts launched the Innovation Pathways program to expand access to high-quality career pathways in the Commonwealth’s general education high schools. Can you explain how this program works and intersects with the state’s other career connected learning initiatives?

Kerry: The idea behind Innovation Pathways, or “IP,” is to give more Massachusetts students a chance to benefit from career and technical education and hands-on learning experiences. The program allows academic and comprehensive high schools, once granted the designation by the state, to restructure the learning experience to offer coursework and experience in a specific regional high-demand industry, such as information technology, engineering, healthcare, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing. All IP programs are required to partner with a local MassHire Board and employer(s); participating students take the necessary coursework, engage in 100 hours of a career immersive experience, internship or Capstone project, and earn industry credentials and/or college credit.

Connecting Activities, a statewide network organized through the MassHire Workforce Boards that connects employers and schools to support work-based learning, intersects with Innovation Pathways in a few ways. CA leads at the Workforce Boards provide labor market information to IP applicants, such as which pathway should the district apply for, which companies are hiring in which sectors, and so on. The CA leads also provide professional development for students, guidance on capstone curriculum, and internal references for internships and employability. In fact, for the past two years in a row, we have put $500,000 aside in the budget so that the CA intermediaries can secure internships for IP-required senior year internships.

Q: How has IP positively impacted students?

Kerry: Demand for career and technical education in Massachusetts has increased in recent years and vocational high schools can’t meet demand; they have long waiting lists and turn away more than 3,000 students each year. IP is an inventive solution to this problem, and the quandary of student engagement, by putting hands-on learning experiences and career exploration opportunities directly into general education schools. Another great aspect of the program is that a student doesn’t necessarily have to be pigeonholed into a particular job or know everything they’re going to do when they’re only 15 years old. IP allows students to develop their skills, which will be transferable in any sector.

Q: As you work to expand career development education, what have you found to be the biggest barriers or challenges and how have you solved for them?

Kerry: A recent barrier has been that due to COVID and necessary health and safety precautions, some of our schools will not let other adults, besides educators, go into the building or really work with kids, so some of our workforce boards are not able to give that level of service when it comes to career and college readiness. They don’t necessarily have drop-ins, or can provide help with interview questions or even the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). For example, FAFSA completion is down 4% this year in Massachusetts, so 3,500 kids less than the year before have applied for financial aid. And we’re finding that it is mostly people of color and low-income people who aren’t applying. One solution we’re implementing is a FAFSA outreach campaign specifically to parents, utilizing social media.

Another barrier to more widespread adoption of career focused education is the fact that it’s not often integrated into the main classroom. Career-connected learning is often seen as “other” or “special,” or like an afterschool program offering.

Q: So how do we solve for that?

Kerry: Something that I’m working on is determining where “soft skills,” or essential skills as I call them, already exist in the English Language Arts & Literacy Standards and finding ways to bring the essential and foundational skills into the classroom. We need to show mainstream educators that these are work-based learning skills.

We’ve done so much work in Massachusetts over the past five years with integrating the teacher evaluation system and then having MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), and so we’re not going in full force with a mandate on work-based learning. Instead, our strategy in Massachusetts right now is to gradually shift and show where opportunities for experiential learning and skills development already exist. I’m currently working to provide documents and instructions on how the existing communications and speaking and listening standards can be used to support a work-based learning plan. For instance, speaking and listening standards around comprehension and collaboration (SL.9–10.1 and SL.11-12.1.) ask that the student be prepared, having read and researched material under study, and be able to draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

This standard aligns with the MA Work-Based Learning Plan, which asks students to arrive on time and be prepared for work. The standard above can serve to outline what a student might need to do to effectively prepare for work. The speaking and listening standards also lend themselves to other essential skills like teamwork and collaboration, communication, and motivation and initiative, all skills listed in the work-based learning plan.

Q: How do you assess work-based learning in Massachusetts?

Kerry: Historically, Connecting Activities has focused on the number of career development experiences, but I’m currently working on ways to track not just the quantity, but also quality. For example, we would like to measure how well WBL is being used as a learning tool to help students make better choices about education, career and their lives overall. The better off a student can make choices for their lives, the better off all our lives will be. So taking WBL to the next level could mean having career day guest speakers talk about not just their career paths, but also about the choices they’ve made along the way and the choices that didn’t go so well. Or another strategy to improve quality is to intentionally include career day guest speakers from priority industry sectors, instead of just employers in the local area. In fact, we’ve given $60,000 to each workforce board to hire an employer engagement specialist because that is where the gaps exist. The Connecting Activities leads have done a ton of work to focus on the schools and get acquainted with the schools, but the employer piece needs additional resources and investment.

Q: How are you encouraging smaller rural districts to adopt WBL, and how do you ensure equity and consistency across the state?

Kerry: Twenty years ago, when the workforce boards were developed, the funding process was not well understood, so we’ve created a more transparent process to ensure all students benefit, from our more urban areas like Boston and Greater Lowell, to the Cape and the Islands, to the rural Berkshires.

Another improvement we’ve made to ensure equity is better data collection and disaggregation. Connecting Activities now collects and analyzes data on student race and gender, and schools applying for a Massachusetts Innovation Pathways grant must go through a rigorous application process to show they serve historically underrepresented students.

Q: Are there any other Massachusetts WBL initiatives you’d like to share with our readers?

Kerry: For the past three years Connecting Activities has put funding into an awesome teacher externship program. We sent 40 teachers out into the workplace this past summer so that when they return to the classroom, they can reflect on what they’ve learned and perhaps think differently about their lessons. I just remember when I was a teacher, and then transitioned into the traditional workplace, I thought, oh my gosh, there are so many things I didn’t know that I wish I had known, and I would have been a better English teacher for it. Externships are also a way to get companies invested in the community, to make that connection between the employer and the teacher which hopefully results in potential job opportunities for students.

For more information on Connecting Activities, reach out to Dr. Akashian at kerry.akashian@mass.gov. For more information on Innovation Pathways, reach out to Jennifer Gwatkin at jennifer.gwatkin@mass.gov.

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