“Jobs will continue to evolve,” Dobbins told them. “If you told someone a decade ago that you could have a career as a social media influencer, they wouldn’t have believed you.” 

Levar Dobbins, a teacher at Piedmont GLOBAL Academy, shows off some student posters highlighting careers they’re interested in. (Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report)

Preparing students for a changing workforce is one of the goals behind a movement to get kids thinking about their career plans at a younger age. A growing number of states and school districts now require students to take career exploration classes in middle school. Others offer introductory courses in specific careers, like engineering or robotics.

Dallas Independent School District, the second-largest district in the nation’s second-largest state, has long offered career exploration courses to its seventh and eighth graders. But this year it expanded one of the classes, based on a curriculum from the nonprofit Education Opens Doors, to every middle school in the district. Brian Lusk, the district’s chief of strategic initiatives, said school leaders wanted to ensure that all students were prepared to make informed decisions about their paths in high school and beyond. “Equity is important to us,” he said. 

Advocates argue that exposing students to potential careers in middle school, rather than waiting until high school, gives them time to take the classes and extracurriculars that will get them to their goals — and the opportunity to change course while the stakes are still low.

“Students are less stressed out in the middle grades,” said Stephanie Simpson, CEO of the Association for Middle Level Education, a nonprofit that supports middle school educators. “They can explore and take some risks, with fewer immediate consequences.” 

Showing students a route to their dreams in early adolescence — a time when many begin to lose interest in school — can also boost middle schoolers’ motivation, advocates say. 

But the effort to push career exploration down into the middle grades faces several challenges, including a lack of funding, a shortage of school counselors and packed school schedules that leave little time for “extras” like career exploration. The work has also raised concerns about “tracking,” the now-discredited practice of steering certain students, particularly those who are low-income and Black or Hispanic, into vocational tracks that lead to low-wage jobs. 

Proponents of career exploration in middle school say they’re not out to narrow students’ options, but to broaden them. The aim is to introduce young people to careers they might not otherwise hear of, and arm them with the tools to pursue college, if they want to. 

“We’re not pushing them onto a path so much as giving them the ability to choose which path they go down,” said Roscoe Compton-Kelly, CEO of Education Opens Doors. A recent evaluation of its program found that students who participated were more likely to take the ACT and AP exams than their peers who did not. “We’re giving them the knowledge to make the decisions for themselves,” he added.

When Education Opens Doors began pitching its program to Texas schools a decade ago, the biggest question from school leaders was, “Is it too soon?” said Jeff McGuire, the group’s director of communications. Were early adolescents, with their raging hormones and still-developing frontal lobes, really ready to plan for a future that may feel light-years away? 

Nancy Deutsch, a University of Virginia professor who is leading an effort to remake middle schools, thinks they are. The early teen years may even be the ideal time to start, she said.

“Early adolescence is such a huge time for identity development, when young people are asking, ‘Who am I, and who do I want to be?’ “ said Deutsch, the director of Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Career exploration capitalizes on this innate drive, encouraging students to try on possible future selves, she said.

The early teen years are also a stage when students are especially vulnerable to “identity foreclosure,” or the walling off of certain options, such as a STEM career, as not for them, Deutsch said. By catching students before they foreclose, schools may be able to convince more female students to consider computer science, for example.

There are practical reasons to start sooner, too. With the growth of specialized high schools and the expansion of career-focused programs in comprehensive schools, students today are being asked as early as 13 or 14 to make decisions that could shape their future careers. In Dallas, eighth graders must choose one of five “endorsements” to focus on in high school — among them, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); business and industry; and the arts and humanities.

“High school is far too late to begin this conversation with young people,” said Kyle Hartung, an associate vice president with Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that offers a career exploration curriculum for schools and after-school programs. 

Students seem to agree. In a pair of recent surveys by American Student Assistance, a nonprofit focused on career readiness, roughly two-thirds of high school graduates said they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle or high school, and 80 percent of high school guidance counselors said their students were “overwhelmed” by decisions about college and career. (American Student Assistance is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) 

Some states are getting the message. Indiana now requires all eighth graders to take a series of self-assessments through the state’s online career explorer or a similar web  tool. The results are shared with guidance counselors, who help students match their interests, strengths and values with one of three paths: employment, enrollment or enlistment. 

Students in a seventh grade classroom at The Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Dallas research potential careers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. (Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report)

Delaware, meanwhile, is in the process of writing standards for career and technical education in the middle grades, after finding that middle schoolers are often making uninformed decisions about which high school to attend. And Virginia has kids begin work on an “academic and career plan portfolio,” which includes information about their interests, values and skills, as early as elementary school.

Education Opens Doors was created by Jayda Batchelder, an eighth grade science teacher who grew up not knowing much about the road to college herself. A first-generation student, she had landed at Tulane with a scholarship “by pure luck,” she recalled in an interview: The elite college’s recruiters wanted someone from South Dakota, and she fit the bill. 

As a first-year Teach for America corps member in Dallas, in the 2009-10 school year, Batchelder had been named a teacher of the year. Her students had shone on the state standardized test, and she “really felt I’d changed their trajectory,” she said. 

But when she visited some of her former students the next fall, at a high school football game, she found many of them were making choices that could limit their futures. The brightest students were enrolling in the lowest-level courses, while students who had excelled in her science class weren’t taking STEM courses. It was, for Batchelder, a moment of epiphany.

“We’re telling our kids they can be anything, do anything, but no one is teaching them how,” she said. 

That weekend, in October 2010, she sent an e-mail to all the Teach for America members in Dallas with a proposal to create a “roadmap for success” for middle schoolers. Four teachers agreed to help. After two years of piloting the curricula in Dallas schools, Batchelder received a $5,000 prize for being named science teacher of the year and used the money to launch a nonprofit. 

At first, the organization struggled to secure funding. Foundation leaders said they’d support the nonprofit if it focused on high school, and funders and some school leaders worried about the potential for tracking. Some teachers were skeptical, too, wondering, “How much work is this going to be for me on top of the work I already have?” McGuire said.

Batchelder turned down the grants pegged to high school, and reassured skeptics that all students would be educated about all potential pathways to a career. If anything, the early curricula was probably biased in favor of a four-year education, Batchelder said: “We probably overcompensated.”

In the years since, the program has undergone multiple revisions; its workbook has been fully digitized and made more engaging, with online games and quizzes. There’s less “sage on the stage” — teacher lecture — and more discussion and debate. And there’s more information about alternative pathways, including the military, apprenticeships and technical school.

“We don’t want kids who have goals other than a traditional college to feel like ‘this has nothing to do with me,’ ” said Kristen Pereira, the group’s senior curriculum specialist. 

In a recent class at The Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Fred F. Florence Middle School in southeastern Dallas, Katherine Coney, a teacher, showed students a slide reminding them that “you don’t have to attend college to have a career.” Industry-based certification and licensure is another route, it read. 

“I want you to go to college, if that’s what you want, but you have other options,” Coney said. “What we don’t want is for you to work at Burger King for 30 years, trying to support your family.”

Levar Dobbins, the Piedmont middle school teacher, said he learned about college by watching “A Different World,” a spinoff of ”The Cosby Show” that focused on the life of students at a fictional historically Black college. When he was growing up, “college was a big abstract thing — a pennant, or a football team,” said Dobbins, now 42. “A Different World” made it concrete, imaginable. 

While today’s students have access to much more information about college and careers via the Internet, many still have limited notions about what they can become, Dobbins said. 

To expand their horizons, Dobbins and other teachers have students research careers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website — looking up information about job duties, education requirements, starting salaries and job outlook. 

Students also spend time conducting inventories of their own skills and strengths. In a recent seventh grade class at Eduardo Mata Montessori School, students wrote down three skills they would stress to an employer in a job interview. Daniel Gonzalez wrote that he is brave, creative and has a strong mindset. 

Daniel said he really wants to be a professional basketball player, but engineering is his back-up plan. “I’ll probably go to college, because after a while, I’ll be too old to play,” he said. 

Lusk said the district hasn’t gotten much pushback from teachers about the program, in part because it doesn’t add to their workload. When Dallas took the program districtwide, it made it a stand-alone course, and assigned teachers to teach it. “It’s their course,” he said. “It’s not an add-on.” 

The district paid for the program — which costs schools $50 to $100 per student, depending on the level of support teachers receive — using federal economic recovery dollars, and will cover the costs once those funds run out, Lusk said.  

In other districts, though, a lack of funding and “initiative fatigue” have sometimes thwarted efforts to extend career exploration to the middle grades, said Simpson of the Association for Middle Level Education. “We’re asking so much of our educators, this feels like one more thing,” she said. 

School counselors, who might also be tapped to teach the material, are similarly stretched, with the average public school counselor overseeing 415 students, far more than the 250 maximum recommended by the American School Counselor Association. 

At the same time, pressures to improve test scores have led some schools to spend more of the day on core academic subjects, and less on “specials,” like career exploration.

All these factors have led Jean Eddy, the CEO of American Student Assistance, to conclude that while career exploration in the classroom works, it can’t be scaled nationally.  The nonprofit, which has funded successful school-based programs in the past, is now shifting its resources to apps it has developed to help kids explore careers on their own.

“This generation wants agency — they want to be able to direct their own learning,” Eddy said.

Hartung, of Jobs for the Future, said efforts to educate students about their options won’t succeed without improvements in the school-to-workforce pipeline. 

“Right now, the systems are very siloed,” he said. “The Achilles’ heel of this work is that it’s early preparation for young people without a system to advance through.”

But in Dallas, at least, the push to start career exploration sooner seems to be making a difference. 

Bianca Escobar, a high school senior who took the Education Opens Doors course in middle school, said she still turns to her student guidebook when she’s feeling lost or scared about the future. She wants to study engineering in California, and recently returned from a road trip to the state, where she visited four colleges. Her favorite was the University of San Francisco. 

“I feel really confident in my choices and the things I need to do to prepare,” she said. 

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