There's no arguing with the fact that computers are becoming more prevalent in classrooms nationwide. It's how they are being used and whether those uses are helpful to students that remain unclear.
One area in which school computers are utilized more and more, and where their benefits appear concrete, is in career-guidance activities. As the job market has become increasingly competitive, many high schools have realized the importance of assisting students in their career planning. As schools work to develop career education programs, computers now play a key role in managing that large and often complicated task.
"Students need to use discretion and judgment about careers," said Joe Keenan, school-to-career coordinator for the Vineland School District in Vineland, N.J. "We're talking about values. We're talking about preferences related to your personal makeup." Accurately matching a student with an appropriate career, therefore, is critical. Thankfully, powerful software packages are now making the process more manageable for schools around the nation.
One Simple Program
At the Sierra Unified School District, a small, rural district in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, career guidance was once a daunting task. The district's Sandy Bluffs Alternative Education Program had been using evaluation materials from a half-dozen vendors, but none of the information was compatible or conclusive. The paperwork was so intensive it left little time for anything else.
"We never had time to do much consultation with kids after assessments because we were so busy administering the work," said Mike Ashmore, a teacher and head of guidance counseling for the Alternative Education Program. "Most of the paper assessments had no aptitude reading, and the interest questions were inconclusive."
Counselors and teachers at Sandy Bluffs were continually frustrated with the excessive time and effort the manual career-guidance program required, and students often felt stifled by the tedious, complex and seemingly unrewarding results.
Magellan has changed all that. A software program produced by Valpar International, Magellan uses nine automated assessments to measure a student's academic skills, physical skills, temperament, people skills, data skills, interests and time required for training. The results guide a student to his or her top five career matches. Once the five picks are determined, the student can then explore the Magellan database to learn more about each occupation, including wage and employment data, general exploratory information and four-year class schedules that can be modified by individual schools.
Automating the career-guidance process at Sandy Bluffs freed career counselors to do what they do best -- counsel students. "I'm now able to work closely with each student to help them get more information and to narrow down their interests," Ashmore said. "The counselors can now sit down with students and help them decide how to chart their career paths. The interactions between students and staff are definitely more quality-oriented."
Charting a Path
Potosi High School in Potosi, Mo., is a rural school outside St. Louis. The school offers career-guidance instruction through a program called A+. The state-sponsored project's purpose is to make sure students are career-oriented and have a clear focus before they enroll in a community college or occupational school. Administering the program was an erratic process before the school began using Magellan.
"We were doing paper-oriented assessments from a variety of different companies. We would try to coordinate the results together, but it wasn't always possible," recalled A+ Coordinator Tammy Finley. "Our three counselors were overloaded with too many administrative tasks and too big of a student load. They had very little time to spend with students because they were doing so much research, assessment grading and paper processing."
Using Magellan, teachers and administrators at Potosi High can now help students formulate a four-year plan to maximize their coursework. They also have more time to spend working closely with students. "The time savings for counselors translates into more enthusiasm and motivation for students during the process," Finley said. "Counselors now have the opportunity to answer questions more completely and can spend more one-on-one time with students."
Some teachers say career-guidance software is helping students become more focused, encouraging them to stick to their goals and pushing them to get better grades. "Once students have a direction and are aware of the steps necessary to reach their goals, we see them become really motivated," said Carl Cortezzo, career educator at Phillipsburg High School in Phillipsburg, N.J. "That goal orientation translates into higher grades."
Teachers and counselors at Phillipsburg High are using a program made by Educational Testing Services called SIGI Plus, which takes students through a self-assessment phase that helps them define their work-related values, interests and skills. Students then explore occupations that fit their personal profile. As they narrow the list to occupations of interest, they access the programs' extensive database to find more in-depth information. They then set a career goal and plan the steps necessary to reach that goal.
"For students who are at risk of dropping out of school, having a goal and a career plan can make the difference of whether or not they stay in school and complete their education," Cortezzo said.
New Jersey's Vineland School District is also using SIGI Plus to help students become more critical players in their career decision-making. "Our goal is to develop more reflective students who will make career choices that are realistic and based on their work-related values, interests and abilities," Keenan said.
Vineland has taken several additional steps to help ensure their schools implement the SIGI Plus program effectively. A district-wide intranet is now in place, and within a year access to the program will be available from all school buildings. As the program builds, Keenan said he envisions a day when career testing and information will be cumulative for Vineland students. In that manner, a third-grader could enter interests and abilities and that information would be available to the student's future teachers. Career guidance would therefore become a multi-year process that builds and is refined over many years.
"We're going to see kids better able to [understand] themselves, their future, and the choices that are open to them," Keenan said.
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. Email