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ASU+GSV 2024: Experts Call for Middle School Career Exploration

During a webinar Wednesday at the annual ASU+GSV Summit, education leaders discussed the need to promote career exploration programs at these levels. Ages 10-15, a speaker said, are critical times.

Signs on the same post all say "career," indicating a career crossroads
Recognizing the need for career exploration, K-12 school districts are increasing their emphasis on career and technical programming in middle school — but some education leaders say still more work is needed.

The need to promote career exploration was the main discussion topic Wednesday in a webinar during the yearly ASU+GSV Summit, featuring Association for Middle Level Education CEO Stephanie Simpson; and panelists Kathleen Mathers, a principal at Education Strategy Group (ESG), and Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Rodel, which works to improve public education programming in Delaware.

The panel discussion, “The State of Career Exploration: Making Middle School Count,” discussed trends in middle school career exploration, drawing from a recent study by American Student Assistance (ASA) and ESG examining the progress made by schools across the country in promoting career and technical education (CTE) in middle school.

According to the report, 73 percent of states have identified middle school career exploration as an “important component of a student’s education.” However, the study noted, only 20 percent of states measure and support the quality of these practices by collecting data; just 16 percent are creating accountability plans; and just 8 percent are building networks of partnerships among organizations.

“Across the country, we found that states have done a very good job at recognizing the opportunity to use federal dollars [from the Perkins Act] and attach some state dollars to their [CTE] work,” Mathers said. “By and large, they have strong definitions in place of what they mean by middle school career exploration. They’ve taken early steps to put policy pieces in place.”

Among the states making progress in promoting career and technical programming in earlier grades is Delaware, according to the panel. Herdman, who also chairs strategic planning efforts for Delaware’s Workforce Development Board, said schools in the state have been working to make access to CTE-related programming more equitable for students of color and students with disabilities.

“Part of what we’re trying to do in Delaware is build a ‘system of excellence’ [around CTE],” he said. “I would say there are two significant challenges which actually drove us to middle grades’ work. One is, we still have a lot of work to do to make [programming] consistent and high quality, but the other thing is that we saw some significant issues around equity and access. … We have now 24 different pathways from [the state’s efforts] that started in 2014. Kids of color and kids with disabilities were actually going into different pathways in fairly consistent ways, but they weren’t finishing them in consistent ways.”

Simpson said work such as this is crucial, because middle school students are among the most receptive to programming geared toward encouraging them to determine their identities and future career paths.

“[Ages] 10 to 15 is the second most acute developmental phase other than birth to age three, and we know that during this time students are thinking about the world, their place in it, and their capacity to think more abstractly is growing, so it really makes a lot of sense to introduce them to their options at this time to let them think about their identities,” she said, indicating that students often begin contemplating dropping out around the time they enter sixth grade.

Said Simpson: “If we aren’t engaging them at that middle school level, we’ve lost them.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.