Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Preparing Youth for Work and Career Success: A Research Perspective

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
We hear from researchers and the business community that preparing youth for work and career success is an essential responsibility of communities, educators, and youth program leaders. Young people should be prepared by the time they leave high school. Expanded learning programs are perfectly situated to contribute to this preparation. This is the theme of our upcoming How Kids Learn conference. 

Regie Stites is Senior Researcher at SRI International who has been evaluating Linked Learning strategies in 9 California school districts. The Linked Learning Alliance is a statewide coalition of education, industry, and community organizations dedicated to improving California’s high schools and preparing students for success in college, career, and life.

Dr. Stites will be one of our featured speakers at the upcoming How Kids Learn V conferences in Berkeley and Los Angeles. He agreed to answer a few of our questions:

Q: Can you highlight some of the evidence we have for positive 
Dr. Regie Stites,
SRI International
outcomes from work-based learning? 

A: Our quantitative analyses have focused on the impacts of the overall Linked Learning experience on student outcomes. The most recent findings from the evaluation indicate that, on average, students in Linked Learning pathways completed more high school credits, were less likely to drop out, were more likely to graduate, had higher GPAs, and were more likely to be classified as ready for college when compared with similar students in traditional high school programs.

We see the most direct evidence of positive student outcomes related to work-based learning in our student survey and focus group data. Students who had participated in work-based learning reported that it gave them opportunities to gain teamwork experience, to practice hands-on skills working with tools, and to apply knowledge and skills gained in the classroom. In focus groups, Linked Learning pathway students frequently described the ways that work-based learning experiences helped them develop awareness of the norms and expectations for behavior in the workplace, helped them develop work-related interpersonal and communication skills, and gave them motivation and clarity in planning further education and choosing a career path. 

Q: Why is preparing youth for work and career success important for young people from low-income neighborhoods? Is there an issue of equity that we should seek to address? 

A: Equity in educational outcomes and in access to college and career are central goals of the Linked Learning work. One of the most fundamental premises of Linked Learning is that all students should be prepared for college and careers. The 9 school districts included in the California Linked Learning District Initiative were chosen for initiative, in part, because they serve predominantly low-income students and communities. In the current economy, a postsecondary credential is the key to employability. But simply getting more low-income students to graduate from high school and enroll in college is not enough. For example, we know that 70% of low-income students who start at a two-year college do not complete a credential within 5 years.

Q: What are some of the challenges and opportunities in this work?

A: The biggest challenge is breaking down the silos that separate educators from each other and from employers. To create seamless transitions from school to college and to employment we need seamless systems. To prepare young people for work and career success we need educators who understand work and employers who understand education. With the Career Pathway Trust Grants and related efforts, California is moving in the direction of developing regional partnerships that bridge gaps between K-12, postsecondary, workforce development, and employment systems. These efforts are just getting off the ground but the potential for fostering greater collaboration across sectors to improve and expand access to a range of high-quality work-based learning opportunities is encouraging.   

Q: Do you think that the out-of-school setting is a good place to prepare youth for success in work and career?

A: The simple answer is yes, the out-of-school setting is essential for preparing youth for work and career success. This is so because out-of-school programs can play a key role in supporting the types of integrated learning activities that connect school learning to real-world applications of knowledge and skills. For many young people, especially young people from low-income neighborhoods, one of the most important keys to educational engagement, persistence, and success is relevance. 

Simple common sense (and research) supports the notion that young people who can clearly see the relevance of what they are learning to their own lives and futures are more likely to persist and be successful in education and, as a result, are more likely to be ready for career success.

The best methods for connecting school learning to real-world applications of knowledge and skills are well known. These methods include project-based learning, experiential learning, service learning, and a range of work-based learning activities. Some of these integrated learning activities, such as project-based learning and some forms of work-based learning may not require an out-of-school setting, but they are stronger when they do.  

Q: Can you offer any advice on what out-of-school programs could do?

A: To give more low-income youth opportunities to participate in extended, high-quality integrated learning activities, out-of-school programs should look for opportunities to work together with classroom teachers and with employers and with community organizations to co-design and jointly deliver such learning activities. Youth will be more motivated and experience deeper learning when they can connect classroom learning with applied learning in an out-of-school setting.

Regie Stites, Ph.D., will share his research on the impact of Linked Learning projects with schools and youth at the How Kids Learn V Conference. He has two decades of experience in the design and management of large-scale educational research and evaluation in the areas of literacy education, integrated academic and career-technical education, college and career readiness, and workforce development. Major projects include the Evaluation of the California Community College Linked Learning Initiative, the Evaluation of the Linked Learning Health Career Pathways Project in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and the Equipped for the Future National Work Readiness Credential Assessment Development and Validation. 

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