Advancing Academic Achievement Through Career Relevance in the Middle Grades: A Longitudinal Evaluation of CareerStart

M.E. Woolley et al American Educational Research Journal pp1-27 May 2013

Woolley et al (2013) evaluate the long-term impact of the CareerStart programme, an instructional programme that introduces career-focused education into the middle school curriculum, on achievement scores and well-being among participating students in the United States. They find that CareerStart has a significant positive effect on the Maths attainment of seventh and eighth grade students, but makes no differences to scores at other grade levels.

Recent research identifies ‘three Rs’ that influence educational outcomes: relationships between adults and students; the rigour of ambitious curricula and high expectations; and the relevance of curriculum content to students’ lives. Proponents of relevance contend that improving the relevance of content of classroom lessons will enhance student engagement, motivation and grades. Relevance is defined as a) meaningful application to solve problems or accomplish desired tasks in the real world or b) current or future value or utility in students’ lives.

CareerStart is an instructional strategy programme designed to enhance the relevance of the middle school curriculum and hence students’ motivations, behaviour and emotional connections to school and learning. The CareerStart programme starts by involving teachers in an interactive professional development process by subject and grade, designed to increase awareness of the benefits of increasing career relevance in the curriculum. It includes ten short, high quality and easy-to-teach lessons, which have been reviewed by peers and curriculum specialists, for teachers to use in their own classrooms. CareerStart consultants visit schools and provide regular coaching.

Wooley et al (2013) set out to test whether career relevant instruction is linked to academic achievement of middle school students. They assess the impact of CareerStart through a randomised control trial of the programme in 14 middle schools in North Carolina which were divided equally into control and treatment groups. Teachers in the treatment schools delivered 10 career relevant lessons to all mathematics, science, language arts and social studies classes in the three middle school grades (sixth, seventh and eighth grade) between 2006 and 2008. Control schools did not implement the CareerStart programme at all.

To assess the impact of CareerStart on academic performance, end-of-grade test scores for standardised Maths and English examinations were collected alongside demographic data for each student. Third to fifth grade test scores were used to model pre-treatment performance whilst eighth grade test scores were considered primary outcomes of treatment. In addition, surveys were completed by the students at the end of every school year as a measurement of self-perception.

Woolley et al (2013) find significant positive differences between seventh and eighth grade Maths scores of the control and treatment groups, but no differences between scores at other grade levels. The effect on English scores is considered not significant, although a trend begins to emerge in eighth grade. The authors assert that the improvement in Maths performance in Maths is related to CareerStart being implemented in all core subject areas because of the effects on improving overall student engagement, motivation and achievement. They conclude that causal link between Career Relevant Instruction and increased academic performance in Maths provides empirical evidence to support further uptake of career-relevant instruction in middle school grades, but also call for education for non-teaching staff, such as librarians and counsellors, so as to embed career-relevance in the wider school structure.

Advancing American Achievement Through Career Relevance in Middle Grades, A Longitudinal Evaluation of CareerStart