Improving Middle School Student Engagement through Career-Relevant Instruction in the Core Curriculum

By Dennis K Orthner, Hinckley Jones-Sanpei, Patrick Akos and Roderick A Rose

In Journal of Educational Research 106 (2013) pp. 27-38

Student engagement and attainment are closely linked concepts, as pupils who can see the value in their education and learning for their future goals are more likely to be engaged in their schoolwork and subsequently achieve higher grades and are more likely to graduate. Evidence suggests that career exploration can have a positive effect on engagement in school because it can increase the relevance and value attached to school subjects. CareerStart is a teacher-focused, school capacity-building strategy for career-relevant instruction, which teaches teachers how to communicate the relevance of core middle school subjects on careers and the labour market, illustrating the use of skills and knowledge taught by the curriculum through examples from real-life job situations. It is presented as a form of Career Relevant Instruction (CRI). This research explores the impact of CareerStart, and CRI, on the short-term engagement of middle school pupils in school and the longer-term value they attach to their education.

To measure the impact of CareerStart and CRI on school engagement and school valuing, this study involved an observational randomised control trial of 14 middle schools in North Carolina with seven control schools and seven treatment schools. Teachers from the treatment schools received the CareerStart intervention, with training on delivering career-relevant instruction in the classroom, newsletters and other support from the programme; teachers in the control schools were not prohibited from incorporating career-relevant instruction in their lessons, but this was not supported by the CareerStart programme. This was a three year longitudinal study beginning when students were in the sixth grade.

One of the main findings was that pupils from the treatment schools, whose teachers had received CareerStart support, were significantly more likely to value their education than students in the control schools, based on data that students self-reported in terms of how important they viewed their schooling and to what extent schools provided them with useful information and knowledge for the future. The CareerStart intervention may promote a more positive outlook on school valuing, to encourage pupils to see the longer-term benefits of their education; however, this did not necessarily mean that pupils were more engaged in the short-term, for example finding school a fun place to be on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, over the course of the three years there was a strong link between teachers frequently citing career examples within their classrooms and their pupils’ reporting higher levels of school valuing and engagement. Overall, improving the relevance of the curriculum by linking subject matter to the labour market and citing specific careers had a positive impact on pupils in terms of how they value their school in the long-term, and the extent to which they are engaged in the short-term.

Turning to delivery mechanisms, the authors find schools readily accessing learning resources through online repositories and engaging with local employers:

[Career Relevant Instruction] can be implemented by simply encouraging teachers to meet and share examples of jobs and careers in which the content of their courses has application. We have found inviting parents and employers into the classrooms to talk about how they use mathematics, science, and language concepts can be helpful to students in realizing the relevance of the content that is explored and taught in their classes. Some middle schools have even offered job fairs where employers are invited to talk about the jobs available in their businesses or industries and how important the employees’ education is to being successful in those jobs. One school had a checklist for students that asked employers what kinds of reading and writing were required of their employees, as well as the specific use of mathematics, science, or civic knowledge their employees needed to demonstrate. This depth of information and employer feedback can help engage students in an exploration of their future education and career opportunities that will also help students connect their present learning to future career thinking. Moreover, as suggested by our findings, it is this hope—that an investment in education will pay dividends in the future—that serves both to improve student engagement and to create the value students place on being in and staying in school.

There were two key limitations to the study. Firstly, there was a low effective sample size of the 14 schools which may have limited the treatment effect; increasing the number of schools will have increased the robustness of the study. Secondly, there may have been a diluting effect of treatment due to low implementation in some treatment schools and the ability for control schools to use career-relevant instruction outside of the CareerStart programme.

To access the article, visit the Journal of Educational Research.