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Secondary schools are becoming more intentional about helping students discover their career interests and map out a plan to achieve them.
About half of all states mandate that schools help create individual or student learning plans, and most others have optional programs. Enabling students to make their own plans puts them in the driver’s seat and encourages a long-term look at their course selection so their choices match their career goals, experts say. Often, districts give students online accounts with passwords to track classes; create an electronic portfolio of grades, test scores, and work; research careers; and organize their college search.
The practice is picking up momentum with the increased emphasis on college completion, which research shows is more likely when students take rigorous courses and have a career goal.
But these career maps take an investment in technology and training. Finding time during the school day can be a challenge, and the job of overseeing the process often falls on already stretched counselors, according to researchers and program administrators. In some states, the plans have helped students understand the relevance of what they are learning, prompting higher enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and increased high school graduation rates. Others, meanwhile, have not yet experienced the same payback on their investment. As with many education programs, the rollout is left up to districts, creating a patchwork of approaches throughout the country.
“The focus on individual learning plans is so students enter college prepared to do good work,” said Chad d’Entremont, the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. The Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit published a policy brief last year with research showing plans were linked to improved academic motivation, engagement, decisionmaking, and personal accountability. “The learning plans are providing a support system that we traditionally counted on families to provide,” he said.
While researchers have been promoting student learning plans as a reform strategy for nearly two decades, state policymakers are catching on to the concept as a way to drive college and career readiness. Students create plans starting as early as the 6th grade. Of course, they can—and often do—change their minds about their career path. Advocates say the plans can be fluid and be a way to personalize learning and level the playing field for students who might not otherwise have access to resources for college planning.
Typically, a student might have a career-exploration unit in 7th grade. Through an interest inventory, in which the student answers a series of questions about preferences for working, say, with people or numbers, indoors or outside, his or her interests are matched with career clusters and pathways. If a student, for example, finds his or her passion is in nursing, the student would then look more deeply at what the profession pays, the employment opportunities, and educational requirements.
In planning high school courses, the student would be sure to take enough science credits. Perhaps he or she would sign up for a dual-enrollment class in chemistry and anatomy at a local community college with the idea of transferring those credits to a university nursing program after graduation.
Planning is often done online with interactive tools aimed at engaging today’s tech-savvy students. Some K-12 districts buy ready-made software products; others partner with higher education, state departments of commerce, or business groups to come up with customized packages.
Knowing that high school students today connect best with online materials, the College Board recently launched a new interactive college-planning site, the BigFuture.org. And U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., recently introduced a bill to pilot a project in which students beginning in 1st grade could start portable online college-planning and -savings accounts.
Some consider student learning plans one of the “softer reforms” that get pushed aside because of policymakers’ focus on accountability, said Mr. d’Entremont. While most policymakers aren’t against the idea, it’s reasonable for districts to think about cost and capacity.