Strengthening Your District’s Career Exploration Curriculum

The global COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented disruptions in education. Previously, graduation rates nationwide were steadily climbing, and while 2020 saw a decline of on-time high school graduations in several states, other states, including New York, Florida, and Utah, saw continued progress. While this is positive news, students need more than a diploma. They need a plan, a course of action, that will lead them to success in their career and college goals.

In an October 2021 GradNation survey, more than one-third of high school students reported that they didn’t feel that school was preparing them for success. Only 57% of surveyed students believed that high school classes were useful to their future, and 45% of students reported that they lacked interest in their classes.

The challenge for school leaders is to engage students with a strong career exploration curriculum so they can find purpose in their coursework and be motivated to set goals and create plans for life after high school.

How Career Planning Programs Impact Students’ Success after Graduation

More than three-quarters of the students who responded to the GradNation survey said that the pandemic had disrupted their post-secondary plans. Those who believed that they were still on course cited challenging, relevant classes and a feeling of connectedness to their teachers and peers as the primary reasons that through all the challenges that the pandemic brought, they were able to maintain their sense of purpose and direction. Interest in classes proved to be essential to feeling a high degree of readiness for post-secondary life.

An effective career development curriculum, one that encourages students to explore multiple career and post-secondary education pathways, has the power to motivate. With the tools to assess their interests and aptitudes and learn about various career and educational options, students will feel invested in the career plan that they develop. The process of setting goals and planning is a learning experience that will help students develop a sense of self-efficacy, autonomy, and self-knowledge that is critical for success in school and their lives as adults.

“We’re not just talking about grades,” says Boston University professor V. Scott Solberg, “we’re not talking about test scores; we’re talking about a positive youth development focus where these youth are creating a success identity.” Solberg, who specializes in personalized career and academic plans, career and workforce development, and future readiness, notes that the process of becoming career-ready builds social-emotional skills such as decision-making, goal setting, stress management, and health management. As students create post-secondary plans, they develop these skills and show increased academic self-efficacy.

What Makes a Strong Career Exploration Curriculum?

Students may question why they need to study algebra or literature. They may see no purpose in biology and chemistry classes. What teacher hasn’t, at one time or another, had a student ask, “When am I ever going to use this?”

Educators can explain the general benefits of a high school education (to develop critical thinking skills, to foster an awareness of the world outside their own experiences, etc.), but connecting coursework to a student’s career aspirations is a more concrete way to motivate and engage. When students explore careers and create personal learning plans, they understand how their high school education lays a foundation for their future. Come graduation, they will be better prepared for what lies ahead.

Most states have mandated having a type of post-secondary planning program in their schools. Some focus on college preparedness, and others combine academic readiness with career exploration. A comprehensive curriculum, one that meets the unique needs of each student, ideally has the following components:

  • Assessments: Middle and high school students are still developing their sense of self and creating their identity. Annual inventories of interests, values, aspirations, and abilities will help them identify career clusters and occupations that seem to be a good fit for the lifestyle that they envision for themselves.
  • Career exploration activities: Students’ knowledge of the world of work is limited to what they observe in their own families and communities and the incomplete, often romanticized, information that they glean from television, books, and other media. A strong career exploration curriculum will include activities that expose students to a wide range of career options and the tasks and working conditions that they can expect with different occupations. Work-based learning can be particularly impactful as students solidify their career choices.
  • Multiple post-secondary education pathways: Historically, college and career readiness programs heavily emphasized college over other post-secondary education, but it isn’t the best fit for all students. Of the students who do enroll in college, only about two-thirds complete a degree. The current job market calls for workers with some post-secondary training, but less than half require a four-year degree. An effective career exploration curriculum will introduce students to career and technical schools, apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training opportunities, and military service, as well as college degree programs.

To be successful, a district’s program must meet the unique needs of each student. This requires a high degree of individualization, presenting a challenge for school counselors who are already carrying heavy caseloads. Also, while counselors recognize the need to expose students to multiple pathways toward career success, student, family, and community cultural biases tend to encourage students to prepare for college, even when it may not be the best fit for a student’s interests and aptitudes. Additionally, implementing new programs requires time for professional development, time that school counselors say that they do not have. A modern career and college planning program that utilizes an online platform can address these challenges.

Leveraging Technology to Strengthen Career Exploration Curriculum

XAP’s Choices360 is a modern platform that supports self-directed or instructor-led career exploration and planning. Students log in and complete assessment and career exploration activities through a sequence of assigned activities. As they work through the curriculum, they will follow their own path to explore career and education options that match their unique combination of interests, values, aspirations, and abilities.

For high school juniors and seniors, Choices360 supports all aspects of the postsecondary planning process. Whether students are going to college or a technical school, participating in an apprenticeship, or joining the military, they will find information and activities to support their goals. This includes exploring all postsecondary program types, planning financial aid, and researching schools. Choices360 organizes and simplifies the application process with detailed task lists, deadlines, electronic transcripts and letters of recommendation, and integration with CommonApp.

Counseling departments may modify curricula to meet their district’s unique needs, creating a scope and sequence of activities to reflect the needs of their students, the community, and the local industry. Multiple sets of curricula can also be created to support unique student needs. Counselors can track student outcomes and gather data from a central hub so they can evaluate progress and make programmatic improvements over time.

Digitizing your district’s career exploration program and handing students the tools for self-directed learning will streamline your program and better engage students as they explore and plan their futures.

Here at XAP, we believe that exploration lays the foundation for planning. That’s why we help school and district counseling leaders implement equitable programs and strategies to ensure that students graduate high school not only with a diploma but also with a plan.

To see how we can help you better support your students and drive state, district, and school initiatives with greater ease, transparency, and data, feel free to contact our specialists today!

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