Listening to Students to Get Beyond “Check-the-Box” Approaches to Career Exploration

Monday, May 13, 2024
Kelia Washington
Senior Associate

“I feel like there aren’t enough [opportunities to learn about careers in school]. I feel like we need more time to do it. Because it’s once a year and you get a five-day unit about what you want to do. Okay, that’s nice. Goodbye. We’re moving on.”

– Lexi, 8th grade student in Virginia

Lexi, a middle school student from Virginia, and a handful of other middle school students I gathered virtually on a fall Saturday afternoon expressed dissatisfaction when asked about their career exploration experiences they’d had in school. Most felt that career exploration opportunities were one-and-done, disconnected from their classroom learning. Many expressed a strong desire to learn more, see more, and do more to better understand the different job options they might want to pursue one day. I sat in listening mode, gathering their feedback to compare and contrast their real experiences with the policies on the books in their states.

When American Student Assistance (ASA) commissioned ESG to conduct a national landscape scan of state policies and practices around middle school career exploration, we set out to better understand the opportunities that are (and aren’t) available to Lexi and her peers across the country. In our research, we found that most states have prioritized students having opportunities earlier in their education journey to explore and understand their career options, including establishing career exploration requirements for students. From Florida to California, Minnesota to Virginia, states are requiring career and academic planning activities that, in theory, should help guide a student’s decisions as they journey from school to a fulfilling career.

But policy doesn’t always trickle down to meaningful experiences for students. The Student Advisory Council we organized during the research process confirmed it. Student voice should be a critical component of meaningful education reform; however, students are not always at the table for these efforts. When considering the equity implications of the work, giving voice to the experiences of historically marginalized student populations, including but not limited to Black, Latine, Indigenous, those with disabilities, and those coming from low-income communities, can highlight barriers and opportunities, ultimately leading to better policy solutions. 

Incorporating student voice via the Student Advisory Council was a crucial component of our ability to dig deeper into the actual implementation of the policy language we collected across the 50 states and Washington D.C. Our student advisors consisted of a small group of middle school students living across five states. Over the course of two group sessions and three one-on-one conversations, they were asked a series of questions to tease out their understanding of career exploration and where they saw it occurring in their lives in and out of school. They also had the chance to react to our findings about their states’ requirements, which included activities such as completing an individual career and learning plan, taking a career assessment, or receiving career counseling. 

Here are three lessons I learned from listening to middle school students that school leaders need to hear:

1. Students understand more about career exploration than we give them credit for.

In our conversations with the students in the Student Advisory Council, we found that they not only had a working understanding of the value of and need for career exploration but could also provide clear examples of how they’d experienced it. These included participating in aviation simulations, joining a theater troupe, and attending career-focused conferences. Although some of their definitions varied, the students understood the importance of career exploration and its connection to developing their career interests and goals – they recognized how much they didn’t know, were hungry to learn more, and didn’t think they needed to wait until later in high school to do so. 

As Trinity, a 6th grader from Minnesota, described it:  “I think I would want to see what they do there. What’s the most important thing in the job? And what are the rules? What’s important to me is trying to figure out what you’ll actually do in the job.” 

2. Students are more engaged in career exploration outside the classroom through their parents and extracurriculars, meaning access is varied. Schools providing more quality experiences would level the playing field.

Although our broader research found that most states have career exploration requirements targeted at middle school students, those in-school experiences often do not resonate with students or leave a lasting impression. The students we engaged cited the career conversations and experiences they had with family members or through extracurricular activities as having a greater impact on their understanding of different career options. Extracurricular activities generally reflect students’ interests and can illustrate different potential career connections, while family members are trusted sources of information and are typically very invested in helping students navigate their options. However, even students who have conversations with their parents about their potential career interests shared that these were often limited to college planning. Considering that students’ access to extracurriculars outside of school is dependent on where they live and family resources, the school building can help to equalize students’ ability to explore careers that are new and of interest to them. 

Emma, a 7th-grade student from Minnesota, noted: “We don’t really talk about careers and stuff in school very often. If we do it’s more like a once in a while thing in school. I think I learn a lot more talking to people I know, like in my family, than in school.” 

3. Students want more hands-on, engaging opportunities to explore different career interests.

The members of our Student Advisory Group did not connect some of the school-based career exploration activities they had experienced, such as completing career aptitude assessments, to meaningful career exploration. Instead, they wanted more hands-on experiences, including opportunities to see the work environment of a career they’re interested in firsthand and exposure to careers that align with their interests. Listening to an annual presentation or crafting a plan once a year is good, but not enough, and students have ideas about how to build on what they are already doing in school.

Trinity, a 6th grader from Minnesota, proposed a solution for how her school can create more career exploration experiences that align with student interests: “We could write in our plan what we want our career to be, and then on the side, you could write about what you would want to do to get more into it. And then maybe, if they find a bunch of kids with that [interest], they can sign them up for something or ask their parents if they want to do it, and then they’ll get more into it.”  

Districts must center student voices if they want to provide meaningful career exploration experiences and ensure that students enter high school with a clearer understanding of their career interests and how their education can help them reach their career goals. In our research, we found that most states have prioritized providing students with opportunities earlier in their education journey to explore and understand their career options. Our findings showed that state policies require different implementation approaches, including districts or schools facilitating career advising or academic planning services, developing and executing comprehensive counseling programs that deliver career advising, and providing career courses or CTE programs. These policies serve as the building blocks that help with career and education planning, but students need more. We heard it from our advisors directly: students want to have meaningful career exploration opportunities in school that align with their interests and connect to what they’re learning, and they want these experiences earlier in their educational journey.   

Read more quotes from our student advisors and dig deeper into the landscape findings and recommendations for state and local leaders in our full report: Extending the Runway A National Analysis of Middle School Career Exploration, or email to share more about your experiences with middle school career exploration.