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College and career readiness in the middle grades.

The call to infuse college and career readiness across secondary education curricula is gaining momentum. In the Common Core State Standards, student learning objectives (K-12) are informed by College and Career Readiness (CCR) "anchor standards." President Obama (2010) referred to CCR as he urged educators to create a "new vision" that would help students build capacity for successful postsecondary opportunities. Recent national conferences, such as American Association of School Administrators, focused on issues such as "College-Going Data to Drive School Improvement." The call for CCR is clear. What is not as clear is how the call should be taken up in schools to best meet the developmental college and career needs and desires of students, especially students in the middle grades.

This research study focuses on the Career Institute (CI), a school-wide program designed to provide middle grades students with opportunities to explore their interests and abilities in relation to current educational experiences and future career and college goals. Now in its seventh year, the CI provides an example of how one school, in partnership with a local college, conceptualized, developed, and implemented a plan to help middle grades students acquire CCR skills. Following a description of the school, discussion of relevant literature, and overview of the program, we present findings related to a qualitative study of the CI that spans 2 years (2008-2010) and focuses on students in Grades 6-9.


In 2005, a new Early College High School (ECHS) opened in a diverse, urban community in the Northeastern United States. ECHSs are small public secondary schools that partner with colleges to develop rigorous, supportive programs that help students, particularly youths underrepresented in institutions of higher learning, earn a high school diploma and college credits. The "Inquiry School," as part of this broader movement, was created to recruit traditionally underserved and academically struggling students and prepare them for college. The school's mission of providing rigorous academic preparation, creating a college-going culture, and having students begin taking college courses while in high school, was well suited to the creation of a career development and college readiness program.

The school began with 83 sixth grade students, a school principal, five teachers, a school secretary, and a college-school liaison. (The college-school liaison is a university-employed administrator responsible for building the partnership between the school and college). The college-based planning committee for the school included the dean of education, the provost, and 15 college professors. One of the professors, a professor of counseling, was particularly involved in the school planning and convincingly argued that career development, which would include planning for college, needed to be an integral part of the school's academic program. The college liaison, an experienced middle school teacher and curriculum developer, also currently an education professor and first author of this paper, worked with the professor of counseling (second author) to develop lesson plans and activities that would facilitate middle school students' career development and college awareness. These activities, designed and implemented in the first year of the school, formed the foundation for what would become the "Career Institute."


According to a research report from American College Testing (ACT, 2008), students who do not meet crucial benchmarks in reading and math by the time they leave the eighth grade are likely to fall even further behind in high school. In fact, findings suggest that eighth grade achievement is the best predictor of college and career readiness. Based on the results of the study, ACT researchers strongly recommended that educators focus on building effective programs that improve students' CCR skills in middle school. Furthermore, as students in the middle grades need to begin making decisions that impact high school (Trusty, Niles, & Carney, 2005) as well as posthigh school educational and career options (Arrington, 2000; Trusty & Niles, 2003), providing students access to activities that help them explore their interests and abilities from a college and career perspective is particularly important.

Studies that examined the impact of career interventions on students' academic performance and school engagement indicators (Evans & Burck, 1992; Kenny, Bluestein, Haase, Jackson, & Perry, 2006) have provided support for the benefits of these types of interventions. For example, based on a meta-analysis of studies that examined the impact of career education on academic achievement, Evans and Burke (1992) concluded that participation in career education programs had a small but positive impact on student performance. In another meta-analysis that examined the impact of career-related interventions on students' school engagement, a construct that has been related to academic achievement, Kenny et al. (2006) reported that involvement in career education programs contributed to an increase in students' sense of engagement (e.g., belonging and valuing). Thus, support exists for the value of career-related interventions as a means to increase student involvement and success in school.

Research with adolescents has also demonstrated that career development interventions can have a positive impact on a number of factors related to students' college and career readiness such as career planning and exploration (O'Brien, Dukstein, Jackson, Tomlinson, & Kamatuka, 1999; Turner & Conkel, 2010; Turner & Lapan, 2005), career decision making (O'Brien, Bikos, Epstein, Flores, & Dukstein, 2000), and career knowledge (Baker, 2002). According to O'Brien et al. (1999), after participating in a series of classes designed to help Grade 7 students increase their awareness of career opportunities, teach them how explore careers, and conduct research on occupations, students reported significant increases in levels of awareness of career opportunities and confidence in their ability to explore and plan for future careers. In another study with middle school students, Turner and Lapan (2005) investigated the impact of a career intervention on career-related self-efficacy and students' interest in nontraditional careers (e.g., perceived gender appropriateness). The intervention consisted of providing participants with information on a variety of occupations (e.g., educational and work requirements), completing self-assessment activities (e.g., interests, efficacy beliefs) and engaging in group discussions. After engaging in the intervention, it was found that students reported increases in self-efficacy for career exploration planning as well as educational and vocational development. Students also demonstrated increased interest in nontraditional careers.

These results support the effectiveness of career interventions in developing the types of skills, knowledge and self-awareness that can enhance students' career and college readiness. Given the significant impact that career development interventions can have on students' overall development, including their academic skills and knowledge acquisition, greater efforts should be exerted to provide these types of interventions to all middle grades students. Working together, educators and administrators can facilitate students' ability to achieve academically while also attending to their social-personal development (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006).


In order to both build and study a career development program that was responsive to students and teachers and also helped meet the school's early college mission, we assumed a participatory action research (PAR) perspective. This perspective enabled us to combine what Brydon-Miller, Kral, Maguire, Noffke and Sabhlok (2010) call "theory and practice in cycles of action and reflection" (p. 387) to include all students and teachers as participants and remain alert for the need to adapt and change the program as needed (Arhar, 2007). By building and studying a program, we relied on "living knowledge" (Reason & Bradbury, 2001) to help us understand how well the program activities were or were not working and remain sensitive and responsive to the changing needs and desires of the school community. This lens made it possible for us to continue to study the program even as it changed from year to year--thus effectively eliminating any opportunity to design an experimental or causal-comparative study.


From the outset, it was absolutely critical that the school administrators, school counselor and teachers understood the relevance of the Career Institute and collaborated to develop, modify and expand the program's activities. The CI became a school-wide program after a team comprised of the professor of counseling, the school counselor and college liaison secured the support of the school principal and worked with teachers to explain how infusing career development and early college readiness across disciplines would help students' academic achievement. The professor and college-school liaison developed career development and college readiness themes for different grades and helped prepare the interventions. The activities, designed to be implemented over a 4-6 week period, would be delivered by teachers in advisory classes with support from the school counselor. Today, the CI activities continue to be shaped according to the needs and interests of the students, but the conceptual framework for the program is established. Activities for Grade 6 focus on exploration of the self. Students complete paper and pencil worksheets on which they explore concepts such as "What am I Good At," and "What do I like to Do." In Grade 7, the theme of personal exploration continues as students complete an interest inventory and reflect on how their interests and abilities can open up many opportunities in relation to work and college majors. Grades 8 and 9 continue the theme of exploration but with a research component: In Grade 8 students explore identified careers by researching information on the careers (e.g., education required, salary) and begin to construct career goals. In Grade 9 students research colleges and careers and set personal goals (e.g., skills to be developed, improving grades) that will help them prepare for the kinds of postsecondary opportunities that will best help them achieve their career goals. Throughout, teachers guide students in completing the activities and encourage dialogue about the results.

All students in each of the respective grades participate in the CI during their scheduled advisory period. Students are asked to complete a survey prior to beginning the CI activities and then again at the end. Teachers complete surveys at the end of the CI and also participate in debriefing sessions during which they are asked to share their insights and experiences.

Research Context and Participants

The Inquiry School, located in an urban community in Northeastern United States, has a student population of 573 students in Grades 6 through 12. Approximately 38% of the students are Asian (most from Southeast Asia--India and Pakistan), 26% are Hispanic, 18% Caucasian, and 17% African American. Fifty percent of the students speak another language at home. Twenty-five percent of students attending the school have Individual Education Plans, and over 65% qualify for free or reduced lunch. Ethnically and academically, the Inquiry School reflects the diversity of its urban community.

Researchers' Roles and Questions

An important aspect of PAR is an examination and reflection of the roles and relationships of the researchers within the community under study (Brydon-Miller et al., 2010). As researchers, we, the professor of counseling and the college-school liaison, were clearly not teachers or administrators. Rather, we were on the school-college planning committee and worked to develop different programs and projects inside the school. Our insider knowledge helped guide our development of CI interventions and gave us opportunities to assist the school counselor and teachers with the activities. Our research questions were necessarily open-ended so that we could be attuned to the progress of the program and adjust the goals and activities according to needs and interests. To that end, our research questions were embedded in the practice of building the CI.

* How can the CI help students prepare for college with a career goal?

* In what ways might CI activities help students think about their interests and abilities and how these relate to their educational and career goals?

Data Collection

Four kinds of data provided us with information that helped us plan, collaborate with teachers and school administrators, assess, and refine the CI program. We used informal observations, descriptive comments (Ely, 1991), artifacts, and open-ended surveys in order to employ a qualitative case study of a single site. Knowledge gained from ongoing data analysis resulted in action (modifying the program's components or schedule) and reflection (discussing ways the program could be more effective). Each kind of data provided us with a different lens.

Informal observations. As researchers and developers of the CI, we spent much time at the school and at least one of us was at the school every day during the CI. During the 4-6 weeks of the CI, we visited the classrooms during advisory and helped model and support classroom activities. Following the advisory period, we frequently met to discuss how we thought the activities were progressing and what teachers needed. The school counselor joined these conversations when available. We invited all teachers to lunch after completion of CI activities to gain feedback. We took extensive notes during these informal luncheon conversations and the school counselor was present for these debriefing meetings.

Descriptive comments. Each week the college liaison summarized the school activities in a "Weekly Update" that was circulated throughout the school community. During CI activities, these updates strived to provide a descriptive commentary that focused on students' and teachers' experiences with the CI program.

Artifacts. Although our extensive time in the field afforded us opportunities to observe student and teacher conversations and interactions, students' documentation of the activities helped us gain insight into how students were or were not engaged. Prior to starting CI activities, teachers were given a binder with lesson plans and handouts. At the end of the CI activities, teachers returned these binders with the completed student handouts and activities. At our request, many teachers marked the lesson plans with suggested revisions or ideas.

Surveys. Students in the school answered a series of open-ended questions before and after CI activities (see Appendix A). Each student in the school was given a special six-digit code for participation in the CI. These codes were matched at the end of the CI, and students' pre- and postanswers were analyzed. For the purposes of this study, we reviewed the answers of students in Grades 6-9 over a 2-year period and used only those surveys that matched codes for pre and post. In total, we analyzed 388 sets of student surveys. In the survey, students were encouraged to think about the connections among their interests, abilities and career goals as they answered questions before and after the CI interventions. Teachers answered one open-ended survey (see Appendix B) following CI activities. In total, 33 teacher surveys were analyzed. We used only those surveys from teachers who taught advisory in Grades 6-9. We examined 16 surveys from 2008-2009 and 17 from 2009-2010. The survey questions were designed to identify information that would help us improve the program and benefit students (Hostetler, 2005).

Data Analysis

Students' pre- and post-CI surveys were matched and analyzed. Separately, we open-coded survey answers, identifying tentative categories and tracking emerging patterns (Charmaz, 2000; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We each wrote analytic memos and created possible themes from pertinent data (Ely, 1991). Then, together, we examined survey answers again, looking across common categories to cocreate themes. Student artifacts (activity sheets completed during the CI part of advisory), descriptive comments, and informal observations enabled us to cross check data, comparing data with data (Charmaz, 2010) to gain a more nuanced understanding of recurring themes. After the data were interpreted and themes created, we presented emerging theoretical concepts for member checks with teachers at professional development sessions and at yearly informal teacher luncheon sessions. The resulting themes and relationships among them helped us build grounded theory (Charmaz, 2010).


Our first research question, "How can the Career Institute help students prepare for college with a career goal?" provides an overarching lens that helps define the purpose of the program's interventions. While we can speak to some of the ways that the CI specifically prepares students for college with career goals (addressed with specificity in our second research question) this first research question reflects the ongoing action research nature of this program and turns on the idea that preparing for college and career is a developmental process. This question helps us shape and reshape the program according to ongoing feedback from students, teachers and administrators. Specific findings related to the developmental process of preparing students for college with a career goal is addressed through our second research question, "In what ways might CI activities help students think about their interests and abilities and how these relate to their educational and career goals?" Our findings suggest that students are beginning to connect academic success and personal interests in the middle grades to greater options and possibilities for the future. A thematic discussion of these findings helps provide more insight into the ways that the CI interventions work to facilitate students' college and career development.

Several themes emerged from the pertinent data. In thinking about their interests and abilities and how these related to educational and career goals, we found that following their participation in CI activities, middle grades students (1) demonstrated an expanded and expanding sense of possibilities related to careers; (2) became more specific and realistic about possible career and college goals; and (3) became more reflective about college and career opportunities. While this section is organized by theme, we also look at how the findings cut across all grades; this allows us to interpret general trends occurring in the CI while the grade-specific findings allow us to theorize about the understandings that develop in age-specific environments. This section is followed by findings related to the advisory teachers' experiences with the CI activities.

Career and College Awareness: Students Expand Their Sense of What is Possible

Following participation in CI activities, students in all grades showed evidence of an increase in the number of ideas they had for careers and many students broadened their perspectives on what might be possible for their future careers (see Appendix C, Table 1). This finding was most marked among seventh grade students. All seventh grade students took the Self-Directed Search Career-Explorer (SDS-CE), an interest inventory designed to assess an individual's preferences based on Holland's (1997) typology. After completing the inventory, students obtained a two-letter code indicating their level of interest in realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional types of interests. This framework provided students with a lens through which to explore interest-related careers that they may not have considered previously. For example, one student described an actual career that she learned about through CI activities:
   I also learned that there were some other
   careers that I wasn't familiar with or that
   they're [sic] not common. One career that I
   wasn't familiar with was sociology. I never
   knew there were such things as sociology.

Other students learned not just about one career, but about many they considered of personal interest, suggesting an expansion of what occupations students might consider after participating in the CI:
   I learned that I like biology and music. I
   already realized that before but I realized it
   more afterwards. I learned I can be a doctor/
   physician, biologist/nurse/pianist/singer ...

Learning about different careers that were related and unrelated to their interests and abilities seemed to encourage students to think about different options for their future plans. In one artifact completed in advisory, a Grade 7 student wrote, "I've seen some jobs that I never heard about so it makes me think of more dreams."

The student above articulated the expanded sense of possibilities that led Grade 7 students to think about careers from very different fields. Students seemed aware of the fact that because these careers were so far in the future, it was possible to just consider, examine and contemplate them, as this student showed: "Some possible career fields that I would like to learn more about is how to be a teacher or how to be a construction worker. Just those two. Or maybe also an author. Just those three."

An expanded horizon of possibilities is developmentally appropriate and desirable for middle grade students. As they wondered about different possibilities and paths open to them, they also learned more about themselves. While this trend was evident in Grades 8 and 9 as well, the expanded horizons seemed less divergent. Instead of the teacher/construction worker pairing contemplated by a Grade 7 student, in Grades 8 and 9 students were more likely to think about an expanded horizon within more conventional parameters. For example, a Grade 8 student said, "I want to becomes [sic] a lawyer because I enjoy studying the subject of law." After CI activities, the student still claimed the idea of lawyer as a career path, but added "doctor" and "engineer." In another example of an expanded sense of career possibilities, a student moved from his pre-CI idea that "I'm interested in learning about law, and the things needed to be successful in law and medical" to a post-CI wondering, "the things that I'm interested in is, mathematics, law and history, and lastly science." Again, these responses suggest that students are becoming more thoughtful and thinking more broadly about possibilities.

There were some surveys that were left blank, leaving it impossible to determine if or how students expanded their sense of possible careers, but other students provided interesting discrepant cases: One student claimed that the CI was a "waste of time," because "I already know what I want to do." We had seen this issue surface during CI discussions, so we were not surprised when this emerged in some surveys. In the classroom, we addressed students' criticism of the program with requests to think beyond a single career such as "doctor." Some students remained adamant about their chosen career focus. Additionally, not all Grade 7 students wanted to use the inventory results to explore careers. Two students complained about their Holland's code. One said she felt "categorized," and the other wrote, "I felt like a monkey trapped in a cage." Although both of these students received information on Holland's typology, they felt upset by being identified by a code.

Career and College Awareness: Students Become More Specific About Future Goals

Following CI activities, students tended to consider college and careers with a more specific and realistic focus. Students' ideas for careers became more focused on personal interests, and their understanding of college became more central to their thinking about careers. They began to cite the importance of their academic goals in relation to their ideas for careers, and college was understood as a means of achieving one's future goals. As we will see, the nature of these goals differed by grade. There were three categories of specificity related to students' discussion of future goals: First, they became more specific about career goals in relation to going to college; second, they became more specific about their academic goals; and third, they began to consider possible specific barriers to their future goals. Although we pull these strands apart in order to frame the findings in terms of the theme, they are related in interesting ways that will be discussed in the next section.

Students relate specific career goals to college. In Grade 6 we found that students tended to think in grand terms about their future goals, and this grand thinking did not change after participating in CI activities: Students still cited certain sports, dancing, having fun, and playing games as future career goals. There were two differences in their responses following CI activities. First, their considerations took on a more realistic and specific component, and second, many began to recognize the importance of college. For example, prior to participating in CI activities, one grade 6 student wrote that he "wanted to start a baseball career out of high school." After participating in CI activities, he wrote that he would still "go into athletics, getting drafted from high school, [but] I'd still go to college."

The connection between sports and possible careers remained a feature among some Grade 7 students, but college became more of a factor. For example, prior to CI activities one student wrote that he "would go to college because I want to be a soccer player." After CI activities he wrote, "I would go to college then become a soccer player." The value of college remained an evolving concept for students, and became an important part of their thoughts about future goals.

Students relate specific academic goals to college and career. Students in Grades 7-9 became more specific about how they might achieve their goals; for example, many began to cite math and science as the subjects they needed to improve in most in order to effectively pursue their academic interests. One student, for example, after claiming that "nothing" would keep him from college, after CI activities acknowledged that he needed to improve on "the amount of time I have to devote to studying." Another student demonstrated increased specificity and greater aspirations in career considerations, moving from "nurse" and "vet" on his pre-CI survey to "psychologist, doctor, vet, teacher" in the postsurvey. He finally acknowledged, at the end of the survey, that he needed to improve his grades specifically in math and science in order to successfully pursue his careers.

Among all grades there was a pronounced interest in careers that were science and math based. This remained fairly consistent pre and post CI activities, but after CI students were likely to become more specific about the career or demonstrate greater knowledge about math/science related careers, as this Grade 8 student did when she moved from thinking about a career in "something in medicine" to "cardiologist, MD, psychologist." A Grade 9 student shifted from "doctor/nurse" to "medical field, ex: family doctor." Another Grade 9 student initially listed lawyer and engineer as careers, but after CI became more focused on "lawyer, computer engineer, architect."

Students raise realistic and specific concerns about college. Prior to CI, students in Grades 7-9 tended to write that "nothing" would keep them from college, but after CI, specific concerns emerged, that is, grades, location, and family (see Appendix C, Table 2). Many wrote that they would go to a local college, expressing sentiments like, "I want to stay with my family." In Grade 9, concern about getting accepted to college was acknowledged as one student admitted, "Bad grades might keep me from going to college." In Grade 9, students continued to demonstrate concerns about their grades and leaving their family, but worries about leaving friends also emerged, as well as issues of motivation, laziness, and "not being good enough." These responses of students in Grades 7-9 reflected a growing sense of personal responsibility for some of the potential barriers to college, such as work ethic and studying. Following the CI, students in Grades 7-9 became more reflective about present and future concerns, and their concerns indicated a trend in their willingness to accept a certain amount of responsibility for success or failure in getting to college.

While students in Grades 7 through 9 showed a trend towards considering the question of college/career in a way that acknowledged specific, realistic concerns, the trend in Grade 6 was somewhat different. Interestingly, in the 2 years of data examined, it was found that most students in Grade 6 did not really understand the question, "If money were not a concern, what might keep you from going to college?" Before CI activities, Grade 6 students responded with phrases like, "I want to go to college because I want ... to be smart." After CI activities, some students in Grade 6 moved towards understanding the actual question and indicated that "grades" might keep them from college, but few students moved towards acknowledging the same kinds of realistic concerns exhibited in Grades 7-9, suggesting that perhaps students at this age and grade may be at the cusp of developmental readiness in terms of contemplating the importance of college and careers goals.

It should be noted that not all students became more specific in their thinking about career goals, current academic achievement and possible future concerns. Some students kept the same goal focus, and others, perhaps tired of answering the questions on the survey, left some questions blank.

Career and College Awareness: Students Become Self-Reflective

Grade 6 activities asked students to consider their interests and abilities and relate these to careers. Their post-CI survey responses demonstrated an understanding of occupations and the need to focus on academics, but few students in this grade responded to survey questions in a way that would indicate a growing disposition to self-reflect. For example, sixth grade students focused on external concerns (e.g., family problems, getting good grades) as barriers to college and careers without considering their own role or contribution to the concern. This stance contrasted with Grades 7 through 9, where, post-CI, students also identified grades and family issues but began to examine and consider their own role in overcoming problems or achieving goals. Students in Grade 7, for example, demonstrated that they appreciated how understanding what they were good at related to possible future careers and also helped open up opportunities for self-understanding.
   What I learned about myself from completing
   the SDS-CE was that I'm a type of person
   that's good at using my brain than hand work.
   When it comes to careers that uses brain [sic],
   it fits me. I also learned that I am an investigator
   and I think I fit being an investigator.
   Why? Because I like to learn things by
   myself, I like to learn, and I always believe
   that there's an answer to everything. I have a
   hobby of finding answers to everything. I
   love to do research and get answers to my
   question [sic]. That it told me that the carrer
   [sic] I wanted was a good choice for me.

   That when I grow up I really want to be a
   teacher or construction worker. Also I am
   very realistic. When I am going through a
   hard situation at home I don't pretend that
   everything is good. I also like to be very
   social. I like to talk to people a lot. I also
   understand them.

Other students considered their interests and abilities as a starting point for reflection:
   I learned that I could be a designer or archetic
   [sic]. I love doing artistic stuff so I knew I
   would enjoy this profession ... I would like
   to learn more about the arts because I always
   found them so interesting and amazing
   because I just love to draw and paint.

Students spoke in terms of what they learned they were "good at," but did not fully tie that stance to career development. They felt good just learning more about themselves:
   My reactions to the results are very satisfying
   because the SDS-CE picked out my personality
   as how it pin-point [sic] my own personality.
   I also, found out that I am self-confident.

In Grades 8 and 9, self-reflection was identified as a theme when students demonstrated understanding of their interests and abilities in relation to career and/or academic development. It was found that following CI activities, students were more open to thinking about the future and more willing to engage in introspection about their role in academics and careers (see Appendix C, Table 2). For example, prior to the CI activities, a Grade 8 student wrote that "lower grades" might prevent him from achieving. After participating in the CI, he writes from a personal perspective about what might keep him from achieving: "Probably my behavior and attitude towards a lot of work." He continues by trying to communicate what he's learned about himself: "When I get stressed out with a lot of work, I go crazy and mad." In this example, the student and advisory teacher get a glimpse of some of the complex feelings that go into the "lower grades" that worry the student.

Most students moved towards a more thoughtful view of the future through the lens of themselves. Upon reflection, many students felt that they were lazy, lacked motivation, or needed more confidence. Others expressed a desire to please parents, but it was the self-reflective aspect of the answers in the post-survey that was most striking. For example, one student wrote that a possible barrier to college might be the "grades that I get." After CI activities, this moved to a more considered, self-reflective position. His admission that "the lack of me paying attention during class" might present a barrier to college indicated an acceptance or understanding of his own role in the grade-getting.

After experiencing the CI, students began to link important pieces of their personal/social development to academic and career development. The CI experience helped students develop a comprehensive sense of their interests and abilities and understand how these related to academic and career development.

Advisory Teachers' Perspectives

Teachers who served as advisors and carried out the CI interventions in their advisory classes voluntarily and anonymously completed surveys after the final piece of the CI and offered verbal feedback during debriefing sessions. Two themes were created from analysis of the advisory teachers' surveys: (1) CI helps students prepare for college with career goals and (2) the CI activities should be extended. Both themes express support for the career development activities and a belief that the activities help students think about their interests and abilities in relation to future academic and career goals.

CI helps students prepare for college with career goals. The sixth and seventh grade teachers' comments reflected the program's focus on exploration. A Grade 6 teacher wrote, "It is helping students to explore areas of interest that they may not have otherwise considered." A Grade 7 teacher echoed this theme of exploration: "the students AND ME[C] [sic] are able to become aware of what the world has to offer them!"

Grade 8 teachers worked with students to explore colleges and careers through online resources, and their observations reflected the students' desire to continue to explore their interest and abilities, particularly in relation to college and career. One teacher wrote, "Students see a better connection to what they do in school, the messages they get from adults to their future." Another Grade 8 teacher noted, "It [Career Institute] reminds students that their present capabilities inform their future endeavors." Over lunch, one teacher explained why students might have been thinking about the future: "The 8th grade products were important. Students found out how much money they could make ... this grade really enjoyed it. They were especially interested in how much money they could make and what college they could go to."

Grade 9 teachers frequently cited the early college mission of the school when talking about how the CI impacted students. Most students at the Inquiry School began taking their first college class (offered in-school and during the day) in the ninth grade, and these teachers in particular expressed the importance of students' understanding the connections among their current school work, college opportunities, and careers. As one Grade 9 teacher stated, "It gets the students aware of what it takes to decide on a college choice based on the career they are interested in. It also gives support to the college classes they are involved in." Another Grade 9 teacher asserted, "Students at [Inquiry School] are taking college credits; therefore it is a great idea to discuss with them higher education opportunities." The CI helped support students in their college classes by helping them see the importance of the work they do now and understand how their current work affected future options. "Even when students are not engaged," one teacher wrote, "it sends the message that we are a college bound school."

CI activities should be extended. On surveys, most teachers recommended that the Career Institute be allotted more time in the school to help make it more effective. This sentiment was echoed in the teacher interviews, with several teachers asking that lessons "be expanded." Teachers wanted more professional development around career development and more information about careers included in the lessons. A Grade 6 teacher wrote, "There needs to be more scaffolding around the abstract concepts and ideas," and a Grade 9 teacher agreed: "I think it would be great to do a little "PD" by grade level to review all the materials and expected outcomes." Other suggestions included more variation in lessons, connecting CI lessons more closely with the school schedule, and redoing some lessons plans to make activities more engaging. The idea that teachers could begin to infuse career development activities into their own subject areas was not reflected in the surveys but did emerge in the informal lunch debrief:

Teacher A: We're supposed to tie science careers into our curriculum. The CI helps. I also had 6th grade for the first time [everyone laughs] and I found them eager and willing. They did not give me a hard time. They wanted to go deeper into the subjects. They wanted to go online and pick out careers.

Researcher: Career development is supposed to be a part of the school curriculum ... has anyone been able to include this in their lessons?

Teacher A: The portfolio topics were related to what students are interested in, so perhaps this can be interrelated

Teacher B: The middle school expositions are briefly discussed but not about careers. Maybe they could be tied more tightly (Teacher Feedback, 1.22.10).

The teachers' ideas to integrate discipline-based career development activities into their curricula were a key component to the success of real and meaningful career development. Although the 4 to 6 week intervention activities were important, the ongoing messages from subject area teachers who built career development opportunities into their courses helped truly make this a school-wide program.


Our research supports findings that demonstrate that students who are exposed to career development activities begin to develop an expanded sense of career options (O'Brien et al., 1999). Additionally, we found that students become more reflective and realistic about their college and career options and what they need to do to succeed. This finding suggests that while middle grades students' overall development may be enhanced through career exploration interventions (Turner & Conkel, 2010, Turner & Lapan, 2005), career interventions may also engage middle grades students in the self-reflective process of becoming aware of who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing today and in the future.

Students demonstrate, over time, an increased awareness of careers, a greater level of specificity regarding their preferred career path, and a willingness to consider how their interests and abilities figure in their future. In Grade 6, students think about their interests and abilities and begin to touch on how this might influence or inform a future career or college major. While in this grade, students still imagine a future that involves activities having to do with sports, dancing, having fun and playing games, our findings suggest that students in this grade do begin to see that college and careers are important, and this understanding helps set the foundation for the next year's activities.

As students move into Grade 7, their considerations begin to change. They become more concerned about "doing well," particularly in math and science, and begin to connect academic grades to greater chances for college/career success. We see, in this finding, how college and career awareness becomes part of students' thinking about specific future goals. They reflect on their interests and abilities and begin to tie these to college majors and career paths. In Grade 8, students continue to demonstrate a concern for grades, and they begin to understand that their math and science grades need to improve if they are going to be successful in pursuing, as many of them indicate, a career in science (i.e., doctor, vet, dentist, biochemist, neurosurgeon). As students reflect on their career aspirations and their grades, they begin to see that their academic struggles in math and science might limit their opportunities. These concerns coalesce in Grade 9, as students continue to cite concerns about college and careers, but also consider how issues of motivation, laziness, not paying attention or not "doing the work" might impact their future opportunities.

We also saw discrepant cases: Not all students expanded their horizon of career possibilities. Two students felt constrained by Holland's typology, suggesting that perhaps the CI activities needed to include better explanations of how Holland's type codes may be used to open up career possibilities, not shut them down. Other students claimed they already had a firm career plan in mind. These students in particular would benefit from including more career perspectives into their thoughts about the future to ensure that they have the information they need to make decisions and not limit themselves. Fortunately, at the Inquiry School students receive interventions related to the CI throughout high school. At some point we hope that perhaps by listening to others' dreams of possibilities, the one-track career focused students will also expand their career horizon.

The findings related to the advisory teachers suggest that teachers, specifically in the role of "advisor," played an important role in facilitating students' college and career development. Teachers believed that the interventions helped prepare students for college with a career goal, and teachers actively recommended changes in the CI activities to facilitate greater student participation. Their ideas and suggestions helped move the interventions out of advisory and into other areas of school life.

This research helps us see the possibilities for academic and personal growth among middle grades students who participate in college readiness and career development activities. The CI interventions help students envision possibilities for the future. This focus on career development can facilitate students' academic growth and encourage them to take more responsibility for their academic progress. A focus on college and careers can help students become more aware of their preferences, possibilities and passions, and can lead to more involvement in school and other activities.


Although as researchers we were both "in the field," our primary source of data was limited to the student survey, and this posed some problems. Some students left answers blank, or addressed the questions with "IDK" ("I don't know"). Some students complained about the survey and refused to answer the questions. Recently, an advisory teacher told us that one of her students deliberately "sabatoged" the survey, putting down answers that would make his friends laugh. This study could be enhanced by adding an interview component. Interviews would help us understand more of the complex processes students engage in as they consider their future and begin to make decisions. Case studies of middle grades students engaged in career development activities might also help us develop a more nuanced view of their career development.

There is also a strong need in the literature for longitudinal studies. It would be interesting to see ways in which students' engagement in career development activities in the middle grades might influence high school choices and college-going decisions. A longitudinal look might also help us answer questions such as: Are students who engage in career development activities more ready for college? Do they enter college with realistic goals and ideas for college majors? Does participation in college and career readiness activities before college increase academic success and impact college completion? Given the recent emphasis on college and career readiness skills in the CCSS, we need studies that give us deeper insights and understandings of how children think about and plan for college and career.


Career development interventions in the schools can provide a powerful vehicle through which to engage students in the process of becoming aware of who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing today and in their future. As educators begin to imagine how the CCSS anchor standards can be envisioned in a way that enriches the common core state standards, it is important to have examples of work that has already been systematically integrated into a school-wide curriculum. This research provides a way for educators, especially at the middle grades level, to imagine how a school-wide program that fosters college and career readiness may be integrated into the academic curriculum of the school.


Pre-CI Activities and Post-CI Activities Open-Ended Questions

1. If money were not a concern, what might keep you from going to college?

2. What specific activities do you enjoy or are particularly interested in? Please list.

3. What subjects to you need to do better in so that you will do well in college? Please list.

4. Please list all the careers or jobs that you are thinking about for your future. If you don't know the exact name of the career/job, please describe it.

5. What subjects do you need to do better in so that you will do well in your future career/job goals? Please list.


Postcareer Institute Activities Teacher Survey Questions

1. Did you feel that the CI is having an overall impact on achieving [school name] vision and mission? Please explain.

2. Which activities carried out for your grade advisory were the most/least engaging for students? Please explain.

3. What challenges did you encounter in carrying out the CI activities?

4. In what ways do you think you can be provided greater support in carrying out the CI activities?

5. Please share any further thoughts and recommendations that you have about the CI at [school name].

Appendix C
Sample responses from Grades 6, 7, 8 and 9: Please list all the
careers or jobs that you are

 Student        Precareer Institute        Postcareer Institute
                      Survey                      Survey

6th grade    Engineer, artist            Lawyer, seargeant [sic],
                                         biotechnician, engineer,

6th grade    I want to be a speech       Sociologist, media
             therapist, wedding          announcer, speech
             planner, or News anchor     therapist

7th grade    Doctor or nurse             Doctor (pediatrician)

7th grade    An mma [Mixed Martial       SWAT, army, cop, comedian
             Arts], perfesional [sic]
             risk taker

8th grade    Graphic design, pastry      Baker, author, graphic
             chef, Teacher, architect,   designer, chef,
             artist                      illustrator, comic artist

8th grade    Nuerologist [sic],          Nuerosurgeon [sic],
             cardiosurgeon,              cardiologist, MD,
             prosecutor, something in    psychologist, criminal
             medicine or law/politics    prosecutor, broadcast

9th grade    doctor/nurse                medical field, ex: family

9th grade    Lawyer, engineer            Lawyer, computer
                                         engineer, architect

Table 2
Sample responses from Grades 6, 7, 8 and 9: If money were not a
concern, what might keep you from going to college?

 Student        Precareer Institute        Postcareer Institute
                      Survey                      Survey

7th grade    Nothing is keeping me       Family problems
             from college

7th grade    Nothing can prevent me      Family matters, location
             from going to college

8th grade    Nothing would keep me       A few issues and concerns
             from going to college       would be family issues,
                                         time and other problems

8th grade    Nothing would keep me       Location might keep me
             from going to college if    from going to college
             money were not a concern

8th grade    My grades on big tests      I think the lack of me
             and                         paying attention during

9th grade    Nothing would keep me       If my family and my
             from going to college       parents didn't support my
                                         career choice

9th grade    I don't know                The studying or not
                                         knowing what I want to do

9th grade    Nothing                     If money were not a
                                         concern ... having a lack
                                         of motivation ... will
                                         probably keep me from


Questions Incorporated Into Lessons From Grade 7

1. What are your reactions (thoughts, feelings, and questions) to the results you obtained on the Self Directed Search-Career Explorer? (SDS-CE)

2. What have you learned about yourself from completing the SDS-CE?

3. What have you learned about possible careers?

4. What are some possible careers you would like to learn more about?


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Mary Beth Schaefer

St. John's University, Lourdes

Lourdes M. Rivera

Queens College, City University of New York

Mary Beth Schaefer, Assistant Professor in Curriculum and Instruction, St. John's University, Sullivan Hall 427, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Jamaica, NY 11439. Telephone: (718)-997-1306. E-mail:
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Author:Schaefer, Mary Beth; Rivera, Lourdes M.
Publication:Middle Grades Research Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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