Strengthening Career Planning Models in Connecticut's Middle and High Schools
By: Christina Langer (Growth Lab Associate at Harvard Kennedy School) and Katie Shultz (MPA 2022)
In 2020, the Connecticut Governor’s Office of Workforce Strategy set out a vision to increase workforce readiness for Connecticut’s youth, eager to develop a more coherent and universal strategy for supporting middle and high school students as they imagine and plan for life after graduation. School guidance counselors are a valuable asset in supporting students through their schooling experience, but large caseloads and ever-increasing job responsibilities mean that counselors often lack the capacity to support students in planning for what’s next.
During Spring 2021, our team from the Cross-Harvard Future of Work Study Group collaborated with the Connecticut Office of Workforce Strategy to explore alternative models of career planning and support to add to Connecticut’s statewide workforce development strategy. Our work aimed to 1) identify national and international best practices that Connecticut could implement 2) recommend digital tools that can complement existing career planning guidance approaches.
Our team started with assessing the status quo of career counseling in Connecticut’s K-12 school system. Since 2012, Connecticut’s approach to career guidance has been to require the development of a Student Success Plan (SSP). Each local and regional board of education is supposed to create a SSP for each student enrolled in a public school, beginning in grade six. The three pillars of the SSP are academic development, career development, and social, emotional & physical development. Currently, there is no coherent, standardized strategy across the around 200 school districts in Connecticut for implementing SSPs and thus for guiding the over 550,000 middle and high school students through their career planning processes. Naviance, a digital platform used as part of the SSP in some districts, is not uniformly implemented as a digital tool and seems to be underleveraged overall.
To gain an overview of career guidance models, our team collected information on successful existing programs, both from other states within the United States and also internationally. These included:
We evaluated peer programs based on a standardized set of criteria that we deemed important for a successful career-counseling program. This gave us the opportunity to identify opportunities to expand the SSP and to advise on how the SSP should be utilized going forward.
Target groups: Is the program well-suited for students in grades six through twelve?
Program scale and components: How many students can the program serve? Among potential components of career guidance programs–curricula, skill development, mentoring and / or digital tools – what does the program include?
Program owner: Is the program government led or run by a private institution?
Costs and resources needed: How many guidance counselors are needed for successful implementation of a program? What are the monetary costs for their training and the program overall?
Standardization and measuring success: Does this program enable a coherent statewide strategy? Are regular evaluations built into the program, with measurable benchmarks for success?
Our research identified essential pillars of strong career guidance programs that can be seen as best practices. These pillars are based on the largest programs with statewide implementation that proved success in prior evaluations. Each pillar was created by our team based on insights from our case studies and literature review, rather than empirical research methods; they are meant to serve as a reference point for strong components in next-generation career counseling.
Future Skills: Strong programs often start with showing the students which skills will be in high demand in the future. This helps them to build an understanding of why they should invest in learning so-called “future skills” and how they could benefit from obtaining them.
CT Talent Pipeline: Programs should map students to relevant skills. Skills and strengths assessments should include career path choices for students that are well-represented in Connecticut industries’ jobs forecasts. This ensures that a talent pipeline is created and skills are developed that enhance students’ career readiness in Connecticut.
Program Components: Strong programs combine multiple program components including career exploration, curricula, mentoring or work-based learning.
Employer Engagement: Getting employers involved is important for two reasons. First, students need opportunities to participate in career preparation activities like summer internships or field trips to companies to experience first hand how they can apply certain skills in practice. Second, employers determine which skills they need in the future, and can inform schools and guidance systems on which skills are in high demand. Getting them involved in career counseling increases the chance that students invest in developing in-demand skills for their particular region’s employers. Schools should work with employers to create meaningful opportunities for work-based learning.
Digital Tools: Career counselors often have a large caseload and ever-increasing responsibilities. If customized and tailored to the specific needs of a state, digital tools can be an excellent first source for students to inform themselves on potential career pathways.
Measuring Success: Strong programs need regular adjustments based on the feedback of all involved parties: Students, career counselors, school districts, employers, and parents.
With ever-increasing digitization, remote work, and remote learning options, effective digital tools must become an increasingly integrated part of career counseling. This includes 1) providing resources to educators, counselors, and parents that outline how digital tools can enrich existing resources and 2) requirements to provide high school career planning guidance in an integrated way.
In reviewing the use of digital tools in career guidance by other states and non-profit programs, we found a diverse set of approaches to the incorporation of new tools. Amidst a proliferation of private companies that have emerged in recent years to integrate career guidance resources into a digital user experience for students, schools, and parents, few of them have been adopted as part of statewide contracts. Those companies that have rolled out tools on a statewide basis are often too early in their contracts and rollout to provide clear or empirical results on student outcomes, and many of the user interfaces appear relatively complex rather than user-friendly.
One standout exception within this group is the State of Colorado, which issued a request for proposals to contract a custom curriculum and platform and fully integrated all of their state guidance resources – a more comprehensive answer than most states adopting a white-label private solution. In some other states without statewide digital provider contracts, the Department of Education served instead as resource aggregators, providing guides to digital resources for local school districts. Finally, we noted the importance of integrating equity considerations into the adoption of any digital tool given the persistent digital divide for many disadvantaged students.
Areas for Further Research and Planning
At the conclusion of our project, we gave recommendations to the Connecticut Office of Workforce Strategy on central topics for the future model for career counseling in the state.
To increase alignment of the education system with local and national workforce needs, Connecticut should enlist employers as partners in defining career pathways and identifying essential skills. The emphasis of their career counseling should be on holistic “integrated learning” - students mastering general academic and work skills through the study of a specific industry. As a consequence, Connecticut can set a high bar for career preparation programs, allowing all students to earn a recognized postsecondary credential.
To reach that goal, Connecticut can further improve on the usage of its currently used SSP. The next steps would be standardization across districts, the conceptualization of an employer engagement plan and the implementation of an integrated digital tool similar to ones already in place in other states (e.g., the above mentioned digital tool of My Colorado Journey). To leverage the usage and adoption of digital tools, resources need to be provided to educators, counselors, and parents. These resources can outline how digital tools can support and enrich existing career planning programs and promote integration with other student support services.