Infusing career relevance with CareerStart

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”           —Nelson Mandela

In 1994, Nelson Mandela remarked that no one in his family had ever attended school. He recalled his first day of school and how his teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him his name. This name would eventually become known around the world. Mandela’s education jumpstarted his career in activism and politics. Dr. Dennis Orthner, a Professor of Social Work and Education and the Director of the CareerStart Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, leads an effort to expose other students to career possibilities that they, much like Mandela, may have never considered.

What is CareerStart?

According to Dr. Orthner, CareerStart is a program for infusing career relevance into the core curricula in middle schools (math, science, language arts, and social studies).

Dr. Dennis Orthner

Dr. Dennis Orthner

Career-linked lessons illustrate course content with applications to future careers, including those in the industries represented in the labor markets in which the schools reside. Students in classrooms operating with CareerStart principles regularly get answers to those often-asked questions: “Who really uses this information in the real world?” and “When will I ever really use this information when I leave school?”

A November 2012 evaluation explains the rationale for CareerStart, citing research on value-expectancy and possible selves theories. The basic hypothesis Orthner and his colleagues used was that students who received more job and career illustrations from their core teachers in math, science, English and social studies would:

  1. Report higher psycho-social engagement in and valuing of their educations;
  2. Demonstrate fewer behavioral problems that might interrupt their education;
  3. Record higher test scores in their core subjects;
  4. Maintain improved academic progress in high school; and
  5. Gain more credits toward graduation.

Orthner believed that these outcomes would lead to higher rates of school retention and lower dropout rates. CareerStart data—as reported in the January 2013 issue of The Journal of Educational Research—indicate that students in the program were indeed able to see the relevance of their education and were more likely to believe that school is important and to behave in ways that support their engagement. Evaluation results also show that for students at the end of 8th grade, those who were in the CareerStart program scored higher in reading and math than other students studied.

Want to know more about CareerStart?

Just like Nelson Mandela may not have known his career path when he first started school, many students may not know themselves. However, the key is to expose students to a variety of career options and to let students know that there are so many possibilities. To learn more about the program, read CareerStart: A proven approach to middle-school success. So, teachers, what careers will you help start?

Researcher bio

Dennis Orthner is Associate Director for Policy Development and Analysis at the Jordan Institute for Families. His professional interests include human services design and evaluation, public welfare and family policy and issues concerning military families.