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.

Immigrant students in the 21st century

Immigration has long been a heated topic in the United States, and schools are often at the center of debates. We are seeing a drastic rise in the number of immigrant students in our classrooms today. This new population of students brings with it a new set of challenges. To help address the needs of today’s immigrant students, Dr. Xue Lan Rong, professor of social studies education and sociology of education at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education, and Dr. Judith Preissle, professor at the University of Georgia, draw on census data and current educational research to make recommendations for educators in their book, Educating Immigrant Students in the 21st Century: What Educators Need to Know.

A Brief history of immigration in the United States

Immigration patterns in the United States is widely seen as happening in four distinct waves. The first wave was between 1790 and 1820 and was primarily comprised of British and northern Europeans. The second wave ran until 1860 as the U.S. was undergoing rapid industrialization and expansion. This wave was primarily comprised of Irish and German immigrants. The third wave was comprised of mostly southern and eastern Europeans and ended in 1914. Immigration to the U.S. was then slowed by World War I and the introduction of an immigration policy that set quotas for the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. based on their country of origin. This was in efforts to maintain the dominance of northern and western Europeans in the U.S.’s ethnic balance. Immigration was further slowed by the Great Depression and World War II. The fourth wave of immigration didn’t start until the quota system for immigration was done away with in 1965. This wave is still running and is widely dominated by Hispanic and Asian immigrants.

Facts about immigrant children

In 2005 there were approximately 11 million children who were considered to be children of immigrants. That is roughly 20 percent of all school-aged children in the United States. A majority of immigrant children experience more social and economic difficulties than native-born children. For example, immigrant children tend to have challenges in English proficiency and are more likely to be poor and to live in inner-city areas. As a result, immigrant families often live in racially, ethnically, and linguistically segregated neighborhoods. Compared with the general school-age population, immigrant children in general and within each racial-ethic group were more likely to have physical disabilities and less likely to have health insurance.

Immigration and schools

Schools are regarded to be the most important social institution for absorbing new immigrants; there are few other institutions as directly affected by immigration as our nation’ s schools. These children bring different life experiences and beliefs, cultural communication patterns, languages, and educational traditions with them when they go to school. However, U.S. public education has, historically, widely rejected maintaining the heritage language and cultural values of immigrant children. Instead, there has been an emphasis on a rapid Americanization in curricula and instruction aimed at assimilating immigrants to the norms of the dominant culture. This subtractive model approach positions the immigrant students as having multiple deficits and facing many unnecessary obstacles in finding academic success.

The current emphasis on testing in our schools is particularly difficult for immigrant students because it requires rapid English acquisition and quick cultural adjustment regardless the age of arrival, age-appropriate education attainment before the entrance of U.S. school, etc. Immigrant students bring a wide diversity of individual strengths, knowledge, and cultural identity to the classroom that these tests place a diminished value on. It’s important that teachers find ways to celebrate and develop these differences. To do this, it is important to keep in mind the needs of immigrant students at different ages. From birth to age 8, children start to develop a strong self-consciousness and sense of identity. It is important to involve parents during this time to find the best path and program for their children. During middle childhood, it is critical to help children understand how experiences with racism can influence the paths of their academic futures and career aspirations. This will help them negotiate barriers they may encounter. Through adolescence, it is important that immigrant students have access to programs focused on helping students finish school, acquire work skills, postpone parenthood, and keep physically and mentally healthy. This can help empower students to overcome barriers of unsafe neighborhoods, family poverty, and lack of health insurance or inadequate access to health care. To work with immigrant students of any age, community outreach is an important strategy.

So what?

In recent years, North Carolina has become a leading New Gateway state for immigration and has seen drastic increases in immigrant populations. Compared to the traditional gateway states, schools and educators in the New Gateway states are facing more and different challenges, such as a higher percentage of recent immigrants, newer immigrant ethnic communities with less resource, more demanding on language and other services, etc. It is imperative that we seek to better understand and serve the growing number of immigrant students we are seeing in our classrooms. Educating Immigrant Students in the 21st Century: What Educators Need to Know offers insightful and informed recommendations or how to best serve our growing immigrant population for educators at all levels. More of Dr. Rong and Dr. Preissle’s recommendations will be explored in future postings here on The Well.

Tips from Dr. Rong

Understand how the demographics are changing.
Before any of us are able to plan effective strategies for working with our immigrant students, we must first understand their social and economic profiles. Only then will we be able to make sound social and educational decisions that have our students’ best interests in mind.
Be empathetic.
Immigrant children are often in a very difficult situations. Their home culture may not be aligned or be conflicted with the dominant culture in schools. Adding to this situation, they are in a country where issues of immigration are highly political and emotionally charged. It is important that we, as teachers, are able to put aside our personal opinions about the politics of immigration and do whatever we can to help every single student in our classrooms grow and learn. It is also important that educators take an additive approach, i.e. recognizing the strengths in immigrant cultures and help these students learn based on the knowledge they have. It is important that we recognize the situation our immigrant students are in and identify what we can do to help them find success in our classrooms.
Act now.
The United States has entered a new era of immigration. Recent immigrants and their children now comprise more than 20 percent of the population in the U.S. The time to act is now. The immigrant population has been overlooked in our schools for too long.

Researcher bio

Dr. Rong’s 25-year career includes teaching, research, consultative and administrative experience in the United States and China, including six years as a K-12 literature, history and geography teacher in rural and urban areas of the People’s Republic of China. Inspired to make a real difference in children’s lives and the society in which they live, she uses interdisciplinary research to explore three aspects of educational equality: the education of immigrant children of various ethnic groups; the education of Asian-American children and education in China – especially the education of migrant children in China’s urbanization movement. Dr. Rong’s major contributions to her field include elaborations on theories that conceptualize the relationship between variable educational achievement patterns and the multiple stages of children’s socialization into American society. Her more recent studies attempt to link the updated theories and research findings to educational policies and practices. This research seeks to provide recommendations for schools, immigrant families and their communities so they can help immigrant children adjust to school and society.

A full biography can be found on the School of Education website

Connecting classroom and career

“It’s not like I’m ever going to use this stuff.” At this point, I can’t count how many times I have heard that commentary. It always seemed to come up more frequently when we were reading Shakespeare. If I wasn’t able to do some fast thinking and provide a clear connection, I would get to see the eyes glaze over as the student slumped in his or her seat and proceeded to zone out.

I recently spoke with Dr. Dennis K. Orthner, professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, and Dr. Patrick Akos, associate professor of school counseling at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, about a program that makes explicit the connections between classroom content and career.


CareerStart is a middle-school strategy that focuses on promoting the relevance of core curriculum courses by relating the content of the course to career and job skills in the community. By promoting the relevance of the required core courses, the program seeks to increase student interest and engagement. The overarching goal of CareerStart is to positively influence the educational and career trajectories of all students, but especially those at risk of school failure.

Currently, over 600 teachers in seven school districts in North Carolina are using CareerStart lessons with over 30,000 students. The lessons illustrate the application of the core content in the professions of the surrounding community. By connecting to real-life scenarios, the CareerStart lessons can help students better see the connections between the content areas. For instance, language arts and math content are both applicable to fields of business and management. These connections don’t stop with the classroom; CareerStart emphasizes the involvement of parents, caregivers, other school professionals, and the community.

Lesson plans

A series of CareerStart sample lesson plans were written through a system of recommendation and peer review. There are ten sample lessons for each of the four content areas in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Each of these sample lessons were designed for a one- or two-day student experience and have been updated and modified for the 2011-2012 school year. The lesson plans will also be update to be in line with the new Common Core and NC Essential Standards rolling out in the fall of 2012.

Because the CareerStart lesson plans are aligned with the state standards, they don’t ask teachers to teach things they don’t already teach. They just add a focused illustration of how the content is used in a professional line of work. For instance, a sixth-grade lesson on sound waves (NC SCOS science standard 6.03) asks the question, “why does someone with a job in music need to understand the elements of sound?”

One of the great things about the lesson plans associated with CareerStart is that they are not designed as a lock-step system. Teachers can scaffold and customize the lesson plans to meet their own teaching style and their students’ needs. As it is important to highlight local professions, teachers are encouraged to modify these lessons as well as to create their own.

The LEARN NC website houses a body of lesson plans for each level:

CareerStart research

A long-term study to determine the impact of CareerStart is being conducted. This research, involving over 7,800 students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, compares students attending middle schools that implement CareerStart to students at schools that do not. The current data tracks the students through middle school and on into high school. This research data shows that schools where CareerStart is implemented have students who are more engaged in their academic studies, have fewer unexcused absences, are less likely to get in trouble or suspended, and achieve higher test scores in reading and math. When these CareerStart students get to high school, they perform better on end-of-course tests, and have more credits toward graduation than their peers who did not receive CareerStart instruction.

So what?

Many studies have shown that student engagement begins to decline in sixth grade. CareerStart is a research-proven method that can combat this disengagement and increase the academic achievement of all students. Unlike some popular reform movements, CareerStart does not ask teachers to radically change the way they teach and conduct business in their own classrooms.


Ask your students about their career hopes.
Nearly all teachers recognize that students want to know how they will be able to use classroom content in the real world. But students are more interested than we realize in how classroom topics connect to their future careers. This is especially true for middle-school students. So engage them in that conversation.
Career orientation starts as soon as classes are selected.
While middle-school students aren’t typically ready to commit to a career, they are making life-long career decisions as soon as they start selecting their own classes. Students don’t often realize or recognize the impact their class choice can have on their future trajectory.
It can’t just be a guidance counselor thing.
Career education is something that all teachers teach, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our students take the things we teach them to their future jobs and careers. Making the explicit connections between academic content and career possibilities can’t be an effort that is undertaken only by the guidance counselors.

Researcher Bios

Dr. Patrick Akos

Dr. Akos’s research is conceptually based in strengths-based school counseling and centers on how school counselors can promote optimal development in early adolescence. In particular, his work articulates strategies to promote strengths and protective factors for students in middle school. In addition to his coauthored SBSC text, Dr. Akos has written broadly on developmental topics such as body image, racial identity, and resiliency; as well as education and counseling topics including aspiration gaps, differentiating classroom guidance, math placement in middle school, group work in schools, and the impact of counseling programs on academic achievement in middle schools.

A full biography for Dr. Patrick Akos can be found on the School of Education website.

Dr. Dennis K. Orthner

Dr. Orthner is a professor in the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill, Associate Director for Policy Development and Analysis at the Jordan Institute for Families, and the NC Program Director for CareerStart. His research interests include human services design and evaluation, public welfare and family policy, family strengths, and military families.

More information about Dr. Dennis K. Orthner can found on the School of Social Work website.

Struggling in silence: A look at struggling adolescent readers

Have you ever been really shocked by a student’s performance on a test?

Jill always seemed to be on top of things. She asked good questions while we read through the chapter, and she used the new sticky-note method we talked about in class last week.

Or maybe you were not surprised at all.

Robert just isn’t ever engaged in what’s going on. He is super social with everyone when we aren’t doing work, but as soon as we start he seems to shut down. I told him to let me know if he was having trouble with the content and I could help him, but he never said anything. It’s pretty clear that he just doesn’t care.

Leigh Hall

These students may struggle with reading comprehension. Jill demonstrates the traits of a “good reader,” adopting practices she has been taught are good reading practices in order to be seen as a good student. Robert knows that he struggles with reading comprehension but doesn’t want to be seen by his peers as a poor reader, so instead he silences himself.

Dr. Leigh A. Hall, associate professor of literacy studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, conducts research on struggling adolescent readers. Her work emphasizes the importance of reader identity and provides insights that can help teachers work with their students.

Struggling reader identity

Reading identity refers to how a student, or any reader, sees their reading ability as well as what this ability means in different contexts. In the classroom, students know who the “good” readers are just as easily as they know who the “bad” readers are. Teachers often teach students what “good” reading skills look like: They include things like rereading confusing texts, looking up definitions of unknown words, and using comprehension strategies. These are all great strategies to improve comprehension; however, just as the ability to jump, shoot, and dribble doesn’t necessarily make a good basketball player, these strategies don’t necessarily make a “good” reader.

So while a student may be able to exhibit these skills and strategies, he or she may still be struggling with reading comprehension. Dr. Hall identifies struggling readers as students who are identified to be reading at least one year below their current grade level, do not have a learning disability, and are in need of additional reading comprehension support by classroom teachers.

Dr. Hall’s work on adolescents challenges research and theory suggesting that struggling readers typically avoid reading, are unmotivated to read and may not care about learning. Instead, Hall’s research suggests that struggling middle school readers like to read and would like to become better readers. She has found they tend to express continued interest and excitement in school despite their largely negative history with it.

Understanding students’ reading identities can give a teacher some insight to the decisions students make in their reading. It’s also important to understand that some students make decisions about reading in an attempt to influence how others do or do not identify them as readers. For instance, one of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied made use of as many of the “good reader” skills as she could in efforts to show herself as a good reader and smart student to her parents. Other students Dr. Hall studied avoided engaging in activities they thought would result in others publicly identifying them as poor readers. As a result, they were often silent and appeared withdrawn. While it is easy to interpret this type of silence as a lack of motivation, some students use silence as a social and learning strategy.

The strategy of silence

It is often thought that students who struggle and sit quietly may not care about their education. However, Dr. Hall’s research suggests that struggling readers may use silence as a way to protect themselves, to promote a desired identity, or to learn material.

Two of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied used silence as a way to protect themselves from being seen by their peers and teachers as poor readers. These students often worked alone and rarely spoke up during discussion about assigned readings. They also did not make use of reading comprehension strategies for fear that it could identify them as poor readers. While these students understood that their decision to remain silent could negatively influence their learning, they believed that not being publicly seen as a poor reader was more important.

Another struggling reader in Dr. Hall’s study did not identify herself as a struggling reader at all; she saw herself as a good reader. Instead of being concerned with what her classmates thought, she was focused on her parents seeing her as a good student and good reader. This student identified her grades, an A- average, as an indicator of her ability. She worked silently to get her work done at school so she could tell her parents that she didn’t have homework because she got it all done in school. She identified this as a way to demonstrate to her parents that she understands what she is learning.

Despite their silence, the students all said they paid attention and did their best to learn content from their peers and teachers. This learning came in the form of observations of peers during lab-type lessons or listening in during class discussions. They also stated that they wanted to learn more and become better readers, but found the potential of being labeled a poor reader too threatening. Ultimately, these students sacrificed their academic development in favor of social status.

So what?

The influence of reading identity, and the desire to promote or hide that identity, plays a very important role in adolescents’ literacy development. If a teacher can get to a place of understanding that identity, he or she may be able to better understand the actions of the student and be better equipped to help the student grow.

Tips from Dr. Hall

Try to avoid statements about “good” or “bad” readers.
Teachers have a huge influence in how students form their reading identities. Using these types of simplistic binaries ignores important nuances of reading. For instance, a student may be able to easily read and understand informational texts, but still struggle to interpret word problems in math. There are many different types of readers, not just “good” and “bad” readers.
Give students more adjectives than “good” or “bad” to identify themselves as readers.
Recently, Dr. Hall asked her students in a graduate class what types of readers they are. She told me that none of them reported being good or bad readers; instead they referred to themselves as immersive readers, hungry readers, and so on. Using this type of language with adolescent readers could help them develop more rounded reading identities.
Make your classroom a safe space for students to engage in learning and creating who they want to be.
If students are concerned with being seen as poor readers or poor students, they may engage in acts of silence that hinder their learning. A safe environment for students will help to break down defenses students may be employing to protect themselves in exchange for honest engagement and learning. It can take time to build the trust needed with adolescents to make changes and move forward.
Normalize the idea that everyone struggles with texts.
Students often believe that if they struggle to comprehend something they are reading it is because they are not a good reader. But the simple fact is that everyone struggles with some texts. Having students focus on and discuss points in the text that they found confusing can help normalize the idea that everyone struggles.
Provide time to read.
Adolescents often request more time to read in class; why not give it to them? Show your students that reading is important by making reading time a priority in your classroom. It can be in the form of free-choice readings or reading an assigned text. Try to find a way to balance both. Allowing free choice of texts within your discipline is a great way to encourage students to explore books that are related to what you teach.
Provide more challenging texts.
When given a choice of texts, some students may opt for a simple read, but on a topic of interest to them. However, they don’t want “easy” texts to be all that they have access to. Students want to be challenged. They want texts that they would not have thought of, and they are looking for their teachers to provide suggestions.
Improving reading ability is a dialogue.
When some professionals think about reading, they think about the text as a standalone item. This view presents reading as a process of decoding, extracting information, and nothing more. However, individuals are much more complicated, and literacy and identity are deeply intertwined. Improving reading ability cannot be found solely in the teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies. Instead it has to be focused on the individual as a unique, complex person and that person’s relationship to texts. Ask your students how they want to improve as readers. Show them how you are helping them meet their goals. Let them know how you can help them in ways they never imagined. Have a conversation about reading and watch them take control over their development.

Researcher Bio

Dr. Leigh A. Hall’s research addresses issues relevant to literacy, middle school, and teacher education. Her work considers if and how students’ identities as readers influence the decisions they make when reading, and how teachers can use information about students’ identities to inform their practice and improve students’ reading comprehension.

In addition to conducting research on adolescents, Dr. Hall has studied how book clubs can help pre-service teachers understand how students’ identities, as well as their social and cultural backgrounds, impact the decisions they make with text.

A full biography can be found at the School of Education website.